Tuesday, August 21, 2007

Interview with Premier of South Australia

“No uranium for countries that don’t sign the NPT”

Mukund Padmanabhan


South Australian Premier Mike Rann on why he opposes the Australian Federal Government’s proposal to sell uranium to India and what will happen if the Labour Party wins the general election, scheduled later this year.


— FILE Photo: R. Ragu

Mike Rann: “Soon as you start making exceptions, you undermine the very basis of the treaty.”

“If I had a last wish before dying, it would be curry,” jokes Mike Rann. The Premier of South Australia, who is passionate about India and a strong advocate of deeper India-Australia ties, took many by surprise by his strong cen sure of the Federal Government’s recent proposal to sell uranium to India. In this exclusive interview at his Adelaide office, Mr. Rann — who administers a State that has 40 per cent of the world’s known uranium reserves — spells out the reasons for his opposition and declares that the deal would be off if the Labour Party wins the general election, slated later this year. Excerpts from the interview:

Your strong condemnation of the Australian Federal Government’s proposal to sell uranium to India as “dangerous” has surprised many. First, because you are perceived as a very good friend of India. Secondly, …

It’s not about India. I have always opposed selling uranium to any country that is not a signatory to the NPT (Non-Proliferation Treaty). And that has been an issue of principle for us for generations … it’s Australian Federal law. If you create an exemption for one, then you are under pressure automatically from Pakistan and other countries. The danger is in undermining the NPT as an international instrument for nuclear safeguards.

You have answered the first part of the question by saying your reaction is not directed specifically at India. But there is a second reason why people are surprised by your reaction. You were at the forefront of the move to get more uranium mines opened.

Absolutely. But there is no inconsistency in that. I played a major role in changing the Federal Labour Party’s policy, which was for no new mines. We [South Australia] have 40 per cent of the world’s known uranium [reserves]. Currently, Canada is the world’s largest producer and exporter of uranium. Just one of our South Australian mines, which will soon be expanded, has more uranium in it than all of the Canadian mines combined.

But one of the things that I said when the policy was changed — and there was a lot of criticism directed at me for leading the charge to change it — was that we must absolutely stick by our decision. No uranium for countries that don’t sign the NPT. And I stand by that. I would be accused of hypocrisy if I didn’t.

But why fix on the NPT? The [Australian] Federal Government’s proposal is attached with six clear and unambiguous safeguards. These include a bilateral agreement between India and Australia, another bilateral agreement between India and the IAEA and a consensus within the Nuclear Suppliers Group to make India an exception.

My position is built on the principle that soon as you start making exceptions, you undermine the very basis of the treaty [NPT]. Australia has been a leader in this regard and should remain one. It is a position that is same as that of the Federal Labour Party.

One ground for relying on the NPT is linked to the idea that Australia should use its uranium reserves as a handle to persuade or encourage the few countries that have not signed the NPT into doing so. Do you actually believe that this will be effective in persuading a country like India?

I hope it might be. But what happened within a day [of the Federal Government’s announcement]? Pakistan immediately came out and said ‘what about us’? Does India want us to sell uranium to Pakistan? [With emphasis] Does it? I don’t think so. So that is the dilemma. There will be others saying ‘what about us’? Therein lies the cascade effect of damaging the internal structure of the NPT.

I understand the ‘slippery slope’ argument. But the question is whether the safeguards attached to the Federal Government’s proposal and the confidence it has expressed in India — one Minister said India has always used its uranium reserves wisely — are sufficient?

Well, the same Government strongly condemned the Indian Government for nuclear tests a few years ago. Maybe, I am a bit more consistent than they are.

Are you persuaded at all in this context by the global warming argument? The idea that nuclear power is the only alternative that will prevent energy hungry nations such as India and China from relying on more polluting carbon technologies? Does this argument cut any ice with you?

It absolutely cuts ice. That’s why I support uranium mining. I don’t think nuclear power is the only solution, but a part of a mix of solutions.

I put the reverse question to you. In order to do something about global warming, why doesn’t India sign the NPT? I’ve read your Prime Minister’s speeches. He speaks as strongly about Gandhian principles as I do and he speaks as strongly about tackling global warming as I do. So, I guess the answer to that is, ‘Yes, it would be fantastic to sell uranium to India to help less polluting energy industry. And this can be achieved by India signing the NPT.’

Forgive me if this question sounds provocative, but there is a view that the Labour Party’s opposition, and indeed your own, is linked to the upcoming general election and the need to strike opposing postures.

My position has been clear for 30 years. I went to see nuclear power stations in France in 1979. I was involved in the nuclear policy debate in 1982. I have written papers on this thing. It’s the Prime Minister [John Howard] who has got his eye on the election. I’m not facing an election. I’ve just got elected last year with the biggest majority ever for the Labour Party in South Australia. My position is one of consistency and principle.

If the Labour Party comes to power in the country — and it is leading according to opinion polls — will it allow this nuclear proposal to go through?

No.

Absolutely not?

I’ve made that very clear. It is absolutely against Labour Party policy. We have been consistent over many years. We have no shortage of people wanting to buy our uranium. The price of uranium has gone from $7 an ounce to $109 an ounce — up to $130 at one stage. There is a queue of people who have signed the NPT who want to buy and so…

So, countries outside the NPT net don’t really matter?

So, we would love to sell uranium to India provided it signs the NPT.

To change the subject, South Australia signed a Sister State agreement with Tamil Nadu last year. Why did you choose Tamil Nadu?

We have a lot of people in South Australia who come from Tamil Nadu. We think it is a really good fit. Tamil Nadu has a similar commitment to wind power. There is education, the strong manufacturing base, the strong IT base. So, it just seemed to be the best fit.

It’s still very early days, but how is this partnership shaping up? We hear of some initiatives, but they seem at the nascent stage.

Very early days, yes. We have scholarships to Carnegie Melon University, which was established here last year — the first overseas university in Australian history.

We have a defence university and another college offering English degrees. We have an exponential increase in Indian students coming here.

There are 1.6 million people in South Australia, an area twice the size of Spain or three times the size of Germany. With a massive mining boom, the world’s biggest mines, $37 billion worth of projects, $ 12 billion of defence projects recently won, the biggest pressure on us is the need for more people. We are looking not only for more Indian students to come but also more Indians to come and live here.

© Copyright 2000 - 2006 The Hindu

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THE HINDU

http://www.thehindu.com/2007/08/21/stories/2007082153860900.htm

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