Australia's Prime Minister Julia Gillard will travel to India on Monday, to further talks over a safeguards agreement that would enable sales of yellow cake between the two countries.
But the South Pacific Nuclear Free Zone Treaty.. or the treaty of Raratonga... to which Austrlaia and 12 pacific nations are signatoires, could impede those sales
Canberra Correspondent Stephanie March reports.
Presenter: Stephanie March
Speaker:International law expert Professor Donald Rothwell
MARCH: India is currently Australia's fourth-largest export market. ... selling billions of dollars worth of minerals, agricultural produce and textiles to the sub-continent each year.
But there is one other thing both sides of the Indian Ocean would like to see on that export list.
Until last year, the Labor government in Australia had refused to sell uranium to India because it isn't a signatory to the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, and is a nuclear weapons producing state.
In November, Australia's Prime Minister, Julia Gillard reversed the policy set in place by her predecessor.
Since then work has been under way to develop a safeguards treaty that would enable sales to begin.
John Carlson is the former head of the Australian Safeguards and Non-Proliferation office and is now a visiting fellow with the Lowy Institute.
CARLSON: We rely on the material being under the inspection of the International Atomic Energy Agency, but we also require the state concerned to give regular reporting to Australia on the flow of material, which facilities materials in and how it's being used, what form it's in and so on.
MARCH: There's one key reason for the need for stringent safeguards.
CARLSON: The issue is might India be tempted to divert material from a fuel program into military.
MARCH: As a rapidly growing economy, India's need for uranium to generate power is growing. India has agreements with at least eight countries to supply its nuclear energy program. It only uses domestically-sourced material for its weapons program.
John Carlson thinks it would be highly unlikely India would try to use Australian uranium for its military activities.
CARLSON: They have an independent military program which is clearly sufficient for their needs and now that India has taken the decision that it wants to import nuclear technology and nuclear material from around the world. It's clearly important for India to maintain security of supply for those materials and therefore I think our starting assumption would be there would be no reason why they would violate agreements that would led to a stoppage of supply.
MARCH: Once the safeguards treaty and relevant legislation is in place, there would be nothing prohibiting Australia to start selling uranium to the sub-continental nation.
But some legal experts say Australia could be leaving itself open to a challenge under the South Pacific Nuclear Free Zone Treaty.. or the Treaty of Raratonga.
It was signed in 1985, by 12 nations in the Pacific and Australia.
Among other things, the treaty prohibits the testing or use of nuclear devices in that part of the world.
International law expert Professor Donald Rothwell:
ROTHWELL: But it also places constraints on the way in which nuclear material that is sourced from within the region is dealt with. So Australia therefore has an obligation to ensure that its sale of uranium mined from within Australia is dealt with consistently with the provisions of the South Pacific Nuclear Free Zone Treaty and to that end, there's very much an expectation that any sale would be only to countries that meet the Nuclear Proliferation Treaty obligation and that immediately raises an issue, because India, of course, is not a party to the NPT.
MARCH: Any objection over Australian uranium sales to India under the Treaty of Raratonga would have to be brought by one of the Pacific Nations that are signatories to the agreement.
ROTHWELL: It does need to be observed that South Pacific states have had a very strong record of being anti-nuclear. That was obviously part of the basis for the development of the South Pacific Nuclear Free Zone Treaty. The region fiercely contested France's nuclear weapons testing program in the 1970s and as recently as the 1990s. And so any concerns that might be raised by Australia's conduct could well come from within the region and given the history of the region, it shouldn't be completely ruled out.
MARCH: It was only late last year that the Labor Government in Australia decided to revive the former Liberal Government's policy to sell uranium to India, which was quashed by the previous Labor leader Kevin Rudd in 2007.
While its expected talks between Prime Minister's of Australia and India next week will further the process.. it is possible an agreement is still some way off.