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Australian Labor allows exports of uranium to India

SYDNEY -- Australia's ruling Labor party voted Sunday to lift a long-standing ban on exporting uranium to India after a passionate debate about nuclear weapons and reactor safety following Japan's quake crisis.

Labor passed Prime Minister Julia Gillard's proposal with 206 votes to 185, reversing a decades-old policy excluding New Delhi from Australia's uranium trade because it is not a signatory to the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty.

Gillard argued that it was neither rational nor intellectually defensible to sell uranium to rising powers such as China and not to India, “the world's largest democracy” and a fast-growing nation of increasing global clout.

“Let's just face facts here — our refusal to sell uranium to India is not going to cause India to decide that it will no longer have nuclear weapons,” Gillard told the Labor summit.

“We can honor the treaty, we can change our platform, we can — under the most stringent of agreements — sell uranium to India if we so choose and, delegates, I believe that we should make that choice.”

Foreign Minister Kevin Rudd warned that India would need to meet “onerous” conditions before trade could begin and said it would be “a very long, detailed and, I think, tough negotiation.”

Although Australia does not use nuclear power, it is the world's third-ranking uranium producer behind Kazakhstan and Canada, exporting 9,600 tons of oxide concentrate each year worth more than AU$1.1 billion (US$1.1 billion).

It also has the world's largest reserves of uranium, holding 23 percent of the total, according to the World Nuclear Association.

Canberra ships the nuclear fuel to China, Japan, Taiwan and the United States but has refused to sell to India — long a sticking point in usually cordial relations between the key trading partners.

Defense Minister Stephen Smith backed Gillard's proposal, saying India had voluntarily submitted to civilian nuclear checks by international regulators and was a “rising power ... which is deserving of being accorded that status.”

New Delhi agreed to separate its civil and military nuclear facilities and abide by International Atomic Energy Agency safeguards under a 2005 agreement with the United States which Gillard has cited as a precedent for her decision.

Strong views were voiced against lifting the ban, with British-born Communications Minister Stephen Conroy choking up with emotion as he described how the 1957 Windscale nuclear fire in Cumbria had affected his family.

Windscale was Britain's worst atomic accident, rated at five out of seven on the international scale, in which a blaze inside a reactor released substantial amounts of radioactive contaminants into the local area.

Parts of Australia's desert interior were left uninhabitable by British atomic tests in the same period (1955-1963) and one delegate said local people were “dying of cancers to this day”.

Peter Garrett, former front man for the rock band Midnight Oil, got a standing ovation for his impassioned speech, as did Transport Minister Anthony Albanese, who criticized the move following Japan's Fukushima reactor disaster.

“Nine months after Fukushima we are being asked to sell more uranium for more nuclear reactors to a country that does not have nuclear safeguards,” Albanese said.

Anti-nuclear campaigners said it was a “major blow to the global nuclear non-proliferation regime.”

“The Labor Party has put profits before the peace and security of the region,” said Tim Wright, Australian director of the International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons.

India is expected to increase its use of nuclear power from three percent of electricity generation to 40 percent by 2050, and Australia's uranium lobby believes it could be selling 2,500 tons a year to the Asian giant by 2030.

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 Australian Labor allows exports of uranium to India 
Demonstrators gather for a rally at the Convention Center in Sydney, Sunday, Dec. 4, where the Labor party are holding their annual conference. Australia's ruling center-left party overturned a long-standing ban on exporting uranium to India despite fierce opposition from critics who argued such sales are unsafe because India has not signed the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty. (AP)

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