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Uranium sales to India: a public health disaster?

Dr Margaret Beavis, a Melbourne GP and Vice President of the Medical Association for the Prevention of War, writes:

A world with a nuclear weapons “free for all”  would inevitably lead to death and injury on an appalling scale.  Conflict, terrorism, human error, greed and natural disasters all  occur – and the more weapons there  are, the higher the risk of catastrophic  health outcomes.

On Sunday, the ALP conference voted to allow uranium sales to India. This significantly undermines the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) and is in breach of the Treaty of Rarotonga for a nuclear free Pacific.  It also signals the ALP turning its back on previous leadership in advocating for nuclear disarmament.

India dishonestly acquired its nuclear weapons by breaching agreements with Canada and the US in the early 70s. India’s record on the “non-proliferation” of weapons is extremely poor – their testing in 1974 sparked an ongoing nuclear arms race with Pakistan (and indeed with China). This is not a stable part of the world.

Indian authorities have said explicitly that any imported uranium frees up domestic uranium for weapons production. So any safeguards are meaningless, particularly as India will only allow the IAEA to inspect 12 out of their existing 22 reactors.

India has existing supply agreements with five other countries. Even if Australia were to get 20% of India’s uranium imports, this would increase uranium sales by just 1.8% on 2007/8 levels.

Currently uranium provides jobs for just 0.03% of Australia’s workforce, and these workers have significantly higher rates of lung cancer.  From a health perspective, uranium has a fair bit in common with asbestos.   

In the wake of events at Fukushima, there are increasing levels of protest against nuclear technology in India. In Tamil Nadu there are 40,000 people living within a 5 km radius of the nearly complete Koodankulam reactor, and protests have been escalating since September. One local fisherman was quoted as saying “If a rich country like Japan can’t save their people from radiation up to 200 miles away, how will India save us?”

In a 2009 Lowy poll, 75% of Australians thought nuclear disarmament should be a top priority in Australia’s foreign policy, and in June this year the Lowy poll found 93% of Australians thought helping to prevent the spread of nuclear weapons was important, ahead of both controlling illegal immigration and tackling climate change.

We have weapons conventions for biological and chemical weapons, land mines and cluster bombs. The NPT is not perfect, but it is a lot better than no such treaty. Australia must continue to work towards nuclear disarmament.  With hard work and leadership, this is achievable.

Selling uranium to India is selling out the NPT.  And nuclear weapons are a preventable health disaster. End of story.

• Margaret Beavis is a Melbourne GP and Vice President of the  Medical Association for the Prevention of War. She teaches at Melbourne University and is currently studying a Masters of Public Health at Deakin University.

Related Posts

Comments 3

  1. Tim Wright says:

    The Labor Party has sold out on nuclear non-proliferation. Thanks, Margaret, for pointing out why this deal is disastrous from a peace and global health perspective. Nuclear war is the greatest preventable health catastrophe. Instead of making a nuclear confrontation between India and Pakistan more likely, Australia should be investing diplomatic effort in defusing tensions between these two foes.

  2. SoulmanZ says:

    All good to raise the risks of weapons, but the other health risks are a bit overblown.

    Nuclear power is a public health success. In India it will displace coal, and therefore will save thousands of lives a year, including Australian coal miners who also have hugely increased rates of lung cancer.

    Each year 70000 people die in the USA alone due to coal fired power. Even being very generous over the entire life of nuclear power in the world, you could get nowhere near that number. And that is 60+yrs over the whole world, vs 1 yr in 1 country.

    If you ignore weapons risks (not saying you should) the public health is served by going nuclear over coal, not the other way around. I think it is a bit unfair to paint this as a public health disaster.

  3. michael l says:

    Denying the emerging middle classes in India access to power and therefore access to something resembling modern standards of living is a far greater health problem than what the good doctor has stated here.

    Not that they wont get that any way they can, I’ll point out that Indian companies now own the bulk of active coal mines down here in Wollongong and they exclusively ship coal to the subcontinent, explicitly export to Indian power stations.

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