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.

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