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N-deal: Bush briefs Australian PM

It may persuade Canberra into policy change to allow uranium sale to India.

india Updated: Mar 21, 2006 18:47 IST
Reuters
Reuters
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US President George W Bush has briefed Australian Prime Minister John Howard on a US nuclear deal with India in a move seen as groundwork by Canberra for a possible policy change to allow uranium exports to India.

The pair discussed the deal after Bush called to pass on his sympathies over a tropical cyclone that devastated parts of northern Queensland state, a spokesman for Howard confirmed.

The agreement, reached earlier this month, will see India receive US nuclear technology in return for separating its military and civil facilities and opening civilian plants to inspections.

India wants to buy uranium from Australia, which has more than 40 per cent of the world's known reserves of the mineral. But Canberra maintains it will not sell to countries, such as India, that have not signed the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty.

"My read on it would be, yes, (Howard) is paving the way for a possible change of policy. Whether he does or not depends on how people react to it," Monash University political analysts Dennis Woodward said.

A spokesman for Howard said the Prime Minister wanted to know more about "how the deal would work". Howard had already discussed the agreement with US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice when she visited Sydney late last week.

Howard said on Friday he would send a team of officials to India to find out more about the deal with the United States, but said there would be no immediate change in Canberra's policy.

"Obviously, like all policies, you never say never," he said.

Rice said on Thursday that Washington will not push Australia to supply uranium to India, which conducted a nuclear test in 1974 and in 1998 and declared itself a nuclear weapons state.

Canberra is negotiating a nuclear safeguards agreement with Beijing, allowing it to sell uranium to help meet China's rapidly growing energy market.

"I would definitely see us selling uranium to China before we'd count on selling it to India," Woodward said.

Australia also requires countries to agree to a separate nuclear safeguards agreement before it will export uranium. Canberra is negotiating such a deal with Beijing to allow it to sell uranium to help meet China's rapidly growing energy market.

China is expected to build 40 to 50 nuclear power plants over the next 20 years, while India is looking to boost its nuclear power industry, which currently accounts for only three per cent of energy production.

Australia has 19 nuclear safeguard agreements, covering 36 countries, including the United States, France, Britain, Mexico, Japan, Finland and South Korea. Australia has only three operating uranium mines, which are owned by BHP Billiton, Rio Tinto and General Atomics of the United States.

First Published: Mar 21, 2006 13:03 IST