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Australia to mull India uranium deal this month

CANBERRA (Reuters) - Australia looks set to lift a ban on uranium sales to India, with senior ministers expected to decide this month to overturn a policy of selling only to signatories of the Non-Proliferation Treaty.

Australian Foreign Minister Alexander Downer seen at Manila's International Airport in this July 30, 2007 file photo. Australia looks set to lift a ban on uranium sales to India, with senior ministers expected to decide this month to overturn a policy of selling only to signatories of the Non-Proliferation Treaty. REUTERS/Cheryl Ravelo

Foreign Minister Alexander Downer said late on Tuesday that a uranium deal was “very much in Australia’s interests” after a meeting with his Indian counterpart Pranab Mukherjee on the sidelines of a regional summit in the Philippines.

“India’s commitment to separate its civil and military nuclear facilities, enabling expansion of International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) safeguards, will help to bring India more fully into the non-proliferation mainstream,” Downer said.

While senior Australian cabinet ministers would reach a formal decision in August, government sources told Reuters on Wednesday that a positive finding would be only the starting gun for lengthy negotiations.

Downer, who will argue the case for approving the sale of the nuclear fuel to New Delhi, said India was a “constructive and responsible partner in preventing proliferation of weapons of mass destruction”.

In a confidential submission to the cabinet, Downer says that, under a planned safeguards deal, India would separate its civilian nuclear programme from its weapons programme. Australian uranium would go only to India’s 14 nuclear energy plants.

The meeting between Downer and Mukherjee came days after New Delhi and Washington announced the completion of negotiations on a bilateral civil nuclear cooperation deal.

CLEARANCE NEEDED

The deal needs clearance from the Nuclear Suppliers Group of nations that govern the global civilian nuclear trade. India must also conclude an agreement to place its civilian reactors under U.N. safeguards before the U.S. Congress can approve the deal.

But the agreement would not only give energy-hungry India access to U.S. nuclear fuel and equipment for the first time in 30 years, but also open the doors for nuclear commerce with other nations after getting key international approvals.

Downer said the U.S.-India deal had laid the platform for Australia to consider a policy shift.

“On the basis that (the United States and India) have, at least at the executive level, reached agreement, we can start talking,” he said.

The foreign minister said last Friday a switch would not open the door for uranium exports to India’s rival Pakistan, despite a demand from Pakistani Minister For Religious Affairs Ejaz ul-Haq. Downer said Islamabad had until now eschewed IAEA safeguards negotiations.

Australia has more than 40 percent of the world’s known reserves of uranium and is a major exporter of the fuel. India has been lobbying Canberra to get access to it after the India-U.S. nuclear deal was agreed in principle two years ago.

Australian Prime Minister John Howard said in March that Canberra was considering a shift in its refusal to sell uranium to New Delhi as India was seen as a “very responsible country” and relations between the two were growing.

Australia and China, an NPT signatory, are finalising safeguards arrangements for uranium sales. Howard told colleagues in July that voters would not understand why it was acceptable to sell uranium to China but not to India, when China had in the past been accused of exporting nuclear technology.

Australia exports uranium to 36 countries, but only sells to countries that have signed the Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT), and then only when Canberra has a separate nuclear safeguards agreement over the use of the uranium.

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