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Australia PM says close to uranium deal with China

By Super
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Canberra, Mar 28: Negotiations between Australia and China on uranium trade are progressing well and a deal could be signed when Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao visits Canberra next week, Australian Prime Minister John Howard said today.

But Howard said that if a deal was reached to allow China to import uranium from Australia, Canberra would not then feel pressured to negotiate a similar agreement with India, which recently signed a nuclear technology deal with the United States.

Australia, which has more than 40 percent of the world's known reserves of uranium, requires countries to have signed the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty and to agree a separate nuclear safeguards deal with Canberra before it will export uranium.

''It's possible that the discussions (with Beijing) could be satisfactorily concluded so that something could be said or signed when the Chinese Premier visits Australia next week,'' Howard told a news conference.

''I'm not promising anything but it's possible the discussions could be completed by then.'' A Chinese Foreign Ministry official said yesterday the two sides had revised two atomic agreements -- a nuclear safeguards deal and a separate deal on uranium exploration and exploitation -- that could be signed when Wen visits from April 1 to 4.

The issue has highlighted differences between close allies Australia and the United States, with Canberra seen to be embracing Beijing while Washington remains wary and has questioned China's military and economic ambitions.

NO URANIUM FOR INDIA

China is a signatory to the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, but India, which conducted a nuclear test in 1974 and again in 1998 and declared itself a nuclear weapons state, is not.

''We are negotiating (with Beijing) on the basis of course that China is a signatory to the non-proliferation treaty and in that respect China is different from India,'' Howard said.

''We're not contemplating a policy change in relation to India.'' But Australia has said it will be sending officials to India next month to find out more about the U.S. deal under which New Delhi has agreed to separate its military and civil nuclear facilities and open the civilian plants to inspections, in return for nuclear fuel and technology.

Howard said he supports the U.S. deal, but that does not mean Australia is considering a change in its uranium trade policy.

''(India's) behaviour since exploding a device in 1974 has been impeccable and I think that is something that people have to bear in mind,'' Howard said. ''But you should not think that there is going to be an immediate change of government policy.'' 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 percent of energy production.

Australia has 19 nuclear safeguard agreements, covering 36 countries, including the United States, France, Britain, Mexico, Japan, Finland and South Korea.

It has only three operating uranium mines, which are owned by BHP Billiton, Rio Tinto and General Atomics of the United States.

REUTERS

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