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Australia and China set to sign uranium trade deal

Written by: Staff
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CANBERRA, Apr 3 (Reuters) Australia and China are set to sign a nuclear safeguards deal to allow Beijing to import Australian uranium for power generation when Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao meets Australian Prime Minister John Howard this morning. Australia, which has about 40 percent of the world's known uranium reserves, only allows uranium sales to members of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) who also agree to a separate bilateral safeguards deal.

Australia currently has only three operating uranium mines, owned by BHP Billiton Rio Tinto and General Atomics of the United States, and Resources Minister Ian Macfarlane said big uranium exports to China were unlikely to start until 2010.

''Australia is already fully committed in terms of uranium production through until about 2008, bearing in mind that the signing of this agreement means that this is really only the start of the process,'' Macfarlane told Australian radio.

He said once the safeguards deal was signed, China would then need to begin commercial negotiations with uranium producers in Australia, and new mines would probably need to be developed that would need to be licensed by the government.

''Realistically in terms of any significant quantity we are probably looking at some time past 2010,'' said Macfarlane, who met with Wen in the Western Australian state capital Perth yesterday.

Wen and Howard are due to sign the nuclear safeguards deal this morning, which some analysts say will test Canberra's skills at juggling growing ties with Asia's emerging power and its strong alliance with the United States.

Australia's willingness to embrace Beijing has highlighted differences with its close ally the United States, which remains wary and has questioned China's military and economic ambitions.

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

China is expected to build 40 to 50 nuclear power plants over the next 20 years.

The NPT obligates the five nuclear-weapon states -- the United States, Russia, United Kingdom, France, and China -- not to transfer nuclear weapons, other nuclear explosive devices, or technology to non-nuclear-weapon states and those which haven't signed the treaty.

REUTERS AD RN0523

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