Australia is considering a shift in its refusal to sell uranium to India, which has not signed the nuclear non-proliferation treaty, Prime Minister John Howard said ahead of talks with New Delhi’s top nuclear envoy.
“There is no pressing urgency in relation to this issue, but we see India as a very responsible country,” Howard said before meeting Shyam Saran, India’s former foreign secretary, in Canberra.
“The relationship between Australia and India is growing. It’s a very important relationship and they will be considerations that we will bear in mind,” he said.
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.
Howard said that while Australia had not changed its policy on uranium sales to India, he would not rule out a change in future if there were adequate safeguards on use of the uranium.
Saran was to hold closed-door talks with Howard on 29 March in a bid to win Australian backing for India’s nuclear programme ahead of a meeting of international nuclear suppliers in South Africa next month. Australia is a member of the suppliers group.Saran also wants Canberra to drop its ban on uranium sales to India.
“We would never agree to supply uranium to a country unless we were completely satisfied that appropriate and enforceable and effective safeguards existed,” Howard said.
Australia holds about 40% of the world’s uranium reserves and is a major exporter of the nuclear fuel. Canberra and Beijing in January ratified a nuclear agreement clearing the way for uranium exports to energy-hungry China.
Howard said Australia was likely to endorse India’s nuclear co-operation agreement with the United States in the 45-member Nuclear Suppliers Group.
But a final decision had yet to be made because India was still working out details with the United States, and was still in talks with the world’s nuclear watchdog, the International Atomic Energy Agency, on opening its power plants for inspection.
“It’s likely that we will support that agreement in the suppliers group and I’ll have a discussion around that,” he said.
Washington, a close Australian ally, has also been lobbying Howard’s conservative government to back its India agreement.
Australia is also considering dropping a freeze on the number of uranium mines in the country and shifting from coal-fired power plants to nuclear to lower its greenhouse gas footprint.