SYDNEY (Reuters) - Australia Prime Minister Tony Abbott said on Wednesday he hoped to sign a deal this week to sell uranium to India for peaceful power generation, but halted uranium exports to Russia over Moscow’s role in Ukraine.
Work on an India-Australia agreement has been underway since Australia, which has 40 percent of the world’s known uranium reserves, lifted a long-standing ban on selling uranium to energy-starved India in 2012.
Nuclear-armed India and Australia have been working on a safeguards agreement since then to ensure any uranium exports from Australia are used purely for peaceful purposes.
“I am hoping to sign a nuclear cooperation agreement that will enable uranium sales by Australia to India,” Abbott, who will visit this week, told parliament in Canberra.
India faces chronic shortages of electricity, and a quarter of its billion-plus population has no little or no access to power. Two thirds of India’s power supplies come from burning coal, and it is keen to shift the balance towards nuclear over the next few years.
Canberra had previously refused to sell nuclear material to India because it had not signed the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT).
Asked what steps had been taken to ensure there were appropriate safeguards, Trade Minister Andrew Robb said the government had “satisfied ourselves that the steps are in place”.
“The negotiations and work that’s gone on between authorities in India and Australia have gone on for some years to develop a bilateral nuclear cooperation agreement which meets the international requirements and we are satisfied, our officials are satisfied, that all the requirements have been met,” Robb told ABC radio.
Meanwhile, Australia imposed a ban on uranium sales to Russia, two days after Canberra unveiled fresh sanctions against Russia over what Prime Minister Tony Abbott called its “bullying” of neighboring Ukraine.
Russia is accused of backing pro-Russian insurgent groups battling the government in Kiev.
“There will be no uranium sales to Russia until further notice and Australia has no intention of selling uranium to a country which is so obviously in breach of international law as Russia currently is,” Abbot told parliament.
Australia and Russia signed a bilateral agreement in 2007 enabling uranium exports. Only a small trial shipment of less than a hundred tonnes uranium has been shipped to Russia.
Australia’s decision to overturn it long-standing ban on uranium sales to India followed a landmark U.S. agreement to support the civil nuclear program in India, seen by Washington as an economic and geopolitical counterweight to China.
Washington signed the deal with New Delhi in 2008 allowing India to import U.S. nuclear fuel and technology without giving up its military nuclear program. India is seeking a similar agreement with Japan.
Critics accused the United States of undermining the global non-proliferation regime.
India has refused to sign the nuclear NPT, arguing it is discriminatory and flawed in allowing only countries which had tested nuclear weapons before 1967 to legally possess them.
Pakistan, Israel and North Korea are the only other non-signatories to the treaty which aims to prevent the spread of nuclear weapons as well as foster peaceful uses of nuclear energy.
India’s status as a nuclear power features highly among new Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s priorities.
India operates 20 mostly small reactors at six sites with a capacity of 4,780 MW, or 2 percent of its total power capacity, according to the Nuclear Power Corporation of India Limited. The government hopes to increase its nuclear capacity to 63,000 MW by 2032 by adding nearly 30 reactors - at an estimated cost of $85 billion.
Australia, which has no nuclear power plants of its own, is one of the world’s top exporters of uranium, mining 7,529 tonnes of uranium in fiscal 2011/12, worth A$782 million, according to government figures.
Abbott is visiting India and Malaysia as he seeks to deepen trade and personal ties in Asia ahead of the Group of 20 Leaders Summit scheduled to take place in Brisbane in November.
Additional reporting by Frank Jack Daniel in NEW DELHI; Editing by Jeremy Laurence