March 20, 2006

Bush briefs Australia PM on India nuclear deal

CANBERRA (Reuters) - U.S. President George W. Bush has
briefed Australian Prime Minister John Howard on a U.S. nuclear
deal with India in a move seen as groundwork by Canberra for a
possible policy change to allow uranium exports to India.

The pair discussed the deal after Bush called to pass on
his sympathies over a tropical cyclone that devastated parts of
northern Queensland state, a spokesman for Howard confirmed.

The agreement, reached earlier this month, will see India
receive U.S. nuclear technology in return for separating its
military and civil facilities and opening civilian plants to

India wants to buy uranium from Australia, which has more
than 40 percent of the world's known reserves of the mineral.
But Canberra maintains it will not sell to countries, such as
India, that have not signed the Nuclear Non-Proliferation

"My read on it would be, yes, (Howard) is paving the way
for a possible change of policy. Whether he does or not depends
on how people react to it," Monash University political
analysts Dennis Woodward said.

A spokesman for Howard said the prime minister wanted to
know more about "how the deal would work." Howard had already
discussed the agreement with U.S. Secretary of State
Condoleezza Rice when she visited Sydney late last week.

Howard said on Friday he would send a team of officials to
India to find out more about the deal with the United States,
but said there would be no immediate change in Canberra's

"Obviously, like all policies, you never say never," he

Rice said on Thursday that Washington will not push
Australia to supply uranium to India, which conducted a nuclear
test in 1974 and in 1998 and declared itself a nuclear weapons

Canberra is negotiating a nuclear safeguards agreement with
Beijing, allowing it to sell uranium to help meet China's
rapidly growing energy market.

"I would definitely see us selling uranium to China before
we'd count on selling it to India," Woodward said.

Australia also requires countries to agree to a separate
nuclear safeguards agreement before it will export uranium.
Canberra is negotiating such a deal with Beijing to allow it to
sell uranium to help meet China's rapidly growing energy

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