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Julia Gillard, Indian counterpart meet to start nuclear discussion

NEW DELHI -- Australian Prime Minister Julia Gillard meets her Indian counterpart Manmohan Singh on Wednesday to start negotiations on the sale of uranium to energy-starved India for its nuclear power program.

Australia had previously ruled out exporting the ore as India has not signed the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, but Gillard reversed the policy last year in an effort to improve ties with one of Asia's biggest economies.

“We have changed our party policy so that there is now no fetter for us on selling uranium to India,” Gillard told reporters on Tuesday, mid-way through her three-day visit.

“The thing that would have to happen next is the negotiation of a comprehensive civil nuclear co-operation agreement.”

Concluding a pact, she stressed, was likely to take one or two years, rather than months.

Gillard had earlier stated that the agreement would guarantee that the uranium would be used only for peaceful purposes and in safe conditions, and that the deal would be overseen by the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA).

The decision to sell uranium is aimed at boosting trade and diplomatic ties between the countries, whose relationship was strained by a string of highly publicized attacks on Indian students in Australia in 2010.

Last December, Australia's Defense Minister Stephen Smith described the ban on selling uranium to India as “an irritant or a grain of sand in the relationship.”

New Delhi has made a priority of deepening ties with a host of countries with deposits of uranium, a valuable ore which is required to feed the country's fast-expanding nuclear energy program.

India is heavily dependent on coal and produces less than three percent of its energy from its existing atomic plants. The government hopes to raise the figure to 25 percent by 2050.

Although Australia does not use nuclear power itself, it is the world's third-ranking uranium producer behind Kazakhstan and Canada and holds an estimated 23 percent of the world's reserves.

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