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Australia Set to Export Uranium to China


Australia could start selling uranium to China as early as next month after the two countries ratified treaties covering use of the nuclear fuel. The agreements aim to ensure that exports are used solely for peaceful and non-military purposes. Australia holds around 40 percent of the world's known uranium reserves. From Sydney, Phil Mercer reports.

The two countries have just ratified a pair of agreements that allow China to buy Australian uranium. Australian Foreign Minister Alexander Downer said Friday the agreements go into force in 30 days.

The Chinese plan to quadruple their nuclear energy output by 2020, to meet rapidly growing demand for electricity, and need imported uranium to achieve these goals.

Two agreements signed between Canberra and Beijing aim to ensure that Australian uranium exports are used only for peaceful purposes.

The treaties - the Australia-China Nuclear Transfer Agreement and the Nuclear Cooperation Agreement - were signed in April during Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao's visit to Canberra.

The agreements also ban China from transferring Australian uranium to a third country or reprocessing the material without Australian consent. If China breaks any part of these agreements, Australia has the right to cancel future sales of uranium.

Despite the safeguards not everyone is satisfied.

Mark Diesendorf from the Institute of Environmental Studies at the University of New South Wales says Australian exports could indirectly help China's nuclear weapons capabilities.

"There is a genuine concern that Australia's uranium either directly or indirectly will be used to increase the Chinese nuclear weapons program," he said. "Even if Australian uranium itself isn't used directly it can be used to free up Chinese uranium for expanding the Chinese nuclear weapons program."

Downer said the timing and quantities of uranium exports to China will be a matter for "commercial negotiation".

In 2005, Australia earned $449 million from uranium exports from record production of more than 12,000 tons.

Australia holds around 40 percent of known uranium reserves, but accounts for only about a quarter of global production. This is in part because of mining bans associated with fears over the safety of nuclear waste and proliferation.

Australia exports uranium to 36 countries under strict conditions ensuring its peaceful use.

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