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Australian PM to sign long-awaited nuclear fuel deal with India

Australia's prime minister is due to sign a deal on Friday (Sep 5) allowing nuclear fuel exports to energy-hungry India, as he meets the country's new premier on a visit to boost economic ties.

NEW DELHI: Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbott said he wanted first-rank relations with India as he looked to sign a long-awaited nuclear energy deal with his conservative counterpart Narendra Modi on Friday (Sep 5).

Abbott said India and Australia were bound by "strongly convergent" trade and strategic interests on the last day of his visit, which culminates with the deal to supply uranium to the energy-hungry country. He is set to sign the deal late Friday after his meeting with fellow right-wing leader Modi, who stormed to power in May on a pledge to open up the ailing economy to foreign investment.

"My visit to India reflects Australia's desire for India to be in the first rank of Australia's relations," Abbott wrote in The Hindu newspaper published on Friday. "Australian resources like coal, LNG and uranium will provide India's energy security for decades to come. I welcome our conclusion of a bilateral Civil Nuclear Agreement which will support India's energy needs."

India and Australia kick-started negotiations on uranium sales in 2012 after Canberra lifted a long-time ban on exporting the valuable ore to Delhi to meet its ambitious nuclear energy programme. Australia, the world's third biggest uranium producer, had previously ruled out such exports to nuclear-armed India because it has not signed the global non-proliferation treaty.

Both India and its neighbouring rival Pakistan are nuclear-armed, and along with Israel and North Korea are the only countries not signed up to the non-proliferation treaty to prevent the spread of nuclear weapons. But Abbott said on Thursday that he was assured of India's commitment to peaceful power generation.

"India has an absolutely impeccable non-proliferation record and India has been a model international citizen," he told reporters in Mumbai. Australia's decision to overturn its ban followed a landmark US agreement in 2008 to support India's civilian nuclear programme.

India is struggling to produce enough power to meet rising demand amid its 1.2-billion strong population as its economy and vast middle-class expand. Nearly 400 million still without access to electricity, according to the World Bank, and crippling power cuts are common. The agreement will allow India to ramp up plans for more nuclear power stations, with only 20 small plants at present and a heavy dependency on coal.

An Indian truck driver prepares to load coal onto a truck at a railway yard in Ahmedabad. (AFP/Sam Panthaky)

Asked about India's management of its nuclear power industry and safety standards, Abbott said it was "not our job to tell India how to conduct its internal affairs". "Our job is to try to ensure we act in accordance with our own standards of decency and that's what we intend to do," he said, adding that India's "standards are improving all the time".

During his meeting with Modi, Abbott will also hand back two centuries-old statues allegedly looted from temples in India, ending a long-running battle over the pieces. He will meet with Indian business leaders in the capital, where he is also expected to visit a hospital trauma centre in Delhi and announce funding for joint India-Australian scientific projects.

On Thursday, he announced a scheme to boost the numbers of Australians studying in India and met Indian cricketing great Sachin Tendulkar ahead of Australia's hosting of the World Cup next year.