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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Australia Signs Uranium Deal

SYDNEY, Australia -- Leaders from Russia and Australia signed a deal Friday to export Australian uranium to fuel Russian nuclear reactors, but promised it would not be transferred to Iran's disputed atomic program.

President Vladimir Putin and Australian Prime Minister John Howard signed the deal during bilateral talks on the sidelines of a summit of Pacific Rim leaders in Sydney.

While the agreement forbids Russia from selling Australian uranium to any other nation or using it for military purposes, critics of the deal worry that it could make it easier for rogue states to obtain the raw material.

The United States and other UN Security Council members accuse Iran of trying to enrich uranium to develop atomic weapons. Iran says its enrichment program is for peaceful purposes.

Russia, which is building Iran's first nuclear power plant, has a significant stake in Iran's nuclear power program and has walked a delicate line in preserving its financial interests while pressuring Tehran to abandon its enrichment program.

Asked whether Russia could be trusted not to sell Australian uranium to Tehran, Putin said his mineral-rich country already had an "excessive" supply of military-grade uranium that it was reprocessing and selling to U.S. power plants.

"If we have a need to sell uranium to other countries, our resources, our own resources, are sufficient," Putin told reporters through a translator.

He said Russia planned to build an extra 30 nuclear power plants over the next two decades and needed Australian uranium to complete the expansion.

Australia has the world's largest reserves of uranium, but has no nuclear program of its own. Exporting uranium for nuclear power remains a touchy issue among many Australians, who are uneasy about its environmental impact and potential for weapons use.

Critics say the inflow of Australian uranium would allow Russia to divert its own supply of the atomic resource for military or export purposes.

"The problem is that there is no way of actually verifying what they do with it," Graeme Gill, a Russia expert from the Sydney University, told the Australian Broadcasting Corp.

Alexei Grigoryev, the acting director of Russia's state-owned nuclear exporter, Tekhsnabexport, said the deal could potentially enable Moscow to secure export contracts for low-enriched uranium worth $3 billion, including $2 billion in deals with Japan by 2015, RIA-Novosti reported.

Howard has rejected criticism of the Russian uranium deal, saying it is a logical progression from Australia's recent agreement to export atomic fuel to China to feed that country's growing energy needs.

The prime minister also dismissed concerns about Australian atomic fuel falling into Iran's hands, saying that any uranium sold under the deal would be "subject to very strict safeguards."

Russia has ambitious plans to expand its own nuclear sector and is seeking to secure a role as a major global hub for the nuclear materials and power industry.

The state nuclear agency indicated last year that Russia would increase spending on uranium prospecting and extraction tenfold by 2008, to 1 billion rubles, or $39 million, and is eager to help extract uranium in foreign countries.

Putin has called for the creation of a system of international centers that would enrich uranium to be used for civilian purposes by other countries while easing proliferation concerns, and Russia is developing a facility for this purpose in Siberia.