John Howard's comments came as he began a four-day visit to India late on Sunday, days after New Delhi and Washington sealed a nuclear deal expected to give India access to the global market for fuel and reactors to meet its soaring energy needs.

Australia has almost half of the world's known uranium resources and it is keen to increase exports, but its policy rules out sales to countries such as India that have not signed the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT).

The issue was expected to figure high on the agenda of talks between the two sides as Manmohan Singh, the Indian prime minister, said he would ask his Australian counterpart to back the nuclear deal between New Delhi and Washington.

"We need to import uranium and our needs will increase in years to come"

Manmohan Singh,
the Indian prime minister

Howard said: "We do have a longstanding policy of only selling uranium to countries that are part of the NPT regime, but we will have a look at what the Americans have done and when we get a bit more information about that we'll further assess it.

"Australia does have large supplies of uranium ... and provided the rules are followed and the safeguards are met, we are willing to sell, but we have to be satisfied about the safeguards."

Positive attitude

Howard termed the India-US nuclear pact as a positive development and said Australia had a very positive attitude towards New Delhi.

"I welcome the fact that for the first time a lot of India's nuclear capacity is going to be subjected to international inspections, that's certainly a big step forward," he said.
 
Ties between New Delhi and Canberra had soured after India conducted nuclear tests in 1998 and Howard said Australia would not sell uranium to India under the current policy.

India's Singh hopes that that policy will change.

The Indian prime minister told the Australian newspaper: "I hope Australia will be an important partner in this. We are short of uranium."

India, Asia's third-largest economy, wants to meet its growing energy needs through nuclear power, but it has less than 1% of the world's uranium reserves.

Nuclear power now accounts for 3% of India's total energy production.

Under its pact with the United States - agreed during last week's visit to south Asia by George Bush - India has to separate its civilian and military nuclear plants and place the former under international safeguards to prevent proliferation.