John Howard discussed the deal by telephone with the US president, who had called to pass on his sympathies over a tropical cyclone that devastated parts of northern Queensland.

Under the agreement reached this month, India will receive US nuclear technology in return for separating its military and civil facilities and opening civilian plants to inspections.

India wants to buy uranium from Australia, which has more than 40% of the world's known reserves of the mineral. But Canberra maintains that it will not sell to countries, such as India, that have not signed the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty.

Dennis Woodward, a political analyst at Monash University, said he believed that Howard was paving the way for a possible change of policy.

"Whether he does or not depends on how people react to it," he said.

Talks

A spokesman for Howard said the prime minister wanted to know more about how the deal would work.

Howard had already discussed the agreement with Condoleezza Rice, the US secretary of state, when she visited Sydney last week.

Howard said on Friday that he would send a team of officials to India to find out more about the deal with the US, but said there would be no immediate change in Canberra's policy.

"You never say never"

John Howard,
prime minister of Australia

"Obviously, like all policies, you never say never," he said.

Rice said on Thursday that Washington would not push Australia to supply uranium to India, which conducted a nuclear test in 1974 and in 1998 and declared itself a nuclear weapons state.

China

Canberra is negotiating a nuclear safeguards agreement with Beijing, allowing it to sell uranium to help meet China's rapidly growing energy market.

"I would definitely see us selling uranium to China before we'd count on selling it to India," Woodward said.

Howard held talks with Rice on 
the uranium issue late last week

China is expected to build 40 to 50 nuclear power plants over the next 20 years, while India wants to expand its nuclear power industry, which currently accounts for only 3% of energy production.

Australia has 19 nuclear safeguard agreements, covering 36 countries, including the US, France, Britain, Mexico, Japan, Finland and South Korea.

Australia has only three operating uranium mines, which are owned by BHP Billiton, Rio Tinto and General Atomics of the United States.