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India courting nuclear partners

NEW DELHI, Sept 7 – Energy-starved India, armed with permission to buy atomic fuel from around the world after the end of a three-decade ban, is courting new partners alongside old friends in its global hunt for uranium.

The strategy, spelt out in a government paper published last week, will see New Delhi reach out to Mongolia, Namibia and Kazakhstan besides traditional allies like Russia in its search for the ore that is refined into nuclear fuel.

At present, India gets less than three percent of its energy from atomic power, but aims to more than double its current capacity to 10,000 megawatts by 2012.

Though India’s own uranium deposits are estimated at 70,000-100,000 tonnes, "it is too little when considering the huge energy needs" of a fast-developing country with a billion-plus people, S.K. Malhotra, a spokesman for the department of atomic energy, told AFP.

"The quality of ore is also not very good, which is why we need to import." Attempts to find new domestic deposits and recover existing ones have also been slow due to red tape and opposition from environmental lobbies and other groups.

Evidence of New Delhi’s "uranium diplomacy" kicking into gear came last week when India hosted Namibian President Hifikepunye Pohamba and signed a pact enabling uranium sales to India as well as investment in Namibian mining.

The southern African country is ranked among the top producers of uranium behind Canada, Kazakhstan and Australia, with output representing about 10 percent of the world’s production.

Indian President Pratibha Patil also made a week-long visit to the Central Asian republic of Tajikistan and to long-term ally Russia — a supplier of nuclear fuel that has also been involved in the construction of atomic power plants in India.

"Tajikistan is looking for partners in uranium mining and India sees this as an opportunity," a senior government official told AFP.

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India has already signed nuclear fuel import pacts with France and Russia.

The moves follow India clinching a landmark accord with the United States last year resulting in the removal of a 34-year-old embargo on sales of civilian atomic technology.

India also obtained a rare exemption from the 46-member Nuclear Supplier Group (NSG) that controls global atomic commerce allowing it to buy nuclear fuel and power plants to boost its electricity production.

The NSG normally restricts such sales to countries that have signed the nuclear non-proliferation treaty, which India has not, though major supplier Australia has said it will keep its export embargo in place.

"Australia understands India’s security needs and wants to be a partner with provision of coal and liquefied natural gas," said Australian Deputy Prime Minister Julia Gillard in India last week as she defended the ban.

But New Delhi reaped the first tangible benefits of the end of its pariah status last week with the restart of the 20-megawatt Rajasthan atomic power station using uranium concentrates from France.

The plant in western India is one of 17 operating reactors in the country but had been shut for about a year due to a critical shortage of fuel.

A foreign ministry official noted that Indian endeavours to close deals on uranium dovetailed with its policy to have a mix of energy sources including solar, hydro and nuclear power besides oil, gas and coal.

"India’s energy requirements are so huge we need to tap all sources. Just because we are looking for nuclear fuel does not mean we have abandoned the search for oil and gas assets. These strands run concurrently," he said.

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But the hunt for resources is a challenge because strategic and economic rival China has repeatedly outbid India in Africa, Central Asia and Myanmar.

In Namibia, for example, India will face competition from Chinese, Russian and Western companies who are also interested in the country’s rich deposits as governments around the world invest in nuclear power.

The International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) expects that at least 70 nuclear power stations will be built around the world in the next 15 years.

"It’s a challenge for Indian diplomacy to see that the civilian nuclear programme is kept on track," said former foreign secretary Shashank, who uses one name.

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