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Doubts over India'€™s ability to handle nuclear power expansion

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South Asia correspondent at The Age and The Sydney Morning Herald

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New Delhi: With an agreement to allow the sale of Australian uranium to India expected this week, Indian scientists are questioning India's ability to manage a rapid expansion of its nuclear power industry.

"Nuclear security and safety is a pressing concern in this country," said Happymon Jacob, who teaches arms control and disarmament at New Delhi's Jawaharlal Nehru University.

"India insists that enough security is in place, but my argument is that we need to look deeper, and when you look deeper you see that the regulation of nuclear materials is in the hands of government - and not in the hands of a totally independent regulator," Dr Jacob said.

With India's nuclear capabilities hidden beneath layers of secrecy since its first successful nuclear tests in 1974 and a subsequent round of tests in 1998, Dr Jacob said, there have been several attempts to establish an independent regulator of the nuclear power industry.

"India has been an outlier state for a very long time. It desperately wants to come in from the cold and integrate itself into the international community, and the  way to do that is to establish a genuinely autonomous, transparent and accountable institution that is capable of regulating the country's nuclear estate," he said.

The 2014 Nuclear Materials Security Index prepared by the Washington-based Nuclear Threat Initiative, ranks India 23rd of 25 countries with nuclear weapons capability.

"My argument is not that India should say no to nuclear power - it's actually something we desperately need if we are going to be supply the surging demand for electricity - but if we are going to learn the lessons of the nuclear accident in Fukushima, then we have to ensure there is a means for independent verification of what is occurring and of what could go wrong," Dr Jacob said.

Prime Minister Tony Abbott will arrive in Mumbai on Thursday  for his first bilateral meeting with India's new Prime Minister Narendra Modi.

 The meeting will take place the day after Mr Modi's return from Japan where he is expected to a sign a massive $90 billion nuclear trade pact to allow Japanese nuclear power companies to build  plants in India.

The highlight of the meeting is expected to be the signing of a Civil Nuclear Cooperation Agreement, with Indian and Australian companies lining up to take advantage of the deal.

According to Queensland trade and investment commissioner for South Asia, Parag Shirname, there were at least two or three Indian corporate houses keenly looking at acquiring uranium mining licenses in Queensland which has proven uranium reserves of 166 million tonnes - the largest in Australia.

"We have already briefed them about the regulatory frameworks, geological data and the attorney firms. They are exploring the opportunity," Mr Shirname said.

The Queensland government revoked a 25-year moratorium on new uranium mining leases in July, with uranium mining expected to jump 30 per cent within three years.

One of India's best known anti-nuclear activists, Dr S. P. Udayakumar, said he had made a representation to the Australian High Commission on Friday to complain about the proposed nuclear agreement between Australia and India.

"I told that if you open a couple of nuclear power plants in Australia, then you can come here and sell your damn uranium to us," Mr Udayakumar said. 

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