Russian President Vladimir Putin and Australian Prime Minister John Howard signed the deal during bilateral talks today on the sidelines of the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation forum summit now under way in the Australian city of Sydney.
Putin is making the first-ever visit to Australia by a Russian leader.
Speaking at a news conference in Sydney, he said Russia needed uranium to boost its nuclear-generated electricity supplies.
"During the Soviet era, we built about 30 major reactors in nuclear power stations in Russia," Putin said. "In the coming 15-20 years we are planning to build about the same amount, and of course for these purposes we need this Australian uranium. As regards supplies to other countries, if such a need arises, our own resources will suffice."
The deal with Australia, which has the world's largest reserves of uranium, will also help Moscow fulfill its ambitious plans to build and fuel a quarter of new nuclear reactors throughout the world. Russia has agreements to supply nuclear fuel to 13 different countries and currently sells 30 tons of uranium a year to the United States for nuclear fuel.
Under today's deal, Moscow cannot use Australian uranium for military purposes or export it to a third country without Australia's prior written consent.
Concerns Over Iran
But Putin's pledge that the atomic material would not be sold on to Iran has been met with a degree of skepticism.
Critics say Russia could use the inflow of uranium to sell its own atomic resources to rogue states such as Iran, which Western countries accuse of seeking nuclear weapons.
Greenpeace activists protesting the deal (AFP)
"This is simply a political statement that has no scientific basis," says Aleksei Yablokov, a respected Russian expert on nuclear security and an adviser to the Russian Academy of Sciences. "Receiving uranium from Australia will give us more opportunities to deliver our own uranium to Iran and other countries. These processes are closely linked. This agreement reflects the irresponsible position of our government, which says it is in favor of preventing nuclear proliferation, but does everything to spread nuclear weapons across the world."
Russia has helped build Iran's first nuclear power plant at Bushehr and has a significant financial stake in Iran's nuclear power program.
But Putin today strongly dismissed concerns about how Russia will use Australian uranium.
"Russia has enough [nuclear] material of its own for the realization of arms programs," he said. "Moreover, the volume of accumulated materials we regard as weapon-grade is excessive. Over the course of many years, we've been selling this enriched uranium to the United States, where we're jointly reprocessing it and selling it on the North American market. So those who speak about the possibility of Russia using Australian uranium for military purposes simply don't understand the issue. Or they're just spreading this thesis deliberately, to hinder the cooperation between the two countries."
The Australian prime minister also sought to soothe worries that his country's uranium could fall into the wrong hands, saying that the atomic fuel sold to Russia would be "subject to very strict safeguards."
Read Our Analysis: What the latest deal means for Russia's nuclear policy
RISING POWER: Many countries are reconsidering nuclear power as a viable alternative to dwindling fossil-fueled energy supplies. Russia -- whose domestic energy shortages are likely to grow amid an increasing, economic-boom demand and a race to fulfill more lucrative contracts abroad -- is no exception.
The Kremlin has endorsed an ambitious, $60-billion plan to build 40 new nuclear reactors in Russia by 2030, a project that aims to up nuclear power's contribution to the electrical grid from 15 to 25 percent.
Its ambitions don't stop there. It is also advertising itself as a top-rung supplier of nuclear technology to clients abroad like Iran, India, Pakistan, and China, and hopes to export 60 plants over the next two decades. Russia says it has also offered some reactors to Persian Gulf states for use in desalination plants.
In the grand-conglomerate style favored by Russia under Vladimir Putin, the state has sought to streamline its nuclear network by ordering dozens of companies to merge into a single state entity, Atomenergoprom, with unchallenged control over every aspect of the industry.
This includes uranium enrichment. Russia's Atomic Energy Agency says the country holds 40 percent of the world's enrichment capacity. With the global demand for nuclear power once again on the rise, uranium looks set to be the 21st-century fossil-fuel alternative that countries will race to corner the market on. By 2015, demand for uranium is estimated to reach 96 million kilos a year.