SYDNEY, Australia - Canada is interested in the commercial opportunities presented by a U.S.-led proposal for a new international nuclear club but feels no pressure to join the fray immediately, Prime Minister Stephen Harper said Friday.

With barely a week to go before a key planning meeting in Vienna on the proposed Global Nuclear Energy Partnership, the world's biggest uranium producer still hasn't said publicly whether it will attend the talks.

The Conservative government has been tight-lipped about the so-called GNEP, saying only that Canada is reviewing the matter.

The initiative is controversial because it proposes that uranium exporting countries bring back spent fuel for disposal on their home turf.

Harper, in his first public comment on the proposed partnership since May 2006, denied that Canada is feeling any pressure to join despite the involvement of key allies Australia and the United States. Australia announced its intention to join this week.

Between them, Australia and Canada supply upwards of 60 per cent of the world's uranium.

"We haven't felt pressured to make a determination by any particular timeline," the prime minister told a news conference with Canadian media at the Asia-Pacific Economic Co-operation summit.

He cited two Canadian priorities in understanding the GNEP arrangement, neither of which directly dealt with the nuclear waste question.

"One is to ensure that our uranium industry and that our nuclear industry are not left out of any of the international opportunities that other countries may take advantage of," said Harper in response to a question about why Canada has yet to make a public declaration on participation in the Sept. 16 meeting in Vienna.

"And at the same time, we would obviously want to make sure that any kind of international agreement, or any kind of international co-operation, fully respects the non-proliferation agreements and the non-proliferation objectives that Canada and other major countries have long subscribed to."

Keeping nuclear materials out of the hands of rogue states is one of the GNEP's express objectives, along with promoting the nuclear industry and providing an energy source that doesn't emit greenhouse gases.

Harper's comments came as Australia signed a new deal Friday with Russia to supply nuclear fuel for civilian use.

Nuclear energy and its position in the global fight against climate change has become a major subtext of the APEC forum taking place this week in Sydney.

Reports indicate the prominence of nuclear energy is becoming something of a political football as the leaders of 21 pan-Pacific economies sit down for face-to-face talks Saturday.

New Zealand's foreign minister, Winston Peters, said Thursday the proposed leaders' communique for the APEC summit still hasn't resolved the matter.

"There are questions that will be decided on one particular issue by the leaders' meeting itself," Peters was quoted as saying in the New Zealand press. "That will be the issue of what level of reference is made to nuclear energy."

Harper held a bilateral meeting Friday with New Zealand Prime Minister Helen Clark, but a briefing note from the Prime Ministers' Office made no mention of nuclear issues being discussed.

The Harper government's hesitation in declaring a clear position on GNEP isn't surprising, despite more than a year of internal government discussions and cross-border talks.

Internal government talking points from 2006, obtained by The Canadian Press, showed enthusiasm for the proposal, but that has never been expressed publicly.

The issue is politically sensitive for the minority Conservatives, and the Opposition Liberals have been quick to exploit the government's public indecision.

"I am concerned about Prime Minister Harper going off to Australia and having discussions behind closed doors to potentially broker a deal - a deal that would have all of the waste generated from the uranium we sell to the world, back on our doorstep for disposal," Liberal Leader Stephane Dion told a meeting of the Ontario Energy Association.

"Imagine, we would become a global nuclear waste garbage dump."

Environmental groups have also pounced on the GNEP.

"The Bush nuclear program would turn Canada into an international radioactive waste dump, and the Harper government has not allowed any public debate," Dave Martin, energy co-ordinator for Greenpeace Canada, said in a release.