Journalist | Writer | Analyst
8 March 2006
Nuclear separation plan seeks fine balance
CIRUS research reactor to be shut down
Fuel core of Apsara reactor to be shifted
Decision on fuel fabrication plants put off
New Delhi: In finalising a plan for the separation of its civilian and military nuclear programmes, India has produced a road map aimed at reconciling scientific, financial and military objectives with the transparency the international community is demanding as a condition for the resumption of nuclear commerce.
The nine-page separation plan — agreed to with the United States on March 2 and tabled by Prime Minister Manmohan Singh in Parliament on Tuesday — spells out its underlying logic and identifies a range of facilities that will go under international safeguards between now and 2014. At the same time, the plan is silent on some details. Eight 220-MW pressurised heavy water reactors (PHWRs) are to be safeguarded in addition to the six that have already been committed but these are not named. “Phasing of specific thermal power reactors, being offered for safeguards, would be indicated separately by India,” the document says.
Another decision that appears to have been put off is the fate of the fuel fabrication plants located within the Nuclear Fuel Complex (NFC) in Hyderabad. “The list of those specific facilities in the NFC, which will be offered for safeguards by 2008, will be indicated separately,” the plan states. Among the facilities located here are the Ceramic Fuel Fabrication Facility, the new Uranium Fuel Assembly Plant, the new Zirconium Sponge Plant, the Special Materials Plant and the Zirconium Fabrication Plant.
“Unique” nuclear programme
Offering an explanation for what critics in the international non-proliferation community might consider an inadequate civilian list, the separation document says the “unique” nature of India’s nuclear programme poses a challenge to the separation process.
India, it notes, “is the only state with nuclear weapons not to have begun with a dedicated military programme.” As a result, “the strategic programme is an offshoot of research on nuclear power programme and consequently, it is embedded in a larger undifferentiated programme.” This meant “the national security significance of materials and the location of facilities” would have to be taken into account in undertaking the separation process, and that safeguards could only be accepted in phases.
In a major concession to the U.S., Canada and France, the plan commits India to shut down the Canadian-supplied 40-MW CIRUS research reactor and shift the French-supplied fuel core of the 1-MW Apsara reactor to a new research facility outside the sensitive BARC complex so that it may be placed under safeguards in 2010. CIRUS, renovated recently, has been involved in the Indian strategic programme, and its premature retirement will entail costs. For, the Government will doubtless seek to build a replacement reactor that will be entirely in the military domain.
Heavy water plants
The other facilities to be placed on India’s civilian list are the three heavy water production plants at Thal, Tuticorin and Hazira (by 2009), the “Away from Reactor” spent fuel storage pools in Tarapur and Rajasthan (these are already safeguarded), and nine research facilities, including the Tata Institute of Fundamental Research, the Variable Energy Cyclotron Centre and the Saha Institute of Nuclear Physics. The Government says all these facilities are “safeguards-irrelevant.”
Safeguards on the PHWRs, research centres and heavy water plants are to be in perpetuity, a compromise the Government is willing to make in exchange for guaranteed international supply of nuclear fuel. In addition, India says it will be willing to place the Power Reactor Fuel Reprocessing plant (PREFRE) in Tarapur under safeguards in “campaign” mode after 2010. This means the facility will be safeguarded only when spent fuel passes through it, something that already occurs for spent fuel from the Rajasthan and Tarapur reactors.
Though the separation document does not name the facilities to be kept off the civilian list other than the two fast breeder reactors, it provides the logic for why other facilities will remain off-limits to international inspections.
Two strategic hubs
India, it says, will include in the civilian list “only those facilities offered for safeguards that, after separation, will no longer be engaged in activities of strategic significance.” At the same time, “a facility will be excluded from the civilian list if it is located in a larger hub of strategic significance, notwithstanding the fact that it may not be normally engaged in activities of strategic significance.”
Thus, all facilities run in the two strategic hubs — the Bhabha Atomic Research Centre and the Indira Gandhi Centre for Atomic Research in Kalpakkam — belong to this category, including their fuel fabrication, reprocessing and uranium and boron enrichment facilities, as well as the Beryllium Machining Facility. The uranium enrichment facilities at Rattehalli will similarly remain unsafeguarded as will the heavy water plants at Baroda, Thalcher, Nangal, Manuguru and Kota.
The Centre for Advanced Technology, Indore, where research work on lasers and accelerators is conducted, has also not been placed in the civilian pool.
All told, the civilian list is less extensive than many nuclear scientists and experts feared when, during the initial stages of the discussions with the U.S., the Foreign Secretary publicly declared that “it makes no sense for India to deliberately keep some of its civilian facilities out of its declaration for safeguards purposes.”
“From the details revealed by the Prime Minister in Parliament, it is clear that what the DAE and the scientific community consider as crucial for maintaining the country’s minimum nuclear deterrent, long-range energy security and unbounded freedom and protection for indigenous research and development in nuclear science and technology have all been indeed ensured by the Government in framing this deal till now,” A. Gopalakrishnan, former head of the Atomic Energy Regulatory Board, told The Hindu. “There are concerns in some quarters about the promised closing down of the CIRUS reactor in 2010, but we should note that simultaneously the PM has assured MPs that no constraint has been placed on our right to construct new facilities for strategic purposes.”
In Dr. Gopalakrishnan’s opinion, the Government “has prudently avoided any reference at this stage to the building of a modern research reactor to replace CIRUS, but the flexibility and right to do exactly that is most certainly retained by India in this deal.”
Significantly, the separation plan emphasises that “concepts such as grid connectivity are not relevant to the separation exercise.” Even after separation is effected, therefore, this would necessitate grid connectivity “irrespective of whether the reactor concerned is civilian or not civilian.” Officials say this was an important point to emphasise since in the U.S., no military reactor other than Hanford (until it was shut down) had generated power for the civilian grid. Accepting such a strict firewall would have raised the opportunity cost of the Indian strategic programme considerably.
In assessing the separation plan, the document also notes, “it must be recognised that the Indian nuclear programme still has a relatively narrow base and cannot be expected to adopt solutions that might be deemed viable by much larger programmes.”
Among the principles by which India’s approach to the separation of its civilian facilities has been guided, the document says consistency with the understandings of the July 18, 2005 statement has been the key.
The plan is also “credible, feasible and implementable in a transparent manner” and “consistent with India’s national security and R&D requirements as well as not prejudicial to the three-stage nuclear programme in India.” Two other principles involved are cost-effectiveness in implementation and “[acceptability] to Parliament and public opinion.”