Journalist | Writer | Analyst
Normally, scientists and governments who want to make nuclear bombs insist that what they are really interested in is nuclear power. In India, however, we recently saw the reverse happening. Scientists who actually wanted to protect the Fast Breeder from intrusive international inspections so that they could do their research on the three-stage nuclear power programme were forced to claim the Breeder couldn’t be safeguarded because it would be producing weapons.
In his first interview since the March 2 agreement with the United States over the separation of India’s civilian and military nuclear facilities, Department of Atomic Energy chief Anil Kakodkar has explained to T.S. Subramanian of The Hindu the reason the Fast Breeder reactor programme has been excluded from international safeguards:
“The development of Fast Breeder Reactor technology and the development of its associated fuel cycle technology have to go hand in hand because breeders have to operate in a closed cycle mode. In the development of breeders, we have to go through evolution of several fuel cycle technologies, not one. For example, the PFBR will initially be on the mixed oxide fuel system. We will have to reprocess and re-fabricate the mixed oxide fuel. Then we want to take it to the next stage of development where we have to develop the metallic fuel. We then have to talk about the fuel cycle for metallic fuel. Later about the thorium fuel cycle. So there is an intimate link between the development of FBR technology and the development of associated reprocessing and refabrication technology. Our infrastructure for fuel cycle activities are rather small now. That is also intimately linked to the strategic programme. So the PFBR and the FBTR cannot be brought under safeguards because they are closely associated with the strategic programme through the fuel cycle linkage”.
Astute observers will note that this explanation differs slightly from the one Dr Kakodkar gave Pallava Baggla in the Indian Express on 6 February 2006:
“Both, from the point of view of maintaining long term energy security and for maintaining the minimum credible deterrent (as defined by the nuclear doctrine) the Fast Breeder programme just cannot be put on the civilian list. This would amount to getting shackled and India certainly cannot compromise one for the other… [I]n the long run, the energy that will come out from the nuclear fuel resources available in India (from domestic uranium and thorium mines) should always form the larger share of the nuclear energy programme as compared to the energy that will be generated from imported nuclear fuel. So it is important in the long run that our strategy should be such that the integrity and autonomy of our being able to develop the three-stage nuclear power programme, be maintained, we cannot compromise that”.” [emphasis added]
Dr Kakodkar is telling The Hindu the Fast Breeder cannot be safeguarded because of backward and forward linkages to reprocessing and re-fabrication facilities that are dual-use. If the Breeder were to go under IAEA inspections, so would these facilities under the principle of pursuit. He said much the same thing to Bagla too. But he is no longer implying that the Breeder has strategic implications of its own in terms of fissile production.
While the Breeder has obvious links to a weapons programme — basically, you can feed in dirty, reactor-grade plutonium and “launder” it into weapons-grade Pu — scientists who have worked the programme insist the principal purpose is to produce power and not bombs. So why then did Kakodkar say what he did in February?
My hunch — and I have no way of confirming this — is that the referrence to deterrent capabilities in the February 6 interview was a last-ditch attempt by Kakodkar to keep the Breeder programme from being offered up to the Americans on the safeguarded list.
The DAE had tried to convince the Government about the importance of preserving the R&D integrity of the Breeder programme on grounds of energy self-sufficiency and autonomy (i.e. the three-stage, thorium route) but was not taken seriously. After the U.S. objections became known in the third week of January, Indian analysts who had earlier praised the DAE for making nuclear bombs now derided the Department as “reactionaries” for blocking the U.S. deal on this issue. The Times of India ran a story quoting unnamed but highly-placed officials as saying the Prime Minister had decided to make the scientists fall in line. With his back to the wall, so to speak, Kakodkar used the one argument that he knew the Government would not be able to brush aside, especially if it were brought into the public domain.
And that was to say India needs the Breeder to make bombs.
A negative consequence of the way the debate finally played out is that the world will now consider the Fast Breeder to be an explicit and integral part of India’s nuclear weapons programme, which it is not. To a certain extent, such a perception was inherent in the very exercise of separation because although one might want to keep civilian facilities out of safeguards for a variety of non-military reasons, the terms of the July 18 agreement are such that this can only be done so by labelling them “military”.