Journalist | Writer | Analyst
On Tuesday, I attended a talk by Dr. A.N. Prasad, former director of the Bhabha Atomic Research Centre and an early critic of the Indo-U.S. nuclear deal. So prescient has he been that even before the deal was signed in July 2005, he sought to sound the alarm about it. An article I wrote based on his concerns was published in The Hindu on July 18 that year, half-a-day before the deal was signed in Washington.
In his recent talk, Dr. Prasad dwelt at length on the importance of reprocessing for the Indian nuclear programme. He ought to know, since he joined the DAE’s reprocessing group in 1959, the year it was set up.
Talk given by Dr. A.N. Prasad at a seminar — ‘Indo-U.S. Nuclear Deal-Unexplored Angles’– organised by the Forum for Integrated National Security at the India International Centre, July 17, 2007
[Note: This has been reconstructed by me on the basis of the notes I took. Hence it is incomplete and a little jumbled and disjointed. There may also be errors on my part]
Having worked in a closed shell for four decades, we thought the July 18 (J18) statement was a sign that at last our strengths have been recognised. That there has been a change of heart by the developed world, and by the U.S. We welcomed it because it is hard to keep growing within a shell. We have done well on our own, but we would like to play a global role. From that angle, we thought that there would be a certain amount of opening up. But next to the Hyde Act, the J18 statement looks like fiction. There is absolutely no correlation.
Now we are talking of concluding a 123 agreement to operationalise the Hyde Act. But only legal experts can tell us how the 123 can reconcile all that there is in J18 and the Hyde Act. I don’t know who is fooling whom. At this last stage, we can only hope for a miracle to happen.
As scientists, of course, we go by our experience. There was a 123 agreement for Tarapur, which was signed in 1963. It said the U.S. would supply fuel for the lifetime of the reactor, defined as 25 years. But in 1974, we conducted a nuclear explosion, and in 1978 came the Nuclear Non-Proiliferation Act (NNPA). They said our 123 agreement had to comply with the Act which had come much later! So we were abruptly denied fuel.
Only after we put up a MOX fuel plant to cope with the disruption did they realise that India can’t be browbeaten. They came back to us and said the NNPA prohibits America from giving fuel but another country like France could step in. France, of course, quoted a very high price, taking advantage of our predicament. So we started negotiations with the Russians and Chinese and we finally succeeded in a way in getting our fuel.
So my point is that the 123 agreement is not a very safe document. The Act is what counts. And here, we have to worry not about another Act which may come in the future. The Hyde Act is already there to see.
What the U.S. wants
In my view, what the U.S. wants from the nuclear deal is three things.
First, clearly they want access to the large Indian market for nuclear power.
Second, the U.S. nuclear industry is dormant in the sense that no new reactors have been built and commissioned for thirty years. So they have a shortage of trained people. On the other hand, we have trained engineers in the nuclear field and my fear is that our manpower resources will get depleted.
Third, ever since the NPT entered into force, the U.S. has been trying to get India into its fold one way or the other. But when they saw that despite their sanctions and embargos, our programme was proceeding, we have our fast breeder programme and we have even conducted nuclear tests, and India could soon get a firm hold on thorium utilisation and India would then be unstoppable, they did not want to leave India any more time to get stronger. Sanctions hadn’t worked so they thought, let us try a new way. Hence this deal.
Core of 3-Stage programme is reprocessing
On the Indian side, our ‘crime’ is our uranium shortage. But this is not a big deal. This is not new, it has never been hidden. We knew this in the 1950s but developed our three-stage programme based on the fact that there were limited uranium resources. We said we will use this uranium in such a way to get to the thorium stage. Even in the 1950s we said this. We decided to use our uranium in heavy water reactors because they are good plutonium producers. This plutonium is to be recycled in fast breeders which will produce more fissile uranium (U233) which can be used in third stage for running the uranium-thorium cycle. We were having our eyes set on the three-stage programme from the 1950s.
We have done a lot of research on this but the U.S. doesn’t want Indian policy makers to be patient. To get to the 3rd stage, reprocessing is the core. From the 1st to 2nd, you reprocess to get plutonium, and from 2nd to 3rd stage, you reprocess again.
I joined the Department of Atomic Energy as a young scientist in 1958. Bhabha decided in 1959 that we should set up a reprocessing unit and I joined the group that year. Sethna was the leader. Up until my retirement, I worked on reprocessing. Having done all this work and even having said we are ready to offer reprocessing services to other countries, the U.S. is now telling us we have no right to reprocess. This is a farce!
I remember in 1961 when I went to the U.S. with three other young colleagues. Even then, the U.S. was secretive. For every question we asked, they would give 10 answers and say only one of them was correct. We were kept in a secluded place and what we read in the library was also monitored.
Of course, we developed our own methods and in 1965, we commissioned our own reprocessing plant. India’s first reprocessing plant was up and running before our first nuclear power plant at Tarapur! A common European reprocessing plant was being built in Belgium with U.S. assistance. They started work around the same time as us but they could only commission it in 1970-71. A few years later, I visited Germany, which was also trying to put up a small reprocessing unit. They asked me, based on my experience, to visit the site and tell them if they were doing anything wrong. I pointed out a few problems and they were very grateful.
In the late 1970s, I visited a Japanese reprocessing plant and they told me they were having problems because the U.S., having allowed them to reprocess, was not willing to let them reprocess at full steam. All of this is part of history.
The U.S. is now bringing forward this concept of reprocessing spent fuel in a multinational facility rather than in a national Indian facility. They want to control and slow down our three stage programme. Once we get hooked on to uranium imports, there will always be official reluctance to pursue this programme and funding won’t be given. It will get a bad beating.
The July 18 statement said there would be “full” civil nuclear energy cooperation. Even a lay person will tell you full means full, not a part. But they now want to deny more complex technologies and equipment like those dealing with reprocessing, enrichment and heavy water, where, for example, very heavy pressure is needed in the chemical processes (?). So they will continue their embargo. Now, we are not looking for their technology in these fields. But because of the low volume of our requirement, it would be more cost effective for us to be able to buy certain equipment and components like high pressure valves, special pumps, etc. rather than manufacturing them ourselves. So with the Hyde Act, these restrictions will remain. It is a selective opening. This is very troubling.
On India’s offer of a dedicated fully-safeguarded reprocessing plant
Ideally, we should confine our reprocessing facilities to campaign mode safeguards, meaning that only when safeguarded fuel is put through will there be safeguards. I say this because reprocessing plants are very complex and difficult to operate. Because of the radioactivity, everything has to be remotely handled. Even maintenance has to be done remotely. It is very difficult to perform maintenance tasks while the plant is running and because of the nature of the operations, the plant is prone to breakdowns and outages.
So if an unsafeguarded plant breaks down, we will not be able to send the unsafeguarded spent fuel that would normally be processed there to another facility because that would be under permanent safeguards rather than in campaign mode. We would thus have to wait for the maintenance cycle to be completed in the unsafeguarded plant before we could process the spent fuel. So in other words, we will lose the kind of flexibility that is needed to keep costs down. A permanently safguarded reprocessing facility, therefore, will be quite an expensive proposition.
We have many years experience in reprocessing and are able to do the job at one-third to one-fourth the cost that the other nuclear powers are able to do. …I know what it takes, and at what cost. But the U.S. wants to get at our reprocessing strength.
Threat perceptions are not static. Nuclear devices themselves undergo technical evolution. Computer simulations cannot be done.
I will conclude with a concern. On his way back from the G8 summit, the Prime Minister said all patriotic Indians should support the nuclear deal, implying that it was unpatriotic for us to oppose the deal in its present form. A fellow like me, who has started and ended his career in the nuclear establishment, who spent four years after that working in the International Atomic Energy Agency, and then again as a member of the college of commissioners of UNMOVIC overseeing the disarmament of Iraq – this sort of language of the Prime Minister brings to my mind the language of Bush. During the invasion of Iraq he said those who weren’t with him were with the terrorists, that if you are not with us, you are against us. The fact that he is influencing our Prime Minister to talk the same language is something that is really bothering me.