Journalist | Writer | Analyst
As Principal Scientific Adviser to the Government of India, R. Chidambaram has played a crucial behind-the-scenes role in the formulation of India’s approach to the question of civil nuclear cooperation with the United States. Chairman of the Atomic Energy Commission from 1993 to 2000, he supervised the conduct of the 1998 nuclear weapons tests at Pokhran. In an exclusive interview to The Hindu, he spoke about the implications of the Indo-U.S. nuclear deal for India’s strategic and civil nuclear programmes, as well as for the future of nuclear power worldwide. Excerpts:
8 August 2007
“For nuclear renaissance, the world needs India”
Harish Khare and Siddharth Varadarajan
One of the criticisms made of the Government now that the Nuclear Cooperation Agreement with the U.S. is final is that the nuclear deal will have an adverse impact on the country’s strategic programme. What is your view?
From the outset, it had been made clear — this is exactly what has been stated in Parliament also — that there are three boundary conditions. There will be no effect on the strategic programme, there will be no deceleration in our three-stage nuclear power programme — which has been the foundation on which we have built our entire programme — and there will be no effect on our advanced R&D programme. These boundary conditions have always been with us as we’ve gone through this. So there will be no effect on our strategic programme.
But some fairly well-informed people are saying the opposite, people who had occupied important government posts in the past.
I don’t want to respond to the opinions of others. You ask me absolute questions.
All right. There’s a view that India’s ability to test will be severely constrained as a result of the agreement with the U.S., that testing will become more difficult in the future.
See, whenever you test, there will be consequences. When we tested in 1974 and 1998, the leadership then knew there would be consequences. So that is something which is built into the system. But as far as the 123 agreement goes, there is nothing in the agreement which prevents us from testing, if the government decides to test for whatever reason. That is what we should look at.
Some have argued that the 1998 tests may not have been “sufficient,” even for then, not to speak of the future, that the thermonuclear test was not successful.
As far as our own tests — the five tests we did over a range in 1998 — based on the tests, we can build weapons from sub-kiloton to 200 kilotons. Of the designs that we have tested. For the thermonuclear, the testing of the weapon design at the controlled yield of 45 kt was because of the proximity of Khetolai village. And also, people are just looking at the number of the tests, but immediately after the tests, we announced the yields of the tests before the global seismic and other data had come in. That indicates a higher level of technological capability. See, suppose you do a test and suppose something is slightly off, you may get a lower yield but still it is a test. But here, see basically, if you want to do very low sub-kiloton tests — 0.2, 0.3, 0.5 — very difficult tests because any mistake there, you would not get any yield. So we have done those tests. So we have a considerable computer simulation capability.
Based on the 1998 data…
Based on the 1998 data, so, but on the other hand, if for whatever reason — scientific, technological or because of some other requirement — the country wants to test at a future date, there is nothing in this agreement which prevents us from testing.
And you don’t think the costs will be higher than in the past in terms of sanctions?
That I’m not the right person to comment, but one general thing we can say — as we go on, our economic strength and our importance in the world is not coming down, it’s only going up.
Why do you think the U.S. has come around to offering this nuclear deal to India?
Today — this is what I say in my lectures abroad — we want the world in the short-term in nuclear, but the world is going to need us in the long term. Because, in many countries, nuclear technology has stagnated, and when nuclear technology stagnates, knowledge management becomes a problem. Young people don’t join the field. And then R&D also begins to go down. The only two countries in which nuclear is growing because of surging energy demand are India and China. So for us, nuclear ‘knowledgment’ is not a problem. I remember in 2004, there was a meeting in Obninsk in Russia. I wonder how many people know that the first reactor from which electricity was put into the grid was Russian, a small 5 MW reactor, and that was in 1954. So the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) held a meeting in Obninsk on ‘Fifty Years of Nuclear Power — The Next 50 Years.’ And there was an American speaker in the session I was chairing — he works for the IAEA now — but what he said was between 2002 and 2011, the nuclear workforce in the entire west will come down to half. On the other hand, there is a nuclear renaissance which has started, driven substantially by the threat of global climate change. So he said that if a nuclear renaissance does start in the U.S., we’ll look to India for help.
In manpower terms?
I didn’t say that! Because, you see, it’s not just a question of manpower, it’s a question of R&D, it’s a question of so many other things.
We said manpower because one of the points some retired nuclear scientists have raised is that the U.S. is looking to deplete India of human resources in the nuclear field and that they will use this deal to facilitate that.
Though you can’t rule out the possibility of manpower attrition, but then 150 of the Fortune 500 companies have R&D shops in India, R&D centres in India, one way or another, which deal with materials technology, biotechnology, IT and all that. They come here — it’s not a question of our going there — they come here now because partly manpower is cheap, the capability is there, and if you want to hire guys, there are more guys available here. So there are positive aspects of this kind of interaction. The negative aspect, of course, is the possibility of attrition of manpower.
Do you feel the relatively easy access to imported Light Water Reactors might affect the government’s willingness to fund the DAE’s ongoing research into the three-stage programme?
The assurance from the Prime Minister is that the three-stage programme will not be affected, number one. And two, I wrote an editorial in Nuclear Energy 2006 [with Ratan Kumar Sinha] called ‘The importance of closing the nucl ear fuel cycle.’ This is needed not just for India but for the whole world, because the same amount of uranium, when you recycle it through fast breeder reactors (FBRs), will give you 50 times more power, and if you close the fuel cycle with thorium, maybe it will give you 600 times more power. So if you want to optimally utilise the nuclear fuel resources of the world — uranium and thorium — you will have to close the nuclear fuel cycle. So the importance of the three-stage programme goes beyond just building the first generation of reactors. And even if you take the Generation IV reactors of the U.S. — half a dozen new systems which they have produced — several of them require reprocessing and closing the fuel cycle. In my opinion, not going in for FBRs is a passing phase. Just because somebody puts away the plutonium in the spent fuel as waste, in my opinion, that is only a temporary phenomenon. If you have access to cheaper uranium, why will you cut open the spent fuel and take out the costlier plutonium? But over a period of time — the price of uranium has gone up in international markets — that plutonium is not running away anywhere, it’s got a half-life of 24,000 years. So that’s what I tell my American friends, that what you are building…
The Yucca mountain repository?
Yes, Yucca as a waste disposal site is really a plutonium mine! Because the later you reprocess, the easier it is. All the other radioactivities would have died down. So everybody has to close the fuel cycle.
If that is so, how important is the fact that the 123 agreement leaves out access to reprocessing equipment? And are you hopeful that when the Nuclear Suppliers Group guidelines are amended, India will be able to access these from the world market?
Those have to be worked out. See, we have our own reprocessing technology. Of course, we want to get equipment. In any area of technology, cooperation is a good idea, so if equipment comes, why not. But then we have built our own plants also at the same time. However, in all these areas, today’s India wants international cooperation on an equal partner basis. I am not talking just nuclear. That is why we have joined the Large Hydron Collider, contributing a substantial amount to the accelerator, we joined the ITER project.
So are you confident the NSG will lift these restrictions?
That is what India wants, a clean exemption at the NSG.
Tell us something about the implementation costs of the deal. How expensive will separation of the military and civilian nuclear sectors be? And what about the cost of storing a 20-30 year supply of uranium and LEU?
All that will cost, but I don’t think those costs will be excessive. Storage of LEU — I don’t think that could be a big problem — there are methods of storing. And the civil-military separation, the way we are planning, I don’t think will be expensive, the way we are.
So there will be no need to replicate facilities?
Not really. Of course, you see when you build large numbers, that’s what our thing will be, for example, the number of reactors we are going to put under safeguards, they are all separated reactors. So there will be no big problem there. But we are not firewalling between the civil and military programmes in terms of manpower or personnel. That’s not on.
Until now, the fact that India’s civil and military programmes were run as one meant the political class may not have had a clear sense of the true cost of each programme. Separation means the end of cross-subsidisation. Will both programmes be able to withstand closer financial scrutiny?
In my opinion, our nuclear weapons programme was one of the most economical in the world because it followed the civilian programme. Unlike in all the other nuclear weapons states, which did the military programme first and then came on to the civilian side. That way, our weapons programme has been one of the most cost-effective ones.
But some argue the inefficiencies of nuclear power generation have been justified internally by the need for weapons. In his book, Ashok Parthasarathy recounts P.N. Haksar telling him in the early 1970s not to worry about the costliness of nuclear power because ‘there are larger objectives to our atomic programme.’
The tariff charged by our Nuclear Power Corporation wherever they have built nuclear power plants (NPP) — Tarapur, Koodankulam, or Kaiga or wherever — the unit energy cost is comparable to the cost of a coal-fired plant at that place. This is how we compare. The capital cost is higher in nuclear because it is easier to build a boiler than reactor, but the fuelling costs are lower compared to thermal. If you build a coal-fired thermal plant at the pithead, obviously it will be cheaper, but as you move further and further away, you have to add the cost of transportation. The second thing was that in the earlier days, there was the cost of interest during construction. Two things have happened now — the gestation period for NPPs has come down from more than seven years to five years, which is comparable to the best global standards, and because of the improvement in the strength of the rupee, the cost of interest during construction has come down. But even before that, we were comparable at 700 or 800 km from the coal pithead. So there was never any big subsidy problem of the type you mentioned. There was a problem because, you see, immediately after Pokhran-I, when we had to go back and build everything ourselves because suddenly these guys walked out. So that took time.
Why was it important to keep India’s fast breeder reactors out of safeguards? Is it because they could serve a strategic purpose?
First of all, whatever reactors we put under safeguards will be decided at India’s discretion. Now, anything which requires advanced R&D, we don’t want to slow it down by having someone looking over our shoulder. Our FBR has lots of technological innovations. I don’t think it is meant for weapons.
And what about future fast breeder reactors?
FBRs which use safeguarded plutonium can go under safeguards. But if an FBR is to use unsafeguarded plutonium, why should it be subject to safeguards? The main point is that we will decide.
What is your view of the proposed Fissile Material Cut-off Treaty?
The FMCT should be verifiable and multilateral. This has been our stand and we should stick to it.
Why are many retired nuclear scientists still sceptical about the nuclear deal?
Not all of them have objected. But why not? This is a democracy. Everybody need not have same views.
In the U.S. too there are critics.
There, you have people objecting on the basis of proliferation misconceptions. It is time the U.S. realised India is not a ‘proliferation threat.’ In a 2001 paper, I introduced a new parameter — the Stockpile Increase Significance Coefficient (SISC) — defined as a measure of the significance of a unit increase in the number of nuclear weapons a country has, i.e. the significance of x weapons going to x+1.
The SISC is obviously maximum when x=0. As x increases for a country like India with a programme based on self-reliance, the coefficient approaches zero as the country ceases to be of interest in the context of nuclear weaponisation. This is when the hurdles to international cooperation likely disappear. That, in my opinion, is the reason why the U.S. came to India with this deal. Obviously this graph would not apply to a country with weapons based on clandestine acquisition.