17 March 2006

More light on the nuclear deal

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".


Anonymous said...

In reality, those who now feel satisfied about their efforts in keeping Fast Breeders out of safeguards even though they woke up late to the US strategy aimed at getting all of India's nuclear facilities into the net, are likely to be in for big-time disillusionment in the not too distant future.

It is like this:

Any nuclear power plant (npp), be it a Fast Breeder or a PHWR might require, besides fuel, a large number of high technology equipment and parts. One way is to operate forever in the managerial safety of the import-route and procure these from the US / NSG cartel. This would require the npp to be placed under safeguards. The other, more robust way is to try and develop the requisite technology in India. The Separation Plan of March 2006 (rightly) proposes to follow the second alternative with respect to the PFBR, FBTR and a few of the PHWRs.

Now, to manufacture these high technology items, very often, one would need machine tools and equipment, which if not available or cannot be made locally, may have to be imported. Such import of mother machines / equipment which make daughter products could be justified, because a one-time import would allow parts to be indigenously made for several reactors.

In the days to come, US and the NSG cartel can be expected to put more and more of the items that India might want to import, in the dual-use category. India may not have any say in this categorisation. The item categorised as being capable of dual-use, would then be made available only if and when India identifies the npp for which it is needed, and places the same under safeguards in perpetuity. Once a mother machine / equipment is designated for a safeguarded npp, then all subsequent plants which use daughter products made from it would also come under safeguards, thanks to the pursuit principle. While technology independence would require us to keep as many facilities as possible out of safeguards, US / NSG cartel will ensure that our progress in respect of every unsafeguarded facility is slowed down even further (than at present).

We would have been better off to quietly go about our development efforts rather than seek loud approval that we have attained the status of a Brahma Rishi (a nuclear weapons country) from Vashista Muni (the US). In reality, driven by policy makers, bureaucrats, and others hell-bent on using the words "nuclear isolation" as a pejorative term, the nuclear deal has virtually brought to naught all the fruits of technology development (tapas) we have achieved so far. India's history is replete with lives of great persons who "isolated themselves" (read "made concentrated efforts in a single-minded manner") to do tapas to achieve wisdom and knowledge.

Anonymous said...

Is labeling it military a better deal?
It may create an uncertainty about the size of the weapons grade material and
thus offer psychological deterrence.

Satish said...

I have few points here though they might not be related to the article

Looking only at the nuclear deal and Indian nuclear program the toughest part for INDIA now will be

1) Refining our nuclear arsenal and successfully validating our thermo-nuclear device.
2) Negotiating safeguards agreement with IEAE. [Making sure that intellectual property rights are obtained for our technology and technology developed indigenously developed is protected from intrusive inspections.]
3) Making sure that most of the reactors that will be built in future use indigenous technology (this could be done by creating cartel [public/private companies, consisting of only Indian companies]). This way technology will be further developed in INDIA and we will not loose the technology we developed due to imports (which obviously the politicians will encourage to get kick backs).

I'm not really concerned about the labeling part (civilian / military) as I think the government has done a pretty decent job on that part FOR NOW.

One thing I'm really concerned is about the quality of our weapons especially the thermo nuclear bomb as it failed in second stage during 1998 tests. TESTING (Thermo Nuclear Bomb) and REFINING our WEAPON designs are very important. We will have to do explode a minimum of around 5-10 devices (I guess) to have a reasonable deterrent in future. Testing is a must for us, we will have to test our weapons sooner or later. I’m not really concerned about quantity of fissile material that will be available for weapons as we will be able to produce enough even with the current/under construction military reactors.