Two towering figures in India’s history, Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru and the father of the Indian nuclear programme, Homi Bhabha, were behind the building of advanced nuclear capability in a nation with meagre industrial and scientific infrastructure. It was the former’s political will and the latter’s scientific strategy that made this possible. Today, it is the lack of political will that threatens to stop India from taking the next leap forward in our nuclear programme. Three facets of India’s nuclear programme must be underscored:
n Nuclear science and technology in India is not just about bombs. The great work of the Indian nuclear establishment has been to give primacy to the needs of the Indian economy and India’s people — whether by nuclear applications in medicine, agriculture and food preservation, or in water management and power generation.
n The Indian path to nuclear capability is unique in the way it combines national security concerns with peaceful applications of nuclear technology. Building India’s credible nuclear deterrent has been a resounding success story. The Indian nuclear weapons programme rests on a breakthrough in the advanced technology of reprocessing nuclear spent fuel from reactors in 1965, a time when only four other countries had this advanced technology. This technology breakthrough opened the plutonium path for the Indian nuclear programme — for both energy and weapons programmes — bypassing the enormously costly uranium enrichment method.
n What constitutes the base of the Indian nuclear programme? It is the chain of nuclear R&D centres — the Bhabha Atomic Research Centre (Barc), Indira Gandhi Centre for Atomic Research (IGCAR), Centre for Advanced Technology (Cat), Variable Energy Cyclotron Centre, Tata Institute of Fundamental Research (TIFR), the Indian Institute of Plasma Research and the Saha Institute of Nuclear Physics.
So what are the challenges faced by the core segment of the programme — building nuclear power capacities? Two special features inhibit India’s nuclear power programme and, paradoxically, they are the ones that have moulded the Indian nuclear path. One, India’s limited uranium resources are capable of supporting a nuclear power programme of no more than 10,000 MWe. Two, the sanctions regime imposed since 1974 by the US and other nations that largely ruled out import of advanced light water reactors, necessitating the almost total dependence on the natural uranium-fuelled Pressurised Heavy Water Reactor (PHWR).
The first inhibiting factor was decisive in bringing into play the famous ‘Bhabha three-phased programme’ of (PHW) thermal reactors in the first phase, with plutonium-uranium-fuelled fast breeder reactors in the second phase, and advanced fast breeders with thorium as the main fuel in the third phase. With thorium resources in abundance, the three-phase programme targets nuclear power as a major contributor to India’s energy security in a long-term timeframe, with a vision of at least 100,000 MW nuclear power. The Indian nuclear establishment has worked on this Bhabha guideline by attaining capability along the entire nuclear fuel cycle. Thus, it created a close-ended fuel cycle to recover plutonium and depleted uranium from reactor spent fuel for recycling in fast breeders.
In the process, India has mastered PHWR technology, with such outstanding projects as the Kakrapar PHWRs, followed by the two 540 MWe Tarapur 3 and 4 reactors, which in the next round, will witness PHWRs of 700 MWe capacity. The second and third phase of the Bhabha-defined programme have been successfully launched — the Fast Breeder Test Reactor (FBTR) and the 500 MW Prototype FBR now under construction. With 8,000 MW capacity already built or under construction, Indian scientists are targeting a nuclear power programme of 20,000 MWe capacity by 2020 and 30,000 MWe by 2030.
Admittedly, the time span for realising nuclear power capacity of this order is very long. The only way to shorten this time span is to achieve a breakthrough in the sanctions regime and enable India to have international nuclear trade — importing uranium and advanced light water reactors, etc — just as China is doing in a big way. This opportunity has come thanks to the India-US nuclear deal. Operationalising it would contribute immensely to our energy security at this crucial juncture. Our politicians should look beyond politics and think of the future of the nation instead.
O.P. Sabherwal is the author of India’s Tryst With the Atom.