A nationalist who was wary of the US, a no-nonsense man and a bold and quick decision-maker.
This is how colleagues described 86-year-old Homi Nusserwanji Sethna, the man behind India’s first peaceful nuclear test in Pokhran in 1974 that brought in the era of international sanctions on the nuclear technology regime.
On Sunday night, the former atomic energy commission (AEC) chairman, Sethna, passed away at his Malabar Hill residence after a prolonged illness.
His funeral will take place at Doongerwadi Tower of Silence on Tuesday.
Sethna was responsible for spearheading the country’s nuclear programme after the death of nuclear scientists Homi J. Bhabha and Vikram Sarabhai and went on to set up India’s first plutonium plant at Trombay in 1964.
Wary of the US after the Pokhran test, former AEC chairman Anil Kakodkar who described Sethna’s death as a personal loss to the country said: “He was very apprehensive of the Americans and cautioned us during the Indo-US nuclear deal. But it was an important piece of advice.”
Scientists remembered him as having handled post Pokhran sanctions extremely well when the Americans stopped fuel supply to the Tarapur Atomic Power Station.
“On one hand, we were pressing for our legal rights as per the contract with the US. And on the other hand, we also had to continue power supply,” said Kakodkar.
“He gave outstanding leadership to the atomic energy programme during this crisis. He finally managed to get the French to supply fuel.”
Sethna’s tenure as chairman for almost 12 years from 1972 to 1983 was the longest after Homi Bhabha.
“And those were the formative years for the establishment. His outstanding contribution to reprocessing of spent fuel which was used for the Pokhran I nuclear test cannot be forgotten,” said Srikumar Banerjee, present AEC chairman.
“He had a nationalist outlook,” said former AEC chairman P.K. Iyengar adding that Sethna in 2005 had said that rather than signing the Indo-US deal, India should sign the Non-Proliferation Treaty that the country could walk out in case of disagreements.
“It’s turned out to be true. It is 2010 and we have not got a single reactor and will not for the next 10 years,” said Iyengar who worked with Sethna for 35 years.