A breeder apart
At the beginning of this year, Indian and US negotiators were at loggerheads over which bits and pieces of the Department of Atomic Energy (DAE) should be stamped ‘civilian’ or ‘military’. The DAE and its fellow-travellers swaddled India’s prototype breeder reactor in the tricolour. It was, they said, in supreme national interest to keep the reactor from prying foreign eyes. Washington’s insistence on placing the breeder under IAEA inspection was an attempt to get a hold of Indian knowhow. “They want our technology,” was the cry.
This sounded credible if only because US officials were making similar noises. Two years ago, after touring Indian reactors, US Nuclear Regulatory Commissioner Jeffrey Merrifield said, “There are things the US can learn from the DAE.” In addition, during the separation talks, the Bush administration announced the Global Nuclear Energy Programme (GNEP), though the US lacked a crucial component: a fast breeder reactor.
For DAE old-timers all this was proof positive that the nuclear deal was all about perfidious America. The US wanted to pinch or sabotage the breeder. They insisted the breeder not be safeguarded. Atomic swadeshis like R. Chidambaram and A.N. Prasad received the backing of nuclear hawks who saw the breeder as the means to fulfil their 5,000-warhead fantasies.
At one level, the negotiations were about India’s political establishment trying to come to grips with a global nuclear order in transition.
On one side was the DAE. It had a mindset created by 30 years of technology sanctions and petty harassment by the US. Chidambaram, for example, famously had false physics data fed to him by the US in the Sixties to skewer progress on India’s bombs. Anti-Americanism was ingrained. US officials involved in the talks admitted, “We’re paying for our past record.”
On the other side were parts of the foreign ministry and Manmohan Singh. They recognised that a new India, with a high octane economy, could not afford a nuclear programme that struggled to produce electricity. They understood that GNEP offered a chance for India to break out of the old Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty-based nuclear order. And the key to entry into GNEP as a charter member was opening the breeder to international cooperation.
Why is the breeder so crucial to GNEP? The NPT-based nuclear order was based on a crude trade-off. The nuclear haves kept a monopoly on nuclear weapons. They provided nuclear power knowhow to the have-nots. The latter, in return, promised not to build weapons. What Iraq, Iran and North Korea showed was that the NPT system transferred 95 per cent of the nuclear fuel cycle even to a have-not. So it wasn’t hard to dump the safeguards and finish the cycle and get an A-bomb.
GNEP is the same trade-off revisited. Under this, the nuclear haves handle most of the fuel cycle on their own soil. Have-nots only receive plutonium fuel rods for their power reactors. The nonproliferation risk is minimised. To further keep the nukes unloose, GNEP envisages have countries using fast breeder reactors that generate only small amounts of excess plutonium and the have-nots using small, proliferation-proof reactors.
To be a nuclear have under GNEP, you need to have a plutonium surplus to export. That means functional breeders or plenty of dismantled atom bombs. The obvious supplier States are the present five NPT nuclear powers and Japan. “India, Canada and South Korea are members who can get in if they get their breeder act together,” said an Indian official. The US has an embarrassing problem: it abandoned research on GNEP-type fast breeders in the mid-Nineties.
Which is where the Indian breeder comes in. The US doesn’t need Indian technology, whatever the DAE thinks. But to put together the regulatory and safety regime for a new type of experimental reactor is a nightmare in the US, especially post-Three Mile Island. Some experts believe this alone could take several years. And then let’s not forget litigation by green groups.
If India and the US pooled their breeder reactor capabilities, they could both cash in when GNEP comes to fruition a decade or so from now. India would be a GNEP nuclear have. Both could carve up, with France, Russia and Japan, the multi-billion dollar nuclear energy market that will arise in the 21st century.
Without safeguards, the Indian breeder is off-limits to cooperation with any country. But, by declaring that any future civilian breeder would be open to “international cooperation”, the Singh government paves the way for a second breeder that could be made jointly with the US specifically for GNEP. The result: India goes from being the do-goody nuclear outsider to a founder-member of the new nuclear order.
DAE has to introspect. The past three decades have been its heroic age. It succeeded in building a nuclear deterrent for India despite US-led sanctions and a determination not to take the A.Q. Khan path. “Never forget that in 30 years, not one DAE official ever defected or was turned by a foreign country,” says a retired Indian diplomat.
Today it needs to begin its entrepreneurial age. DAE’s focus should be on how to contribute to the new India economy. Opportunities abound: GNEP requires new nuclear gadgets like breeder tech, foolproof high-temperature gas reactors and secure fuel rod transport methods. When Merrifield said the US could learn from India, he was talking about the DAE’s reactor management techniques. Is it time for a Bharat Nuclear Services Limited? The DAE needs to work out modalities of integrating India into the global atomic market. The Tatas and Reliance are reportedly in talks with international majors about entering the nuclear power business.
The atomic establishment has a model: the Indian Space Research Organisation. Isro carried its own, albeit far less complicated, separation into civilian and military halves about three years ago. It is widely seen as a globally competitive space enterprise. Its turnover matches the Russian programme. It produces satellite clean rooms at one-fiftieth the cost of Nasa’s. Isro benchmarks itself against international standards and rigorously peer reviews its staff.
Though it suffered from US sanctions, Isro uses a US firm to peddle its satellite images. It’s set to get access to the US satellite launching market and its former head, K. Kasturirangan, recently said he expected Indo-US joint space missions. Unsurprisingly, polls show Indians putting Rakesh Sharma and Kalpana Chawla among their top ten Indian heroes. Sadly, a far greater mind like Homi Bhabha today barely makes it into single digits.