India can't afford to lose N-opportunity: Experts

As George W Bush's visit approaches, the few voices within the Department of Atomic Energy have joined to become a chorus.

india Updated: Feb 25, 2006 09:58 IST

As US President George W Bush's visit approaches, the few voices within the Department of Atomic Energy (DAE) have joined to become a chorus.

While DAE as a whole has been painted as being opposed to separating military and civilian facilities, the "rebels" within DAE hope the government would not let the opportunity pass. For obvious reasons, they want to remain anonymous.

"India has witnessed four decades of stifled progress in the civilian nuclear programme which till recently was acting more like camouflage for the not explicitly spelt out military ambitions," one top DAE scientist said.

"It is high time that the dubious status of affairs changes," he said.

"In a changed world where China is making strategic agreements to buy uranium from Canada and Australia for long-term energy security, India can ill-afford to turn down the opportunities striking its doors," another physicist at the Bhabha Atomic Research Center (BARC) said.

A senior reactor designer dismissed as rubbish DAE's argument that the separation plan would jeopardise research on thorium reactors that are expected to be main provider of electricity in the third stage of Indian nuclear power programme.

The basic reason why thorium is ignored world over is that it has to be externally fed with some man-made fissile material like plutonium to get ignited and start producing power, he said.

According to the designer, if India on its own wanted to accumulate sufficient plutonium for its fast breeder programme and the thorium reactor research, it has to wait for at least 30 years.

"On the other hand, the Indo-US deal provides India a window of opportunity to get the plutonium and build thorium reactors today," he said.

There is at least 3,000 tons of plutonium waiting to be reprocessed from spent fuel discharged globally from uranium-based reactors.

For the first time after 30 years of freeze, the US is reconsidering plutonium use for energy generation and, together with Russia, is wanting to set up the GNEP (Global Nuclear Energy Partnership) for plutonium recovery. It has invited India to become a partner.

Some DAE scientists say the Indo-US deal would pave the way for India acquiring the plutonium it needs for its long-term energy security from thorium.

Coincidentally, BARC physicists Usha Pal and Jagannathan have designed a thorium breeder reactor (ATBR) generating 600 MW of electricity that will consume only 880-kg of plutonium every two years. The reactor produces 50 per cent of its energy from thorium.

According to some DAE scientists, this ATBR is poised to start thorium utilisation by India today without having to wait for 30 years if the Indo-US deal went through.

"The political climate is conducive for such a dialogue for first time in the history of world nuclear power generation," they said.

First Published: Feb 25, 2006 09:58 IST