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This ain’t no rocket science!

Saturday 11 February 2006, by ARUNACHALAM*V.S.

The nuclear debate has really heated up. Look at the number of articles, speeches and interviews. The arguments have become so confrontational and personal - thank God, not yet physical - that we really need a few women as protagonists to debate this issue rationally and with dignity.

Considering they are all busy people running from kitchen to Cabinet, and haven’t much time to read all the small prints and tricky clauses, I have collapsed the whole debate into one single short question and answer session.

Why do we need this agreement with the US when we can build power reactors and are self-sufficient in all technologies?

Blame our Prime Minister, if you like. He was the one who liberalised the economy, and now it cries for more electric power to grow. Remember the rule of thumb you read in your economics text books. In the initial years of intense and sustained growth, electric power should grow at least at the same rate as GNP. If we want the GNP to grow by 10%, then electric power generation should also grow by 10%. This works out to about 12,500 megawatts annually or about 1,000 megawatts every month! If is of any challenge, the Chinese growth is around 1,000 megawatts every week! Count all our energy resources if you like, renewables and non-renewables, fossils, solar etcetera etcetera, we still can’t reach this growth rate without building a large number of nuclear power stations as the French did before.

At one time, the French were constructing over a dozen power stations, all at the same time. If you want to work out the mathematics of our resources, energy efficiency, life time costs, prospects for rapid rise in nuclear power generation etc, look for my forthcoming article in the Economic and Political Weekly.

Haven’t our scientists done a great job and can’t we leave the challenge to them?

Our scientists have been outstanding, but the problem is uranium and industrial infrastructure. Indian uranium resources are limited, just enough for 10,000 megawatts and that too for a mere 40-year operation. Plutonium and thorium are at least two decades away before becoming commercial. Even for these reactors, we require first uranium fuelled reactors to transmute uranium to plutonium, and thorium to an esoteric isotope of uranium. All these take time. Nuclear reactions have a time of their own. Meanwhile, we have to import uranium and collaborate in building large power reactors as the Russians are helping us now at Koodangulam.

We can’t buy uranium or collaborate in building power reactors with other countries as no member of Nuclear Suppliers Group will work with us. This agreement with US will throw open the global nuclear power market to our country. This agreement will also enable our scientists to participate in a number of international collaborative programmes in energy research.

Today, we have major problems in attending global conferences or working as visiting scientists in advanced energy research laboratories of the world. Our atomic energy scientists have even problems buying powerful computers, the kind of machines that our local colleges can buy easily. At one time, even Polaroid films were denied. The synergy that global research collaboration brings in has few equals.

What happens if we put our power reactors under safeguards?

Nuclear materials from these reactors can’t then be diverted to non-civilian applications. We can’t then use the plutonium produced in these reactors for building the bomb. We can of course use it for building fast breeder power reactors that generate power. Remember, we have plans for building a large number of fast breeder and thorium reactors to see us through this century, or until hydrogen economy takes off. The plutonium from these reactors can fuel our fast breeder power reactors in the coming decades.

Will the US destroy our fast breeder programme, citing intrusive inspections etc?

Why should they? We don’t have to put fast breeders under safeguards. Anyway, it will be wrong to put research reactors, when they are still at the development stage under safeguards. It will take at least a decade or two for us to establish the technical and commercial viability of breeder reactors. And thorium reactors will take still more time. Other countries are also moving towards plutonium economy. It is a waste of precious energy resource when we use only a small percentage of one isotope-uranium 235-in a reactor. Using plutonium and thorium will remove this glaring deficiency.

What then happens to our bomb? Isn’t our national security compromised just by citing the electric power problem?

If you have studied your nuclear physics text books and scientific papers in the last semester, you will know how much plutonium and a few other materials are required for building a bomb. If you have just one or two power reactors outside safeguards, these plus our impressive stock of spent fuel rods should be adequate for many many weapons. The thermal power of our reactors is large, almost 800 megawatts. Our designs and a few other innovations we have installed have made these reactors very efficient when it comes to producing plutonium of the right kind.

A pair of reactors should meet all our present and future needs. Remember, we practise No First Use Doctrine and we are not Dr Strangelove or Superpowers, craving for thousands. Atomic bombs are horrible weapons capable of destroying humankind and inflicting unimaginable suffering on humans. I don’t think we would have gone for these if we were not located in a hostile geopolitical environment. We should also remember that we are a nation of Peace, and has been so from time immemorial.

How can we trust Americans after what they have done to us at Tarapur?

Last week my American friends were also asking a similar question about India. They cited a few of our past nuclear energy experiments! The way to proceed is not to allow us to become a prisoner of the past, but look into the future with many challenges to deal with. This list is large, global energy security, hydrocarbon depletion, global warming and so on. And so are the opportunities.

I have a feeling you are not loyal to this country.

After all this! My loyalty is to truth and should this not be the motto for every Indian?

(The writer is head of Centre for Study of Science and Technology and Policy, Bangalore, and a former scientific advisor to the defence ministry.)

See online : The Hindustan Times

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