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'National interest is at stake'

Last updated on: December 26, 2005 10:33 IST

Dr A N Prasad, 70, former director of the Bhabha Atomic Research Centre, is a distinguished nuclear scientist and an international authority on the issue of Safeguards.

He earned his masters degrees in nuclear power engineering from the Indian Institute of Science, Bangalore, did his advanced nuclear science and technology from Bombay and nuclear chemical engineering from Oak Ridge School of Reactor Technology, USA.

He played a key role in the setting up of India's first fuel reprocessing plant at Trombay in 1964 to separate plutonium. With this, India became only the fifth country in the world to develop this technology, the others being USA, the then USSR, the UK and France.

During his long tenure in the nuclear establishment he continued to work on high technology areas of relevance to the nuclear fuel cycle, particularly specializing in what is called the 'back end of the fuel cycle'. He was also chairman of the safeguards committee of the Department of Atomic Energy for a number of years.

Prasad has served in the International Atomic Energy Agency, Vienna, as an expert member of the Standing Advisory Group on Safeguards Implementation from 1988 to 1996, and the Standing Advisory Group on Waste Management.

In recognition of his outstanding contributions to the development of nuclear technology in India, he was appointed director of BARC and member, Indian Atomic Energy Commission, in May 1993.

On his retirement from BARC in 1996, Prasad was invited by the then director general of the IAEA to serve as a senior specialist and consultant. During the period 1996-99 he served in the IAEA in the departments of technical co-operation, nuclear fuel cycle and safeguards (concepts and planning), spending the maximum time in the department of safeguards.

On his return from Vienna in 1999 he settled down in Bangalore but is actively pursuing his interests in making India self-reliant in the nuclear energy field.

In an exclusive e-mail interview with Managing Editor Sheela Bhatt, Dr Prasad spoke on a range of vital issues concerning the separation of civilian and military nuclear power plants.

Dr Prasad, since the July 18 agreement was signed you have shown concerns about the separation of India's civilian and military nuclear facilities. Can you please share some of your major concerns?

I am misunderstood. Now that the July Agreement is in place, for it to proceed further is only legitimate, that the separation process has to go through and be brought to a logical conclusion. With the passage of time since July the whole focus, from the statements emanating from the US side, has been heavily on the separation issue with indications that it should be done by India in a fully transparent and credible manner, perhaps implying that they should be aware of our thinking process in detail, and jointly work with them so that the final list that emerges is to their liking and approval! This, if agreed to, may come in the way of our freedom of our strategic thinking and decision-making.

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Importantly, can you tell us as a scientist, at this point in time, how you feel about the entire nuclear debate? Is the Indian nuclear scientists community feeling betrayed by the deal?

Frankly, it has been a mixed feeling. On the one hand there is a recognition, though not formal, of our nuclear status and hope of us joining the mainstream of global activities for commercial nuclear power generation and research and development if the agreement comes to fruition. On the other hand, if this agreement is seen by the US as a means to fulfill their long-standing aspiration, which is almost an obsession, to bring us closer to accepting the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty or fullscope safeguards applicable to most of our nuclear facilities and activities, which we have successfully resisted all these years, and leaving only a small portion of facilities and nuclear materials out of safeguards categorizing as for military use, we will be losing a big strategic advantage built over the years.

It is too early to say at this point of time whether the Indian nuclear scientific community is feeling betrayed as the whole process is still in the initial stages and much depends on how our negotiators tackle the issue and the US response.

All of us know well that nuclear proliferation is taken seriously by the powerful countries who are in a position to supply fuel to India's nuclear power plants. They are concerned about vertical proliferation in India. If India wants fuel it has to convince the Nuclear Suppliers Group by offering to put civilian research facilities under safeguards along with its power plants. Obviously, for the members of the NSG the issue is not what and how India wants, for them the issue is how to ensure nuclear non-proliferation once India gets fuel.  

Also, as you know so well, they are worried about setting of a trend that may be misused by some other countries that are not as credible as India.

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The fact is, in spite of the obligations -- the nuclear weapon states have entered into under the NPT -- in total disregard, they went on increasing their nuclear weapons arsenals which is a clear case of vertical proliferation (though the US and the Russian Federation have taken steps recently to decommission some of the obsolete weapons, thereby showing some reduction), at the same time showing great concerns for horizontal proliferation! As far as proliferation is concerned there is already a double standard. One for the nuclear weapon states and the other for the rest of the world! India has always been saying that it is for total global disarmament which unfortunately has not found takers.

Going by our track record so far, which is impeccable and has been globally recognized, the NSG or anybody else should not doubt our intentions. Our assurance to place all nuclear power reactors and nuclear materials we receive from outside the country under international safeguards should allay the fears of the international supplier community.

What should be the principles behind the separation of Indian nuclear facilities? How should India go about it after agreeing for separation?

The ideal situation would be to follow the provisions of the July text of the agreement, which in effect says rights and obligations should be the same as those of the nuclear weapon states and the practices they are following.

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We are aware that India's nuclear programs are inextricably interlinked. India's indigenous Fast Breeder Reactors depends on PHWRs [pressurised heavy water-cooled reactors]. But some argue that it's high time Indian nuclear scientists come out in the open and work for the civilian sector without ambiguity. It is said that since long Indian nuclear scientists have been working under secrecy as if they are part of the "unlicensed" industry. After the separation scientists will be freer and will have license to produce energy without remaining under cover. Please comment.

This is a complex issue. Since we have been forced to work and develop many of the technologies indigenously in isolation in view of restrictions imposed on us, it is not fair to expect that our R&D facilities which may be used for civilian and strategic purposes be classified as civilian. Similarly, our fast breeder programme is still in the developmental stage and until at least it reaches a level of maturity, the fast reactor fuel cycle is best left outside the civilian list though it can be subject to argument. Reaching the present level of competence has taken a lot of effort and no scientist would like to carry out development activities freely with some international inspectors breathing down his neck. It is not a question of working under secrecy or unlicensed! Issues involved are much more serious.

Once the deal is done and the actual separation process starts, can you envisage how will India deal with 'interlinkages' issue? How will India get fuel for FBRs if they are not put under the fullscope safeguards? And if FBRs are listed on the civilian list what will be the eventual scenario? What will be India's loss?

It is premature to talk about this specifically. Let the negotiations proceed and the separation plan come out.

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India claims that it has not departed from any of its international commitments of proliferation, but now the world is looking for actual proof and verification mechanism in place for the future. Why should critics object to it when India has nothing to hide?

As I have already said, we should be prepared to open out all facilities and subject all nuclear materials which we receive from outside along with our own facilities hitherto not subject to safeguards in which the imported nuclear material will be used for IAEA safeguards. Others to be negotiated.

Dr Prasad, will you agree that India needs to buy fuel urgently to run its nuclear plants? In a marketplace it's available only under certain conditions. As you are well aware, it's a supplier's market and not a buyer's market. Why are scientists, who are opposing the terms of separation, reluctant to accept the principle of 'give and take'? The supporters of the deal want to know why you don't understand and accept the realities of today's world. How long can India remain away from the mainstream of the nuclear world?

Lack of adequate uranium has been our bane of contention, unfortunately. We have lived with this for sometime now and we are trying to come out of it. If this weakness of ours is allowed to be exploited by others, it becomes a question of hard choice between preserving strategic national interests and succumbing to ground realities. It is not a question of simple 'give and take' but national interest is at stake.

Do we really need the nuclear deal with the US?

Can you help us to understand the cost of separation? Some bizarre amount was mentioned in one newspaper. What will be an approximate cost to India? Give us just an idea of the expenses.

It is foolish to talk quantitatively about cost of separation without arriving at a categorized list of facilities. As I have said earlier, there are many nuclear fuel cycle facilities which are of dual purpose and if they have to be segregated and dedicated facilities need to be built involving duplication, it adds to the cost. So it all depends on the outcome of negotiations.

In the recent past, has the Indian scientific fraternity ever discussed the issue of separation? If yes, when? And if not, why?

I don't think the Indian scientific community in general has discussed this issue. Also, it is a complex topic. However, I presume the concerned scientists within the Department of Atomic Energy would have discussed this issue.

Some diplomats privately argue why do Indian scientists not accept that they have collectively failed to deliver cheap and efficient nuclear energy on time? If India is facing stringent conditions for its nuclear facilities it is because our own research is a bit slow and we are behind schedule. No one is doubting the Indian scientists' brilliance or capabilities or achievements, but the fact remains that planning of fuel for plants is less than adequate and research into thorium and construction of new plants are behind schedule.

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This is a sweeping statement. The nuclear field is relatively young compared to conventional power producing alternatives. It involves complex technologies, safety concerns and public resistance off and on. We are also not allowed to interact globally as in the case of other alternatives using fossil fuels. Still, when the going was good we perhaps missed the opportunity to exploit uranium from our own resources. Now we are facing resistance from the environmentalists.

Sir, it's alleged that you have a grouse against the US because you were denied a visa? When, why and under what circumstances were you denied a visa by the US?

This is utter nonsense. I have never been denied a visa. Whatever opinion I express is entirely in the interest of the department. During my entire professional career I was privileged to serve the national interest.

US-based think tanks are hyperactive in publishing data related to separation. Why are Indian thinkers, visionaries and scientists not as forthcoming?

Perhaps this has got something to do with our system and practices. Unfortunate. However a set of people who claim to be experts in anything nuclear without any inhibitions keep interacting with the media.

Lastly, keeping in view a balanced picture of the high value attached to the issue of non-proliferation and India's right for sovereign nuclear research, can you tell us what (out of known and declared nuclear energy facilities and R&D centres) India should ideally keep out of the civilian list?

I have already answered briefly this question.

India's delicate minuet

It is believed that CIRUS [Canada-India-Research United States, from which the weapons grade plutonium for India's first nuclear tests i 1974 is said to have come] to have commissioned will be included in the civilian list while FBRs will be kept out. Dhruva may be kept out, too. According to one section of scientists two research facilities are enough for future progress. If this news gets confirmed will such a list satisfy experts like you?

Though the role of CIRUS reactor for our strategic requirement, being a small reactor, is no big deal, including the same under the civilian list and subjecting it to safeguards in principle is rather disturbing in view of its geographical location.

A lot of arguments are being put forth from Canadian and US sources, that CIRUS built more than 40 years ago under peaceful use commitment by India has been violated and hence needs to be corrected by bringing the same under international safeguards. If one looks from a historical perspective, India is not at fault. If at all India is perceived as a violator, it could be viewed as a reaction to the unilateral abrogation by the US and Canada of legally binding bilateral agreements and obligations. It is a case of the 'pot calling the kettle black'! The reactor has over the years undergone major refurbishing and there is no point in raking up old commitments, particularly when the accuser is actually the accused.

I sincerely hope India will resist the pressure.

Sheela Bhatt