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The nuclear man

Print edition : Oct 08, 2010 T+T-

Homi Nusserwanji Sethna (1923-2010) boldly steered the Department of Atomic Energy through turbulent times.

in Chennai

MY dear fellow, you are taxing my memory! remonstrated Homi Nusserwanji Sethna jocularly on the evening of September 18, 2008. But his memory was razor-sharp and he recalled important events in the history of India's atomic energy programme with clarity, even people's names with their initials. This reporter had gone to meet him in his spacious flat in Mumbai, to get his reminiscences of Homi Bhabha, whose birth centenary was to be celebrated the following year.

It soon became clear that Sethna loved telling stories, especially about what transpired between him, when he was Chairman of the Atomic Energy Commission (AEC), and Prime Minister Indira Gandhi in the hours immediately before and after India exploded its first nuclear device at Pokhran on May 18, 1974; about how Bhabha offered Sethna, on the edge of Willington Club's swimming pool in Bombay (Mumbai), a job in the Department of Atomic Energy (DAE); and about how Bhabha first wanted Sethna to attend the International Atomic Energy Conference in Vienna in January 1966 but eventually went himself, brushing aside his mother's premonition, only to die when his plane crashed on Mont Blanc.

After Bhabha, Sethna, who died on September 5 at the age of 87, was the longest serving AEC Chairman; he held the post for 11 years from 1972 to 1983. Sethna was earlier Director of the Bhabha Atomic Research Centre (BARC), Trombay, from 1966 to 1972, when the plan for building India's largest and the most sophisticated research reactor, Dhruva, was conceived. He boldly steered the DAE during some of its most turbulent phases in the wake of India's peaceful nuclear experiment (PNE) of 1974. (There followed embargoes that the DAE had to face. The United States reneged on its agreement with India to supply enriched uranium as fuel for 30 years for the U.S.-built reactors at Tarapur in Maharashtra. The Canadians abandoned the construction of the second Pressurised Heavy Water Reactor (PHWR) at Rawatbhatta in Rajasthan. The French walked out on the construction of the Fast Breeder Test Reactor (FBTR) at Kalpakkam in Tamil Nadu.)

Sethna pioneered the reprocessing technology in India and built the first plant at Trombay to reprocess plutonium. It was this plutonium that went into the making of the nuclear device that was tested in 1974.

The book entitled Atomic Energy in India, 50 years, authored by C.V. Sundaram, L.V. Krishnan and T.S. Iyengar and published by the DAE in August 1998, places the importance of this plutonium-reprocessing plant in the proper perspective. It says: Known as Project Phoenix it became one of the most important landmarks in the Indian programme, that this plant entirely designed and built by Indian engineers, under the leadership of H.N. Sethna and N. Srinivasan, could be completed and commissioned by mid-1964. With this, India became one among the five countries in the world (the others being the U.S., the U.K., France and the former Soviet Union) with demonstrated capabilities in the advanced technology of nuclear fuel reprocessing and the recovery of plutonium.

Anil Kakodkar, former AEC Chairman, described Sethna as a no-nonsense person who gave bold and courageous leadership to the DAE during several times of crisis. When the U.S. stopped supplying enriched uranium fuel to the two reactors at Tarapur in 1974, Sethna, Kakodkar said, showed tremendous courage, preparing the country for an alternative fuel supply. The French stepped in and gave us the enriched uranium. If that had not happened, Sethna was getting ready with his MOX [mixed oxide] programme to run the Tarapur reactors on MOX fuel. We got the supply from France and we also developed the MOX fuel.

Srikumar Banerjee, AEC Chairman, praised the leadership qualities that Sethna demonstrated when the Canadians stopped building the second reactor at Rajasthan. When the Canadians went away in 1974, we had to take up the development of the PHWR on our own. Under his leadership, a standardised model of the PHWR was evolved, Banerjee said.

Sethna, who was born on August 24, 1923, took the B.Sc. (Tech) degree in chemical engineering from the Department of Chemical Technology, University of Bombay, in 1944. He acquired an M.S. in chemical engineering from the University of Michigan, Ann Arbour, U.S., in 1946. He first joined Imperial Chemical Industries, and then the DAE in 1949.

During the interview, Sethna himself popped the question: I was recruited, do you know where? and answered it thus, Willington Club swimming pool! [Laughs.] Do you know how it happened? The argument was on how to make alcohol, absolute alcohol, on a big scale. You have alcohol and when you distil it, you go up to 90 per cent, to 96 per cent [purity]. How to cross over from 96 to 100 per cent? For that, when you add benzene or any petroleum product, you get a low-boiling mixture of three things alcohol, water and benzene. Bhabha said there was no such thing.

I said, Look, this is a book. And I gave him my book.' He said, Shall I keep it?' I said, It is a bloody valuable book. It is not available. It cost me $8 and that is a lot of money.' That was the beginning of the relationship between Bhabha and me....

But how was Sethna recruited to the DAE? This was his reply: Wait a minute. Then came the question. Where to give this fellow a start if he were to be brought in? Bhabha was no fool. He caught hold of a lawyer, J.D. Choksi, who was a director of Tata Sons. So they formed a company called, the Indian Rare Earths. I was one of the first recruits. The other recruit was suggested by K.S. Krishnan. He too had a foreign degree. I was a graduate of Michigan University

Sethna and his wife, then newly married, stayed in Kochi at a hotel owned by Spencer's. From Kochi, he would go to Alwaye (Aluva) where the IRE plant was to come up. The design of the IRE plant was provided by a French company called Societie de Terre.

But once the plant started production, came the trouble, said Sethna. First, nobody would buy the rare earths. This was because the Second World War was over. It looked as if the extracted rare earths would have to be dumped in the sea. But on his insistence, the thorium that was extracted was dried, packed in steel containers and stored in godowns.

Then, all of a sudden, rare earths boomed, Sethna said. Optical glass etc. We spent Rs.1 crore on that plant. Within six to eight months, we made a profit of a crore of rupees Then the U.S. came in and said they would like to buy thorium as thorium nitrate. We put up a thorium plant in Bombay and made thorium nitrate, where the Yanks would come, do the analysis, etc It took a year and a half to fulfil their orders. By that time, everything was up in Alwaye and we were happy.

As a logical consequence of the IRE plant and the thorium plant , Sethna went on to build the Uranium Metal Plant at Trombay (1959). His next challenging assignment was to build the Plutonium Plant, again at Trombay, which his peers considered to be an outstanding achievement. A DAE note says, This remotely operated, highly instrumented plant was designed and constructed entirely by Indian scientists and engineers under Sethna as the project engineer. Besides, it was completed on August 1, 1964, within the original estimated cost and scheduled time.

He then went on to build the Jaduguda Uranium Mill, now in Jharkhand, to produce yellow cake from natural uranium.