`It is a reciprocal arrangement'

Print edition : September 09, 2005

N. SRIDHARAN

Interview with Anil Kakodkar, Chairman, Atomic Energy Commission.

The nuclear component of the Joint Statement by Prime Minister Manmohan Singh and United States President George W. Bush on July 18 evoked sharp reactions from leaders in the scientific and political establishment in India. They have questioned India's decision to agree to separate its civilian and military nuclear facilities, put the former under the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) safeguards, continue its voluntary moratorium on nuclear testing and so on.

Anil Kakodkar, Chairman, Atomic Energy Commission and Secretary, Department of Atomic Energy, puts the issues in perspective in this interview he gave T.S. Subramanian at his office in Mumbai on August 2. Excerpts:

Can you give us the background to the events that led to this important agreement between Prime Minister Manmohan Singh and President Bush?

There is a recognition of the fact that climate change issues are real. In that context, it is important that we have energy technologies which, on the one side, support development, and on the other, ensure that we don't add to complications in the context of the global climate change. It is also clear that with the economic growth that is taking place in India, there should be a fairly large requirement of energy. It may be as high as 10 to 12 times the present rate of consumption. We have a large population - one-sixth of the world's population. If we want to access such large energy resources, it will raise issues of sustainability, stability of prices and depletion of resources.

In that context, nuclear power is in the interests of India and in global interests. In the U.S. also, based on their own studies, they have come to the conclusion that nuclear power is going to be an important energy source in the years to come. There is a renaissance taking place in the U.S. as far as nuclear power is concerned. President Bush mentioned the importance of nuclear power to our External Affairs Minister when he was in the U.S. last time. Afterwards, things moved quite rapidly and the result is the Joint Statement.

Why was the agreement sprung on the country? There was no debate on it. The nuclear issue relates to India's security and sovereignty. There was a debate even on the issue of introduction of colour television.

No. It is not like that... It is consistent with the policies we have been holding all along. Our policy is that we want to conduct our R&D [research and development] and protect our security interests based on our own autonomous decisions. That still stands. There is no major change.

What are the implications of separating civilian and military nuclear facilities in India as envisaged in the Joint Statement? How is it in tune with India's policy of protecting its security interests and its autonomous decision-making process?

The Joint Statement is actually a framework for cooperation in civilian nuclear power. The Joint Statement calls it a full cooperation in civilian nuclear power. It also says that India is a responsible country with advanced nuclear technology and that it will have the same benefits and advantages as other countries with advanced nuclear technology. The point is whatever development we wish to carry out, we will be able to carry out. There is no hold on that.

First of all, this [separation of nuclear facilities] is going to be a reciprocal arrangement. The second thing is that while there is a recognition that we are a responsible country with advanced nuclear technology, we also said that we would assume the same obligations and responsibilities as other leading countries with advanced nuclear technology such as the U.S. So it is a totally non-discriminatory arrangement. It is a reciprocal arrangement where we expect that restrictions and embargoes on nuclear technology will get dismantled for cooperation in civilian nuclear power technology. We have always been saying that anything coming from outside - external cooperation - will be put under facilities-specific safeguards. This was our policy right from the beginning.

What we are saying now is that the determination of what is going to be identified as a civilian nuclear facility is going to be an Indian decision. It is going to be a decision taken at appropriate points of time. That determination will certainly take into account all our national needs in terms of security, development, and R&D. So there should be no impact on that part. Whatever we determine as civilian, we will put under IAEA safeguards. That will be done in a voluntary manner. Nuclear-weapons states do place their civilian facilities under voluntary safeguards arrangement of the IAEA. We will do the same.

There is an assessment by Dr. A.N. Prasad, former Director, Bhabha Atomic Research Centre (BARC), that the costs will be too prohibitive for India to have reactors dedicated separately to civilian and military purposes.

Certainly, that also will be a factor in identifying what is civilian. If there is an implication on the strategic side, then we will not identify it as civilian. Only that which is clearly of no national security significance will be civilian. To that extent, there is no compromise.

According to Dr. Prasad, the U.S. can afford to have a stockpile of weapons but India has only a minimum credible nuclear deterrent and so segregation of civilian and military facilities in the nuclear field in India will be prohibitive and impossible.

This does not imply capping of the programme. Capping of the nuclear weapons programme? Yes.

Former Prime Minister A.B. Vajpayee and his National Security Adviser Brajesh Mishra have said that the segregation would lead to the capping of our nuclear weapons programme.

Here, the Prime Minister has said [Dr. Kakodkar reads out from Manmohan Singh's suo motu statement in Parliament on July 29, 2005] that "the government will not allow any fissile material shortages or any other material limitations on our strategic programmes in order to meet current or future requirements. The defence and security interests of our country are our highest priority and will continue to remain so."

Can India afford to have separate civilian and military facilities in the nuclear field?

What I am saying is this: in identifying civilian nuclear facilities, we have to determine that they are of no national security significance. We will do this in a phased manner. It is not a one-time determination. It will be determined at different points of time, looking at the national requirements, which exist from time to time. The point I am making is that this does not put any limitation on our ability to meet national security needs.

There is an assessment that putting the civilian nuclear facilities under safeguards will cap the nuclear weapons programme because the spent uranium from the nuclear power reactors can no longer be enriched in order to be used in the making of nuclear bombs.

I am telling you it is not there. The important point to recognise is that our energy requirements are very large. We have a three-stage nuclear power programme. In that, we have said that based on the natural uranium available in the country, we can support 10,000 MWe of Pressurised Heavy Water Reactors [PHWRs]. Beyond that, we will continue to grow on the basis of Fast Breeder Reactors. Beyond that, we will pick up thorium utilisation. This is our three-stage programme and it will continue as per plans.

In the light of the fact that our national energy requirements are very large, we have been looking at external inputs as additionalities. If we can do that, the rate at which we can add nuclear power will be high. On that there was a constraint because of the nuclear technology control regime. If that constraint gets removed, and we are able to access both nuclear fuel and nuclear reactors from outside, I think we will gain a lot on the energy front.

For example, if we get natural uranium in plenty from outside, then we can construct more PHWRs within the country, for which we have the technology. You can visualise a PHWR capacity much larger than 10,000 MWe. There will be no problem in putting under safeguards this additional capacity, which we can sustain with imported [natural] uranium. You can, in fact, think tomorrow of large parks of imported [light water] reactors and of PHWRs built in the country but fuelled by imported [natural] uranium. This could be an addition to our domestic programme, which is a three-stage programme. We have to go through a lot of development for this. That development will continue.

There is a school of opinion that putting the civilian nuclear facilities under IAEA safeguards will hamper the Fast Breeder Reactors programme.

No. How will it hamper?

Dr. Prasad has said that. Several people whom I talked to said the plutonium reprocessed from the PHWRs will come under safeguards and that the IAEA may not allow that plutonium to be used in the breeders.

We are not going to put under safeguards any research and development programme.

So the Prototype Fast Breeder Reactor (PFBR) under construction at Kalpakkam and the Fast Breeder Reactors will not come under safeguards.

No. The PFBR will not come. The PFBR is a prototype. Why should it go under safeguards? When technology becomes mature, it is a different story. The point is all these decisions will be taken at the appropriate time and there is no need to decide on it today.

Will the Indira Gandhi Centre for Atomic Research (IGCAR) at Kalpakkam, which deals with breeder reactors, come under the safeguards?

IGCAR is an R&D centre.

The Tarapur Atomic Power Project's Unit 4, which is NPCIL's first 540 MWe power generation unit. On March 6 it reached the stage of sustaining the nuclear chain reaction. It was synchronised to the grid on June 4.-VIVEK BENDRE

Natural uranium for the PHWRs is in short supply. Uranium could not be excavated at Nalgonda in Andhra Pradesh and Domiasat in Meghalaya because of local opposition and political turbulence. What steps are you taking to speed up the environmental clearance from the Pollution Control Boards of those States for starting the mines?

We are working hard on uranium mining and uranium production programmes. We are opening new mines. We are already working on a fairly massive programme at Banduhurang and Turamdih in Jharkand. We are pursuing the issue with the Andhra Pradesh and Meghalaya governments. These efforts will continue and there will be no slackening.

Are you hopeful that these uranium mines can be opened? There is a report that the Meghalaya Chief Minister is opposed to the project.

It is not a question of [someone] being opposed to [it]. It is a question of taking people along. It has been our endeavour all along to explain all issues that are in the minds of the people through a massive public awareness programme. I am quite confident that we can allay all the fears that are there and get the necessary clearances.

You said that India can also import natural uranium.

It does not mean that the domestic uranium programme will be slackened. The domestic programme will go on exactly as we were doing earlier. No difference.

Is India considering importing natural uranium from Nigeria and Namibia?

We have to see that all these controls are lifted. We would certainly like to import. But today, I cannot say. The Prime Minister has said in his suo motu statement in Parliament: "Before voluntarily placing our civilian facilities under IAEA safeguards, we will ensure that all restrictions on India have been lifted. Our autonomy of decision-making will not be circumscribed in any manner."

Besides the shortage of natural uranium, what are the constraints in reaching 10,000 MWe of nuclear power? India was supposed to achieve the target in 2000.

We said we would reach by 2012. That will happen.

Are there budgetary constraints?

I don't envisage any constraint. We are engineers. The job of the engineers is to carry forward a project in the given circumstances. All these have been factored in. I am quite confident that this can be done [by 2012].

Was there a need to mention in the Joint Statement that India will continue its voluntary moratorium on nuclear testing? Pakistan has not imposed on itself a voluntary moratorium. It only said if India explodes a nuclear device, it would also explode one.

Our voluntary moratorium is unilateral. We declared it on our own. It is part of our national decision. We have to secure our national interests and we are quite confident of doing that, based on whatever we have done and whatever we are doing.

Earlier, it was a unilateral decision and we could break it any time. It has become binding now because it is there in the Joint Statement.

We are a responsible country. We are quite clear about the path we want to follow.

What kind of Light Water Reactors will India import? Will they be turn-key, or will Nuclear Power Corporation of India Limited build them as it is doing in the case of the two Russian VVER-1000 reactors under construction at Kudankulam in Tamil Nadu?

We will continue our domestic nuclear power programme. We will look at external inputs as additionalities. The configuration of this additionality will be determined by the financial package. It depends on the financial engineering of the project, how much value addition will take place in India and elsewhere, and so on. But the important point is that this is an additionality. We have to decide the other details on a case-by-case basis.

The electricity generated from the fourth nuclear power reactor at Tarapur will be sold at Rs.2.80 a unit. Isn't it on the high side because it is a base load power station and it is assured of an offtake? Even power from Dabhol will be sold at Rs.2.50 a unit.

Tarapur price is quite competitive. It will become more and more competitive in the years ahead. Nuclear power [tariff] is not subject so much to escalation whereas the variable costs are higher in other forms of power stations, that is, in fossil fuel-fired power stations. They are subject to a lot of escalating trends. Tarapur 1 and 2 provide the cheapest non-hydel power available in the country today. Take my word, in the years to come, the same thing will be true of all nuclear power stations.

You and S.K. Jain, Chairman and Managing Director of NPCIL, went to China recently. Was it to get enriched uranium from China for Tarapur 1 and 2?

No. It has nothing to do with this or that. It was on the invitation of my counterpart in China and the idea was to discuss areas of cooperation... Just as we are constructing VVER units in cooperation with the Russian Federation, the Chinese are also constructing similar units with Russian cooperation. They started their project a little earlier than us. So they are in the commissioning mode right now. They have two units. There is certainly an advantage in our cooperating with them.

Cooperation does not mean that we cooperate only with people who are ahead of us or behind us. We cooperate wherever there is a win-win situation. In PHWRs, we are way ahead of them [China]. They also have PHWR stations. There is a possibility of some cooperation in the PHWRs. There is a possibility of cooperation in High Temperature Reactors and also in Fast Breeder Reactors. We are discussing such issues.

Will China resume supply of enriched uranium to Tarapur 1 and 2 reactors?

We did not talk about that.

The Joint Statement says that the U.S. will consult its partners on India's participation in the International Thermo-Nuclear Experimental Reactor (ITER) programme and the Generation IV International Forum. Does this not amount to an assault on the nation's dignity and sovereignty? India is ahead of several countries in the breeder reactor, fusion and thorium-utilisation programmes. India is going to build the Advanced Heavy Water Reactor (AHWR), which will use thorium as fuel.

I don't understand this at all. The AHWR is of indigenous design. It has all the advanced features of a safe power station and it is a system that generates energy out of thorium. The AHWR, of course, is our indigenous development. In Generation IV International Forum, there are as many as six reactor types, which are under development. They are different from the AHWR. They also represent an advancement in nuclear technology.

We are a large country. We cannot take a restrictive view of technology. We have to look at technology in a comprehensive way. If there are 10 advanced countries participating in the Generation IV International Forum, it is good that India is also able to participate in it because we have the technological capability.

The same is true of ITER. It is an international project with six partners. We have our own advanced capability in fusion technology as a result of the work done at the Institute of Plasma Research, Gandhi Nagar [Gujarat]. It is only appropriate that we should be able to become a full partner in the ITER programme. There is no logic in saying that this is an assault on our national dignity. On the other hand, this is a testimony not only of the enormous international stature and respect achieved by our scientists but also a recognition of their attainments.

We have demonstrated that we can construct reactors in a short time, the first of a kind in five years and the repeat in four years and a half. This is competitive by international benchmarks. We are talking about constructing these reactors at $1,100 or less for a KW, which is also competitive. They are more expensive in other countries.

We have clocked world records in capacity factors. The NPCIL has demonstrated that nuclear power generation is a profitable business. The only thing is that we have to go through this [natural uranium] mining programme very fast and that is what exactly we are doing. We are on course.

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