Feeding the Nuclear Fire

This article was first published in Economic and Political Weekly, August 27, 2005.

The July 18 joint statement by US president George Bush and prime minister Manmohan Singh has attracted a great deal of comment. The focus has been the possible consequences of US promises to support India’s nuclear energy programme in exchange for India clearly separating its military and civilian nuclear facilities and programmes, and opening the latter to international inspection.

Much of the debate on the deal has been between what can be broadly called the nuclear hawks and the nuclear nationalists. The nuclear hawks believe India’s nuclear programme is a great success and more than able to take care of itself. They see the deal as imposing unnecessary constraints on the programme and making more difficult the creation of the large nuclear arsenal, including thermonuclear weapons (hydrogen bombs), that they believe is essential for India to be a ‘great power.’

The clearest expression of this has come from former prime minister Atal Behari Vajpayee and the BJP, who seek the largest possible nuclear weapons capability.. Vajpayee has already argued that “Separating the civilian from the military would be very difficult, if not impossible…It will also deny us any flexibility in determining the size of our nuclear deterrent.” When he refers to “flexibility” in determining the size of an Indian nuclear arsenal, he does not mean that it should be possible to make it much smaller (if not eliminate it altogether). He is expressing the fear that separating civil and military facilities may stop the arsenal from becoming as big as he and others like him might like it to be.

Nuclear nationalists have the less ambitious, more traditional perspective that sees the nuclear programme as a great national technological achievement and necessary for India’s economic and social development. They see the deal as offering a way to sustain and expand the nuclear energy programme, while not unduly restricting the building of what they see as a ‘minimum’ nuclear weapons arsenal.
The government has embraced this view, as have many defenders of the deal. The prime minister laid it out most clearly to Parliament on July 29, saying “Our nuclear programme… is unique. It encompasses the complete range of activities that characterise an advanced nuclear power… our scientists have done excellent work and we are progressing well on this programme as per the original vision outlined by Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru and Dr Homi Bhabha.” He went on to argue that “nuclear power has to play an increasing role in our electricity generation plans” and the deal offers a way where “our indigeneous nuclear power programme based on domestic resources and national technological capabilities would continue to grow.” The expected international support, both as nuclear fuel and nuclear reactors, would help “enhance nuclear power production rapidly.” At the same time, he made it clear that “there is nothing in the joint statement that amounts to limiting or inhibiting our strategic nuclear weapons programme.”

These two positions have by and large dominated the debate so far. There are many problems with both views. The first is their shared belief in the success of India’s nuclear energy programme and the need to continue with and expand this effort. They fail to recognise that the deal is actually testament to the long-standing, expensive, and large-scale failure of the department of atomic energy (DAE) and its tremendous but largely hidden costs, in terms of health, safety, environment, and local democracy.

The second belief shared by the nuclear hawks and the nuclear nationalists is that nuclear weapons are a source of security. This belief has been extensively debunked.1  Those who persist in this belief also ignore the essential moral, legal, and criminal questions of what it means to have and be prepared to use nuclear weapons. The only difference between the two camps is on the character and size of the genocidal weapons they aspire to, and how many people in how many cities they are prepared to threaten to kill.

A History of Failure

The establishment of the Atomic Energy Commission (AEC) in 1948 was framed by the rhetoric of indigenous national development. Led by Homi Bhabha, the AEC portrayed India as forging its own path in the new nuclear age. That was not to be. There was no progress until the UK offered the design details and enriched uranium fuel for the first Indian nuclear reactor, Apsara.2  In what was to become a pattern, the official announcements when the Apsara reactor went critical declared it a “purely indigenous affair” [Abraham 1997].

Similarly, the CIRUS reactor, which provided the plutonium used in the 1974 nuclear test (and quite likely some used in the 1998 tests as well), was supplied by Canada while the heavy water used in it came from the US. An American firm, Vitro International, was awarded the contract to prepare blueprints for the first reprocessing plant at Trombay. The first power reactors at Tarapur and Rawatbhata were supplied by the US and Canada respectively. It was not just reactors. Many of India’s nuclear scientists were made in America and elsewhere. Between 1955 and 1974, over 1,100 Indian scientists were sent to train at various US facilities [Perkovich 1999: 30, 482].
Extensive foreign support to the nuclear programme ended only after the 1974 nuclear test. The international community, led by Canada and the US, who were incensed by India’s use of plutonium from CIRUS that had been given to the country for purely peaceful purposes, cut off most material transfers relating to the nuclear programme. However, a little advertised fact is that various nuclear facilities still procured components from abroad and foreign consultants continued to be hired for projects.3  DAE personnel still had access to nuclear literature and participated in international conferences where technical details were freely discussed.

Even with all this help, DAE’s failures were many and stark. In 1962, Homi Bhabha predicted that by 1987 nuclear energy would constitute 20,000 to 25,000 MW of installed electricity generation capacity [Hart 1983:61]. His successor as head of the DAE, Vikram Sarabhai, predicted that by 2000 there would be 43,500 MW of nuclear power [Sarabhai 1974:89]. In 1984, the ‘Nuclear Power Profile’ drawn up by the DAE suggested the more modest goal of 10,000 MW by 2000 [Ramachandran 2000]. None of these goals ever came close to being met.

After over 50 years of generous government funding, nuclear power amounts to only 3,400 MW, barely 3 per cent of India’s installed electricity capacity. This capacity is expected go up by nearly 50 per cent over the next few years, but not because of the DAE. The largest component of this expansion will be two 1,000 MW reactors purchased from and being built by Russia.

This history of failure explains why the demands from the DAE and other nuclear advocates to gain access to international nuclear markets have became louder and louder over the last decade. It is only with international help that the DAE can ever hope to achieve its latest promised goal of 20,000 MW by the year 2020.

The other pressure driving this deal has been the DAE’s extraordinary failure to manage its actually existing nuclear programme. In its determination to build more and more reactors, something to show for all the money that it gets, the DAE has failed to take account of the need to fuel them. This was evident in the statement from an unnamed official to British Broadcasting Corporation soon after the US-India deal was announced, when he said: “The truth is we were desperate. We have nuclear fuel to last only till the end of 2006. If this agreement had not come through we might have as well closed down our nuclear reactors and by extension our nuclear programme” [Srivastava 2005]. The former head of the atomic energy regulatory board has reported that this is not a new problem, he notes that “uranium shortage” has been “a major problem for the officials of NPCIL and the Nuclear Fuel Complex (NFC) for some time” [Gopalakrishnan 2005].

The issue is simple. Apart from Tarapur I and II, all DAE reactors are fuelled using uranium from the Jaduguda region of Jharkand. The total electric capacity of the heavy water based power reactors is 2,450 MW. At 75 per cent capacity, these require nearly 330 tonnes of uranium every year.4 The reactors that are supposedly dedicated to making plutonium for nuclear weapons, CIRUS and Dhruva, consume perhaps another 30-35 tonnes. When mining started in Jaduguda, the average ore grade was about 0.067 per cent [Sarkar 1984:193]. Now it is reportedly less than half that. The current mining capacity is around 2,800 tonnes of uranium ore per day. This means the DAE may only be producing about 300 tonnes of uranium a year. This falls well short of the fuelling requirements. DAE has been able to continue to operate its reactors by using stockpiled uranium from earlier days when the nuclear capacity was much smaller. Our estimates are that this stockpile would be exhausted by 2007.

The DAE has been desperately trying to open new uranium mines in the country. But it has been met with stiff public resistance everywhere [Dias 2005]. This local resistance stems from the widely documented impacts of uranium mining and milling on public and occupational health.

The limits on domestic uranium reserves have been known since the nuclear programme was started. This concern was the justification for the three-phase nuclear power programme that Bhabha originally had put forward and continues to be pursued [Bhabha and Prasad 1958]. This programme involves separating plutonium from the spent fuel produced in natural uranium reactors and setting up breeder reactors, which in turn could be used to utilise India’s thorium resources for energy production. The three phases are far from being realised. DAE has failed to build and sustain enough natural uranium fuelled reactors for the first phase. The second phase is still experimental and the first plutonium fuelled power reactor is yet to be completed. Even if it becomes fully functional, breeder reactors are unlikely to be a significant source of electricity for several more decades at least [Tongia and Arunachalam 1998]. The thorium fuel cycle, the third phase, is still far in the future.

Implications of the Agreement for Nuclear Energy in India

If the deal goes through, the DAE will be free to purchase uranium from the international market for its safeguarded reactors. This has some important consequences. The first of these is that it will reduce pressure on domestic uranium reserves. Since imported uranium will be much cheaper than Indian uranium, it may also marginally reduce the operating costs of Indian nuclear plants. Although DAE hides its actual costs, there is little doubt that nuclear electricity is more expensive than other major sources of power in India. [Ramana et al 2005].
At the same time, access to cheap imported uranium will remove what has been DAE’s primary justification for a large part of its long-term nuclear plan. For decades, the DAE has offered the shortage of domestic uranium as justification for the breeder programme. This is despite the fact that poor economics and countless engineering problems have effectively killed such breeder reactor programmes in the US, France and Germany. The high costs of breeder reactors stem from the need to have plutonium to fuel them. This plutonium is produced at reprocessing plants by chemically treating spent (i e, used) nuclear fuel from ordinary reactors. The separated plutonium is then made into breeder fuel at special and costly fabrication plants. There are enormous economic costs, environmental damage, and potential public health risks that are associated with this whole scheme.

With cheap uranium being available to India, there will be no need for any of this. It can all be abandoned. Despite all this, DAE may not agree to give up its breeder reactor programme. It may choose to try to follow the example of Japan, which imports uranium to power its nuclear reactors and, ignoring the costs and risks, continues to pursue its breeder reactor. This will show, again, how DAE’s institutional interests have triumphed again over economic good sense and concerns about health and environment.

The existing nuclear capacity and any increases in it, domestic or foreign, that the deal makes possible should not to be considered a benefit. Nuclear electricity is expensive and it would be far better to invest in other cheaper sources of power as well as energy conservation measures [Ramana et al 2005]. There are also important safety concerns associated with nuclear power. At least one of the DAE’s nuclear reactors has come close to a major accident [Chanda 1999, p 1363]. One can barely imagine the consequences of a Chernobyl-like accident involving the release of large quantities of radioactive materials at a reactor in a densely populated country like India.5 Other facilities associated with the nuclear fuel cycle have also had accidents, though these have primarily affected workers within the plant [Anand 2003:100].

Apart from extreme accidents, there are many environmental and public health consequences associated with the many facilities that make up the nuclear complex [Ramana and Gadekar 2003]. A scientific study of the health consequences on the local population around the Rajasthan Atomic Power Station (RAPS) located at Rawatbhata near Kota observed statistically significant increases in, inter alia, the rates of congenital deformities, spontaneous abortions, stillbirths and one day deaths of new born babies, and solid tumours [Gadekar 1996:384].
And, to cap it all, there is the so far unsolved problem of managing large amounts of radioactive waste for many tens of thousands of years. The question that really needs to be discussed but has hardly figured in the debate is whether India needs any nuclear power plants at all. There are many who believe India would be better off giving up this costly and dangerous technology and finding ways to meet the needs of its people that do not threaten their future or their environment.

How Many Bombs Are Enough?

The nuclear energy and nuclear weapons programme have been linked from the beginning. This will continue under the nuclear deal. Access to the international uranium market to fuel its power reactors will further free up domestic uranium for the nuclear weapons programme and other military uses. This may allow a significant expansion in India’s nuclear weapons capabilities.

There are several ways in which India could use its freed-up domestic uranium. It could choose to build a third reactor dedicated to making plutonium for its nuclear weapons. There have been proposals for a larger reactor to add to CIRUS and Dhruva at the Bhabha Atomic Research centre in Bombay [Anonymous 1999]. India could also start to make highly-enriched uranium for nuclear weapons – Pakistan has used such highly-enriched uranium, produced at Kahuta, for its weapons. Both paths, which need not be exclusive, would allow India to increase its fissile materials stockpile at a much faster rate. A third use for domestic uranium would be in supplying the fuel for the nuclear submarine that has been under development since the 1970s [Rethinaraj 1998]. Limited uranium availability, and the need to keep the power reactors running, is quite likely to have restricted all such plans in the past.

India can use both its current stockpile of weapons-grade plutonium and future production from the CIRUS and Dhruva and other future plutonium production reactors to make nuclear weapons. The current stockpile is estimated to be perhaps 400-500 kg, sufficient for about 100 simple fission weapons. (It is usually assumed that 5 kg may be needed for a simple weapon. More sophisticated designs would typically require less plutonium.) CIRUS and Dhruva could continue to produce about 25 to 35 kg of plutonium a year. This means that by 2010 the potential arsenal size could be about 130.

The above estimate is purely on the basis of existing facilities known to be making weapons useable fissile material. There could be other sources. Power reactors could have been or could be used to make weapons-grade plutonium by limiting the time the fuel is irradiated. Run this way, a typical 220 MW power reactor could produce between 150-200 kg/year of weapons-grade plutonium when operated at 60-80 per cent capacity.

Another source of weapons useable material is the stockpile of plutonium in the spent fuel of power reactors. Though it has a slightly different mix of the plutonium isotopes from the special weapons-grade plutonium normally used for weapons, it can be used to make a nuclear explosive [Mark 1993]. The US conducted a nuclear test in 1962 using plutonium that was not of weapons-grade. One of India’s May 1998 nuclear tests is also reported to have involved such material [Perkovich 1999:428-31].

Over the years, some 8,000 kilograms of reactor-grade plutonium may have been produced in the power reactors that are not under safeguards. Only about 8 kg of such plutonium are needed to make a simple nuclear weapon. If this spent fuel is not put under safeguards, i e, declared to be for military purposes, as part of the deal, India would have enough plutonium from this source alone for an arsenal of about 1,000 weapons, larger than that of all the nuclear weapons states except the US and Russia.

Lastly, there is the plutonium that is produced in Kalpakkam in the small fast breeder test reactor. Much more plutonium will be produced by the 500 MW prototype FBTR now under construction. It is curious that ever since the 1960s, DAE has resisted placing the breeder programme under international safeguards. This is despite that fact that both Germany and Japan, neither of them nuclear weapon states, ran their breeder reactor programmes under such safeguards. The purpose of these safeguards is to prevent plutonium or uranium from civil nuclear facilities from being used to make nuclear weapons. DAE’s resistance to safeguards begs the question as to whether the breeder programme is, or ever was, only for civilian purposes.

A N Prasad, former director of the Bhabha Atomic Research Centre (BARC), has argued that these large stocks of weapons-useable material are beside the point. The deal should be rejected because “Our military activities are not aimed at stockpiling nuclear weapons.” He suggests that this was to overcome the problem that “the weapons become old, their materials degrade, they have to be dismantled and replaced” [Varadarajan 2005].

This is disingenuous. It is estimated the plutonium used in US nuclear weapons may not need to be replaced for somewhere between 45 and 60 years. The material can then be recycled and reused again in making new nuclear weapons. Moreover, many of the aging effects that the plutonium experiences can be avoided with proper storage. Therefore existing stocks of plutonium can probably last indefinitely far into the future. All other nuclear weapons states have stopped producing new material for their nuclear weapons programmes – only India, Pakistan, and Israel seem to be still producing new weapons material.

Another nuclear weapons material is tritium, a gas used to boost the yield of fission weapons many fold. The DAE claims to have tested such a tritium boosted weapon in 1998. However, tritium decays relatively quickly (half of it will decay in just over 12 years). Thus, to maintain a stockpile of tritium for a long time requires either a very large initial amount or that it be produced at a rate that balances its decay. tritium is produced as a by-product in the nuclear reactors dedicated to producing plutonium for weapons. These reactors can also be used specifically to produce more tritium.

In short, the nuclear deal promises not just to leave India’s nuclear weapons capability intact but allows for a rapid and large expansion of the nuclear arsenal, and for it to be sustained for the indefinite future. It takes for granted that this a good thing.

The effects of the use of both the smaller yield fission weapons and the more destructive thermonuclear weapons in the arsenal are well known [Rajaraman et al 2004]. Put simply, the smaller weapons will kill almost everyone within 1.5 km of the explosion, the larger weapons will kill most people out to distances of 3.5 km. The effects of radioactive fallout would spread many tens of kilometres further. Either kind of bomb would be enough to destroy a modern city. The question that needs to be asked is how many cities do India’s leaders wish to be able to destroy?

There are many who believe India, and no one else for that matter, should have any nuclear weapons. They are instruments to create fear through the threat of genocide. Moreover, the lessons of the 60 years since Hiroshima should be enough to make clear to anyone that there is no security to be found in the threat to kill millions.


The nuclear agreement between the US and India has many problems. But there are two fundamental questions at its core. The first is whether India needs nuclear energy for its development and the well being of its people. A good case can be made that it does not.
The second question is whether India needs nuclear weapons if it actually wants to live in peace with its neighbours and with the world. Many believe, with good reason, that it does not.

The answer to both questions that is offered by the deal is a future in which a nuclear-powered and nuclear-armed India swaggers along in the shadow of the US. The choice could not be more stark.

1 See for example the essays in [Kothari and Mian 2001] and [Ramana and Reddy 2003]. The drastic deterioration in south Asia’s security after the 1998 nuclear tests is documented in [Ramana and Mian 2003].
2 In 1951 India and France signed an agreement to collaborate but it was not followed by any collaboration [Abraham 2004].
3 For example, the initial financial sanction in 1982 for the Manuguru heavy water plant indicated the project cost as Rs 421.60 crore with a foreign exchange component of Rs 50.00 crore. This was revised to Rs 661.58 crore in 1989, with a foreign exchange component of Rs 78.59 crore [CAG 1994]. Similarly, between 1985 and 1993, two foreign consultancy contracts were awarded for “various works” relating to the 540 MW reactors [CAG 1999].
4 This estimate assumes a burnup of 7,000 MWd/tU and a thermal efficiency of 0.29.
5 For a study of the consequences of a potential major nuclear accident in Pakistan see [Mian and Nayyar 1999].
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