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Civilian and Strategic Nuclear Facilities of India

A. Gopalakrishnan is former Chairman of the Atomic Energy Regulatory Board of the Government of India.
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  • January 05, 2006

    One of the major objectives of the United States in entering into the Indo-US nuclear co-operation agreement is to bring about an early freezing of the Indian weapon-usable nuclear materials stock at the minimum possible level. India, in turn, obviously wants to retain all the accumulated inventory of such materials, as well as the facilities to produce the additional material we consider essential for a minimum deterrence, out of IAEA safeguards. Obviously, each country wants to manoeuvre the separation plan to suit its specific objective.

    Despite the façade that the deal is progressing well, it is clear that most of the originally perceived differences between the two sides are very much present even now. It appears that the US side feels that certain facilities, especially reactors, which India has proposed to retain in the strategic group really belong in the civilian list. In addition, it is clear that the US considers India's time schedule for bringing these facilities in phases into the civilian list is too stretched out, and that we should indeed place them under safeguards at a more rapid pace.

    Dhruva and CIRUS are the two weapons-grade plutonium producing reactors which are crucial to the Indian strategic programme. It is now known that Canada has formally asked India & the US that CIRUS, which was built with Canadian assistance under an agreement that it will be used only for peaceful uses, should now be placed in the civilian list. The US side must have raised this issue with Foreign Secretary Shyam Saran during his recent visit to Washington, and he perhaps had no option but to reject this demand.

    India is using the limited uranium enrichment capacity available at the Rare Materials Plant (RMP) near Mysore for producing the medium enrichment uranium fuel for our nuclear submarine reactors. Since this plant can be upgraded to produce high-enrichment weapons-grade uranium as well, the US could be asking us to place this facility and the submarine reactor(s) under the civilian list. This, of course, will not be acceptable to India. Similarly , the US may be wanting us to put the laser enrichment programme at the Raja Ramanna Centre for Advanced Technology (CAT), the De-tritiation Plants in BARC and IGCAR where we separate out tritium from irradiated heavy water, the Beryllium Production Facility at Vashi which supports the weapon-core making, the Variable Energy Cyclotron Centre (VECC), Kolkatta where the proton-beam bombardment of Lithium-6 could be done for tritium production, etc. under safeguards. But, India should insist on keeping all the facilities under the Bhabha Atomic Research Centre (BARC) and the Indira Gandhi Centre for Atomic Research (IGCAR) within our military list and away from safeguards, since they are all either R&D facilities or meant clearly for the use of the weapons programme.

    Of the 15 operating nuclear power reactors of India, 4 are already under IAEA safeguards. The remaining 11 are pressurized heavy water reactors (PHWRs) which are currently not under safeguards. Of the total 8 power reactors under construction, the two Russian units at Koodankulam are already earmarked under safeguards, leaving 5 PHWRs and the Prototype Fast Breeder Reactor (PFBR) which are currently out of safeguards. When and if the Advanced Heavy Water Reactor (AHWR) is built, we need to keep it outside the civilian list, because of its developmental nature.

    There is a lack of clarity in the public mind about our indigenous natural uranium resources. It is true that we may not have enough processed natural uranium to fuel the five (5) PHWRs currently under construction, when they are ready for initial fuelling in 2006-2008. But, the highest officials of the AEC now reconfirm the view that we have enough natural uranium ores in the country to fuel 10,000 MWe worth of PHWRs, for their life span of about 40 years. The mismatch between production and consumption of uranium has happened because the government approvals for the PHWRs and their construction have speeded up in the last ten years, while the Department of Atomic Energy (DAE) still continued to lag behind in their minerals exploration and uranium mining tasks. While waiting for these activities to pick up momentum in the coming five years, the DAE should go ahead and place under IAEA safeguards the 5 PHWRs now in construction, from their dates of initial fuelling with imported natural uranium, so that there need not be any delay in electricity generation. From the time we enter into this Indo-US nuclear deal, our limited indigenous natural uranium will have to be used judiciously for fuelling the Dhruva & CIRUS reactors to the extent we need additional weapons-grade plutonium, and in the first AHWR developmental unit, while the remaining should be used in the un-safeguarded PHWRs for producing as much reactor-grade plutonium as we can to sustain the operation of the first PFBR(s). The phased placement of the PHWRs under safeguards can be determined only on the basis of this logic, leaving sufficient room for uncertainties in fresh uranium supplies from our mines. In short, if a PHWR of ours can be run with Indian uranium, there is no hurry in placing it in the civil list, because it is then producing plutonium which will serve as feed material for our un-safeguarded breeder reactor(s).

    Thus, the right stand to take at this stage is to keep the Indian fast breeder programme outside the IAEA safeguards, by including it in the strategic facilities group. We may revisit this decision after we have commissioned and operated the first PFBR at full power and also stabilized its associated technology programmes connected with fast reactor fuel fabrication, reprocessing of spent-fuel to extract U-233, and the system improvements we may make on the basis of initial operational experience. This decision, however, has its consequent repercussions. The initial PFBR(s) in that case will have to rely on the already accumulated reactor-grade plutonium, and the future continued production of similar material from the un-safeguarded PHWRs, for the initial fuel loading and subsequent annual re-fuelling. This would require us to negotiate and keep all the presently available un-safeguarded reactor-grade plutonium in the PHWR spent-fuel out of IAEA safeguards, even while we may agree to put most of these PHWRs under safeguards, in phases, over a stretched period of time. As and when we wish to put a PHWR into the civilian list and IAEA safeguards, we must first discharge all the Indian spent-fuel in it for storage in our strategic group, and re-fuel the reactor entirely with fresh imported fuel. This way we ensure that our limited indigenous uranium resources are not burned up in a safeguarded reactor nor are we giving away part-of the earlier un-safeguarded spent-fuel. In the long run, whether India can operate enough number of un-safeguarded first-stage breeders based on depleted uranium-plutonium fuel, thereby breeding enough U-233 in their blanket regions to transition into the ultimate self-sustaining stage of thorium-U-233 breeders, is entirely dependent on how much more indigenous uranium we can find from an aggressive prospecting for minerals.

    Indian uranium, thorium and rare metal mining operations, mined ores, and their processing plants have to be outside IAEA safeguards. Thus, all facilities of the Uranium Corporation of India Limited (UCIL) and the Indian Rare Earths Limited (IREL) should go into the strategic group. Also, we have to ensure that the required minimum number of production plants for heavy water and reprocessing facilities to extract plutonium or U-233 from the spent-fuel are kept outside the civilian list, to match the requirements of the number of research & power reactors we are keeping in the strategic list at any point in time. This may not be too difficult because we have nine heavy water plants and four operational spent-fuel reprocessing plants, and some of these could be put under safeguards, while others are kept in the strategic list. When it comes to the fuel fabrication facilities, there are different processes and plants involved. Most of these are in the Nuclear Fuel Complex (NFC) at Hyderabad. At NFC, however, a few of the critical plants are not duplicated, and today they serve both the civilian & strategic requirements. Here, India will have no other option but to keep one-of-a-kind facilities at NFC, Hyderabad outside safeguards, until such time that duplicate facilities are planned and constructed.