WASHINGTON DC, Sept 7, 2005 | ISSN: 1684-2057 | www.satribune.com

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India's Fast Breeding Reactors Bandwagon is Reinventing the Wheel

By Sampathkumar Iyangar
Special to South Asia Tribune

AHMEDABAD, India, September 7: The first country in Asia -- much before China, Korea, or Japan -- to mount an ambitious nuclear program was India, and this is no mythological braggadocio often resorted to by Indians about any scientific advancement.

When India’s nuclear program was first conceived as early as in the late 1950s, it was intended for harnessing the power of the atom exclusively for peaceful applications. Jawaharlal Nehru, the first Prime Minister who saw projects aimed at bringing prosperity to downtrodden masses as “modern temples”, dreamt of creating thousands of Indian technocrats. He visualized they would help build atomic power stations not just in India but in several poor countries of Asia and Africa to accelerate their development. That was indeed a possibility and not just a pipe dream.

Homi Bhabha and Vikram Sarabhai, architects of India’s nuclear program, were aggressive peaceniks, and like Nehru, were firmly opposed to a repeat of Hiroshima or Nagasaki anywhere on the earth. Sarabhai had formulated the mission of the program as "availability of abundant quantum of energy that would be too cheap to meter."

They enlisted the support of the US to build the first light water reactor at Tarapur and of Canada to develop the technology for heavy water reactors. India readily gave a solemn sovereign commitment to Canada, a country that firmly stands committed to nonproliferation despite its significant capabilities in nuclear technology, to never divert fissile material for weapons proliferation.

All was well till Jawaharlal Nehru’s daughter Indira Gandhi was made the Prime Minister of the country by toadies in Nehru’s Congress Party two years after his death. She had streaks of dictatorial ambitions and when she was unseated from the Parliament for corrupt electoral practices by the Allahabad High Court, she declared a state of emergency and incarcerated thousands of people opposed to her usurping unbridled powers. The tyrant eventually fell victim to an assassin’s bullets.

Indira wanted to become a Durga, Hindu goddess of power, in the eyes of the gullible masses of India by blasting an "Atom Bomb". Raja Ramanna, who was Atomic Energy Commission Chief during her tenure, did not have much qualms about hijacking the program conceived for public good to benefit the individual. He connived in her plan and conducted a crude nuclear test.

The blast in 1974 at Pokhran utilized fissile material illegitimately diverted from Canada-supplied research reactors. New Delhi mandarins attempted to explain away the misadventure as "peaceful underground nuclear implosion", a contradiction of terms. This betrayal earned Ramanna a junior ministership in Indira’s government, but cut India off from international cooperation in the field. For, the country had earned a pariah status as Canada walked out in protest.

The atmosphere in Department of Atomic Energy (DAE) has remained extremely hush hush and secretive ever since the 1974 blast. Decades of isolationism has erected a thick veil of mystery around goings on in DAE. The financial and other affairs of DAE are beyond the scrutiny of statutory comptrolling and auditing authorities under the constitution, the judiciary, and even the Parliament.

In the Kafkaesque secretiveness of DAE thrives a deadly Mafioso that siphons off the huge funds to vanishing entities. Rampant nepotism plagues the establishment, which breeds corrupt bandicoots on a mass scale. As a result, hundreds of technologists and scientists attracted to the establishment in the hope of achieving something great languish as desk-bound babus (clerks). Bright brains are forced to grope in darkness, sans any meaningful support for advancing the technology.

Just when the damage done by the 1974 misadventure by Indira Gandhi was about to be condoned by the world in appreciation of the country’s restraint in not conducting further nuclear tests, there occurred another setback 1998. Any possibility of meaningful cooperation in the wake of economic reforms was scuttled by the Mafia, which saw in transparency and globalization a grave threat to its grip. Another proliferation misadventure was forced on the tottering coalition government ruling New Delhi to sabotage any meaningful reform in the sector. The AEC Chief Dr. R Chidambaram tendered an "advice" to the government that fresh nuclear tests had become necessary in strategic security interests.

This blast gave the excuse to neighboring Pakistan for conducting a nuclear test as well, widely believed to be with generous help from China. This fueled an alarming nuclear arms race in the subcontinent and nullified the natural advantage of strategic depth that India possessed in conventional warfare.

It also brought back to the center stage the dispute over the territory of Kashmir, which had been put on the back burner. Kashmir has been the main bone of contention between India and Pakistan ever since the partition of the subcontinent in 1947 and they had fought three conventional wars. The world became scared over the bitter feud between two currently nuclear-armed belligerents.

India was forced to go back on its contention of Kashmir being “an integral and inalienable part of India” and to allow free movement of its citizens to areas under the protection of Pakistan and vice versa. Most likely, this is to be followed by complete autonomy to the region and eventual secession.

In 2005, as Prime Minister Manmohan Singh negotiated with the US the opening up of the nuclear power industry to international cooperation and competition, the nuclear Mafia has managed to enlist the support of opportunist politicians to thwart the PM’s initiative. These include gangs of unscrupulous elements who run a posse of Communist Parties advocating economic fundamentalism as proprietary fiefdoms as well as ethnic fundamentalists who want to turn the clock back and return to be a caste-ridden prehistoric society practicing apartheid. They get their ammunition from highly educated and suave scientists of DAE.

Obliquely conceding that their futile attempts at reinventing wheels with regard to various types of reactors have turned DAE into a grand flop show, the mandarins have lately climbed on to the Fast Breeder bandwagon.

They brag about being close achieving a breakthrough in developing reactors capable of utilizing India’s vast reserves of thorium metal. They want that unlimited budgets be continued and international vigil be avoided so that they can develop Fast Breeder Reactors (FBR).

According to a retired DAE mandarin, "Since FBRs will be the mainstay of India's nuclear power program for some time, and since there is a lot to be established for the first time and improved upon to achieve a level of maturity required to make it a success, bringing in safeguards at this stage just because they are civil nuclear facilities will seriously hamper our efforts and cut into our freedom to pursue the development of this program."

The tragedy with India is that there are any number of takers for such stupid nonsense among those who fancy themselves to be educated intellectuals and patriots. Incidentally, no country in the world has so far succeeded in developing Fast Breeders commercially, and the only commercial FBR, the Super Phoenix, has been abandoned by France in the wake of public outcry!

The writer is featured in the Directory of Experts in Technology Acquisition compiled in 1990 by Dept of S&T, New Delhi. He chose to abandon his flourishing venture specializing in the development of components for nuclear and aerospace applications protesting against irresponsible environmental practices and WMD proliferation.

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