by K Vijayachandran

A tele-dialogue between Dr. A Gopalakrishnan, former Chairman of Atomic Energy Regulatory Board (AERB) and Engr. K. Vijayachandran FIE Chairman, Cochin Centre for Policy Initiatives: Re-published as blog to mark the tenth anniversary

Vijayachandan : Proposals for nuclear cooperation was initiated by President Bush when Prime Minister Manmohan Sigh visited USA in July 2005: You had pointed out the mismatch between the requirements of the Indian nuclear program and US priorities in a pioneering article, on the edit page of New Indian Express on 12th August , 2005. Then, there was our February seminar at Kochi on Nuclear Options for India , inaugurated by the late Dr. Henry Austin, where you made an extensive presentation on India’s three stage nuclear program and debated on the possible impacts of the US offer on our own nuclear program. Despite serious objections and reservations from a variety of sources and lack of majority support within the Parliament, Manmohan Government has signed the controversial 123 agreement .There is no parallel in our democratic history, for this prolonged public debate, which is now entering its fourth year: How do you rate the quality of this debate and what are the basic reasons for such unprecedented political delays?
Gopalakrishnan : The nuclear deal with the US has given rise to the most wide-ranging and sustained debate that India has ever seen on a proposed foreign collaboration agreement . One parallel which occurred in a much smaller scale in the past was the discussion on —BHEL–Siemens — broad-based Technology Collaboration mooted in seventies. Interestingly , on both these issues , the active participation of the Left parties has helped raise the quality of national debate . In the BHEL issue , it was P.Ramamurthy and Jyotirmoy Basu of the CPM who led the fight in parliament . Today , we have persons like Prakash Karat , Sitaram Yetchury , AB Bardhan and D.Raja taking the lead within & outside Parliament in rightly opposing the Indo-US nuclear deal in its present form . Though the general public knows relatively little about the intricacies of the nuclear issue , few of the analysts in the country have tried to increase the awareness of the dangers of this deal through the print media. But , increasingly we found all branches of the media deeply co-opted by the Government , giving very little space for rational discussion of the deal . The increased corporatization of the media in the 2000s compared to the 1980s has meant a much enhanced vested interest among corporate mughals to bring about this far-reaching Indo-US collaboration , which will entangle American roots into almost all non-nuclear sectors in India as well !

Vijayachandan: India ‘s three stage nuclear power program envisages increasing the present capacity of around 4000 MW to some 29,000 MW by 2022, 62,000 MW by 2032 and 274,000 MW by 2052. These targets are on the assumption of the Thorium breeder technologies turning critical as scheduled. Design of the 500 MW breeder reactor power plant is now completed and is scheduled to go critical by around 2012 . This will be a major milestone in the Indian program. How do you rate its successful completion? What could be the likely impact of the US deal on this particular project as well as the three stage program as a whole?
Gopalakrishnan: The fast breeder technology is immensely more complex than our current PHWR technology . We are developing it on our own , and the initial start-up of a breeder reactor of 500 MW capacity by 2012 , even while India is under total international technology sanctions , is indeed creditable. However, we must be patient in letting the indigenous breeder technology stabilize, because this technology may take at least a decade thereafter to fully mature: unavoidable teething problems are common in projects of such complexities. This is very much a part of the game and we should not start deriding the DAE for possible unexpected delays!
Once the Indo-US deal is operational, US and other Western nations will have every opportunity to encroach into our indigenous nuclear programs such as the breeder development efforts, the nuclear submarine program and the advanced heavy water reactor (AHWR) program , mainly through the IAEA safeguards application on the civilian reactors combined with the intrusive clauses of the Additional Protocol. Acceptance of this Protocol is not yet mandatory for any country, but India has prematurely yielded to accept it as a conditionality. Western insistence in this regard stems from their desire to pry on our activities, violating our right to privacy & our intellectual rights on new developments.

Vijyachandran: You may recall our BHEL days, when efforts were made for the serial manufacture of 200MW nuclear power units for the 10,000 MW by 2000 program of DAE, envisaged at that time. This was based on the success of the Indian design at Narora nuclear power plant: Apart from BHEL engineering companies like L&T had also made large investments for this national efforts. This program could not fully take off for a variety of reason, lack of will and determination by Government being the main one. Would you like to recall those days and comment on the possibility of expanding the base of our engineering industry for the serial manufacture of 500 MW and larger size reactors and related equipment for the national nuclear power program.
Gopalakrishnan: Yes, companies like BHEL , L&T , Godrej etc. worked very hard and established excellent nuclear manufacturing capabilities in India , starting from late 1970s. Today , with technology sanctions still in place , these and other host of Indian companies are the reliable partners of DAE in setting up PHWRs & the 500 MWe Fast Breeder .
The indigenous reactor program based on PHWRs took about 15 years to mature , after foreign technology collaborations were abruptly withdrawn in 1974 , following Pokhran-1 . From 1990 onwards , the indigenous PHWR program was smoothly advancing with the help of Indian industry , and its present slowdown is purely attributable to the government’s mismanagement of their uranium mining & processing efforts . I even doubt whether the starving of funds for the uranium sector by the government from the mid-1990s was deliberately done to create a uranium crunch and thereby argue for an urgent Indo-US deal to save the nuclear sector. But , we will come out of these problems in three years or so , as national uranium mining picks up momentum , and this too without any help from the Indo-US deal .

Vijayachandran: Timely input of plutonium , obtained by reprocessing PHWR or PWR spent-fuel , in specified quantities is necessary for the success of our breeder technology to progress . There are apprehensions about meeting these requirements on time from the natural uranium mined in the country which is the feed fuel for our PHWRs . It is said that the deal will facilitate timely import of Uranium from the NSG countries. At the same time there are apprehensions that the deal will adversely affect the progress of the national program due to fresh demands on compliance, manpower erosion and diversion or paucity of funds? What is the maximum delay apprehended and what are the measures possible to cut down the delays? Could you enlighten us on the possible trade offs?
Gopalakrishnan: This is a lot of questions and cannot be answered briefly. Interest of US and other western countries is mainly to sell power reactors to India and sell us enriched uranium for the lifetime of these reactors , to help make money and keep us in their strategic camp . They will be least interested in supplying just natural uranium to further our PHWR and Fast Breeder projects , as we are already finding out from the denial of Australia and Canada to sell uranium even after the deal . Therefore , we have no other option but to rapidly increase uranium mining in India to feed natural uranium to our PHWRs , transfer enough spent-fuel from these PHWRs to the reprocessing plants , and eventually the plutonium therefrom to the breeder reactors. For all this , we do NOT need the US deal or foreign assistance . Required amount of uranium are already confirmed to be available from Indian soil to sustain a moderate PHWR program and the breeder development efforts . All it lacks is political will to push these indigenous efforts !

Vijayachandan: You were a member of the team of nuclear scientists , invited by PM for consultations in mid-2006 . You had expressed your concerns about the deal, individually as well as collectively, and there were detailed discussions about energy security and how to go about it. It was clear from these discussions that there was no exigency for hurrying up with the deal in the name of energy security. What were the follow up decisions taken in this meeting and assurances given by PM? Would you like to comment on their fulfillment? Are there more consultations planned for the near future?
Gopalakrishnan: Mostly it was I who discussed the energy security issue with PM , thanks to my varied experiences in the different segments of energy sector . I had told PM that, nuclear power , at best , in the long run can provide only about 8 to -10 % of the total energy requirement s in the near future. The major chunk of our requirements has to come from other sources : coal , hydro , imported gas , renewables , etc. He was informed that , we are doing very little to develop these non-nuclear energy sectors. If Kyoto Treaty and carbon emission are the reasons for accelerating nuclear power through this deal , why not give some added emphasis to coal gasification and IGCC plants based on Indian coals , which will also bring some relief to carbon emission per unit power produced , compared to conventional coal burning. I specifically pleaded for his attention to the scale-up of the indigenous IGCC Technology developed by BHEL , suitable for Indian coals .
On the nuclear deal , PM wanted the AEC Chairman to periodically meet with the group of senior nuclear scientists to keep them apprised of developments . One such meeting was held thereafter (at our reminding) , but no further briefings occurred in spite of repeated reminders! On the coal gasification project of BHEL , the PM told his Minister in the PMO (Mr. Prithviraj Chauhan) to follow that matter up with the Dept. of Power and BHEL . Nothing happened on this for long time , but recent newspaper reports indicate that a Demonstration Plant based on the BHEL IGCC technology has been sanctioned for setting up by AP State GENCO in association with BHEL.

Vijayachandran: You were member of an Indian team which visited Iran in early 2007 at the invitation of the Government of Iran . Would you like to comment on their nuclear program and the continued allegation by US, that Iran has a secret weapons program? Such allegations against Iraq turned out to be unfounded, but that country was invaded and occupied using IAEA reports as a cover. Is it not time to reform IAEA so as to pre-empt false accusations by members and how do we go about it?
Gopalakrishnan: The non-official Indian team was invited by Iran’s Minister for Power . The team consisted of couple of senior technocrats , a couple of senior Indian professors of Iranian history and culture , three former Secretary-level officials of the Govt. who wre all presently independent writers or analysts . The purpose was to give us a bird’s eye view of Iran’s power sector,, and NOT to overview their nuclear program at all. The overall impression we carried back was that Iran today is technologically quite capable . We had occasion to talk to young & middle level engineers and managers who are well educated on Iran , and they reflect knowledge and enthusiasm not in any way inferior to what we find in the best Indian organizations . Their innovation capabilities and mastery of intricate manufacturing processes are top class . Developmental struggle they are going through under the imposition of a total ban on technology & equipment imports reminded me of our own similar struggles in the late seventies and eighties , when India was simultaneously bringing up her manufacturing & software sectors , and carrying out projects in complex areas such as nuclear power , space launchers , and satellites . I only wish India would collaborate more sincerely with Iran , which our present government refuses under US pressure.

Vijayachandran: Apart from USA , Russia , France , China , UK , Canada and Japan are the other major members of the Nuclear Suppliers Group (NSG) which have the core competence in reactor technology that is comparable to that of India . Australia and South Africa are known for their abundant uranium resources but could hardly be called leaders in nuclear technology. South Korea has recently set up a nuclear power equipment industry mostly controlled by US finance and in collaboration with US companies , under licence from the US Nuclear Regulatory Commission. Vast majority of the 67 strong NSG are possibly the nuclear clients and the organisation is being used as a non-tariff barrier in nuclear trade. This sort of hegemony and policing cannot continue for long, in the name of a non-proliferation regime, that has lost its global relevance, as pointed out even by IAEA experts. Would you like to comment on the diplomatic initiatives that India could take in this regard, in its capacity as a major non-weapon nuclear power from the developing world?
Gopalakrishnan: Yes , I agree India must take bold and practical steps towards straightening out the various ills of the global nuclear non-proliferation regime . But , the fundamental requirement to be able to exert such influence & leadership in the international arena in this regard is to develop a widely-accepted image that the country is not on leash of other mightier powers , and acting as their pet poodle . Unfortunately , during the last decade and especially under the Manmohan Singh government , India has acquired a reputation both within the country & externally as an American lapdog , wagging its tail or sitting down quietly , as their masters want us to do . The failure to raise our voice against the West when they are harassing Iran and blindly voting on the US side in the IAEA and other fora is just one of many examples . Our increasing disregard for the struggle of the Palestinians is another . Therefore , if you are to play an effective role in international nuclear arena , with moral authority , we must develop a spine to stand up objectively for what is right & just .
We need to show that, we do have a larger vision of a just international order , where all have to accept some give & take . We cannot , for example , take a position that India wants the right to retain and develop nuclear weapons while we lecture that we do not wish to see any other nuclear weapon power coming up in our neighborhood . We should also start actively working towards finalizing a modified version of the Rajiv Gandhi Action Plan for Disarmament of the eighties , before the next NPT Review Conference in 2010.

Vijayachandran: China has an installed capacity of Nuclear Power nearly three times that of India : However , bulk of this capacity is based on reactors imported from Japan or USA . And the Chinese projects to build nuclear power plants in Pakistan and Iran have reportedly faced problems. How would you rate Chinese nuclear capability in comparison with that of India ? As a nuclear weapons country and part of the NPT, what are the specific advantages enjoyed by China compared to India in nuclear trade ?
Gopalakrishnan: First couple of decades , China concentrated on developing nuclear reactors for submarines,– which is technologically in many ways more complex than land-based reactors . But , knowing well to design and build submarine reactors does not automatically make one an expert in land-based reactors . Therefore , when China started late in building land-based power reactors , they decided to get two reactors of the best known and established types through import , learn about them first-hand , and carry on with an indigenous reactor program which borrows the best concepts from all these imported ones . China is precisely on that path , and they will slow-down and then totally turn-off reactor imports and switch over to their indigenous PWR stations , in a decade or so . In the meantime , to the extent needed , China will import the best PWRs available and concurrently develop gas and coal-based IGCC stations as well .

Vijayachandran: You had a five year innings with the AERB and you were its third Chairman during the period 1993-/1996. DAE was your first employer after graduating from Trivandrum Engineering College , but you left DAE in 1961 for higher studies in nuclear engineering in the US . By the time you returned to Indian nuclear program , you had spent 15 years in the US nuclear program, 11 years in BHEL from where you were assisting the DAE’s indigenous nuclear program and the country’s nuclear submarine program , and 6 years with the CSIR’s as the Director for its Central Mechanical Engineering Research Institute . Chairmanship of AERB by a person of your professional background was a new experience for our nuclear establishment : You had found AEC wanting in several respect s, especially with regard to its safety systems and there were newspaper reports of your numerous confrontations with the nuclear bureaucracy. Would you like to dwell on this, the improvements brought in as a result of your interventions, and the present status of safety systems in DAE establishments?
Gopalakrishnan: It is true that I had to document a host of serious safety deficiencies in DAE’s nuclear plants & projects during the period I was Chairman of AERB and had to insist that corrective steps be initiated forthwith . DAE had all along resisted independent and objective action by the AERB, and that has resulted in a lax regulatory mechanism which allowed these deficiencies to accumulate , some having been known to them and documented by DAE Committees themselves over the previous ten or fifteen years!
The first reaction to my submitting the report on Safety Status of DAE Installations to the government was that the AEC decided that I need not be offered a second term of three years as Chairman , AERB , as were given to the previous two incumbents . But , my report and my public statements on the deficiencies , however , compelled the Parliament , the PMO and the DAE itself to sit up and take note of them properly . But , no action-taken report on these essential corrections was made available openly , but one hears that most of the deficiencies we pointed out have been rectified . Perhaps , someone should today enquire about the status of completion of these safety repairs , on the grounds of “Right to Information”, in the public interest!

Vijayachandran: India ‘s atom for peace program, entrusted with the AEC, is dominated by the so called civilian program, covering not only nuclear power but also exploration, extraction and beneficiation of atomic minerals, as well as industrial, agriculture and health sectors. It is engaged in basic research in several areas including life sciences and manages production units for a variety of complex electronic systems and equipment including industrial robots for handling hazardous materials. There are several specialist organisations and public sector companies under the DAE which are continuously evolving in order to meet the specific needs of the country. It may be characterized as a unique organisation dynamically evolving itself on a continuous basis: Even our space program (ISRO) was a spin off from India ‘s atoms for peace program. The national debate, so far, has not touched upon the possible impact of India ‘s civilian program in its totality: Would you like to comment on this as well as the efficacy of this unique complex organisation built by the country after national independence?
Gopalakrishnan: The nuclear deal may not directly affect any of the DAE civilian programs other than the power generation plants & their associated R&D. This is because the US and other countries have very little commercial interest in the other parts of the Indian civilian nuclear program . However , in course of time , the fall in morale which would occur among the indigenous reactor developers and manufacturers will begin to engulf the entire DAE personnel & projects as well . As for organizational culture , the DAE needs to be careful to ensure that the pervasive protection they get under the Official Secrets Act should not be mis-used to run an internal management system , which does not sustain the high organisational morale and ethical standards , established by stalwarts like Bhabha & Sarabhai. There are signs of erosion in these values . For example , the current DAE management did not have show the moral courage to resist the -US deal , and lately they are getting tempted to support it, in their own parochial self interests : Bhabha and Sarabhai must be turning in their graves !

Vijayachandran: You had several occasions to look at the Indian nuclear program in its totality, from different perspectives: It is a massive program in which the country has invested huge sums. Despite its numerous weaknesses, its achievements, so far, were creditable and its credibility pretty high in international circles. Its promises are substantive, considering the future relevance and importance of nuclear energy. How would you rate its success and what in your view need to be done to minimise the risks that are inevitable in a long term project like this, spanning quite a few decades?
Gopalakrishnan: Nuclear power has once again the potential to be a serious candidate for electricity generation , in today’s carbon-constrained world which is additionally burdened with ever increasing hydrocarbon prices . Commercial interest of Western nuclear companies will center around marketing their PWRs , associated enriched uranium fuel and reactor services to developing markets like China & India . The last thing these Western nations will encourage will be an India which could compete with them on the basis of our thorium-based breeder reactors , along with plentiful thorium reserves of ours . The strategy of India should be , to use our talent and resources and perfect the thorium fast breeders as early as possible , for our own energy addition and for possible exports in due course . We should also keep in mind that there are plenty of avenues for India–China co-operation in jointly developing and marketing nuclear and non-nuclear energy systems. Unfortunately , we are under Western control when it comes to dealing with China , and the current government is paying scant attention to such possibilities.

Vijayachandran: There were numerous complaints about our nuclear program with regard to its transparency and accountability. However, virtually all programs and projects of AEC are presented in the Indian Parliament and implemented with its approval. Periodic appraisal reports of Auditor General of India are placed before the Parliament . There had been no major controversies around AEC programs, so far. Nevertheless, public perceptions on India ‘s own nuclear program has been rather shallow, as revealed by the protracted nature of the debate, within and outside the Parliament. Would you like to comment on this, in the backdrop of parliamentary practices in USA?
Gopalakrishnan: Parliament members are, by and large, ignorant about all nuclear issues and they are unable to assess the quality and sufficiency of information and data provided by the government on such matters . They seldom apply any analytical thinking to the submissions from government . Over the years , DAE has also taken full refuge under the Official Secrets Act and has provided only scanty details to the Parliament , so that even experts outside the Parliament cannot use those inputs to keep themselves informed . Unlike in US, where every Congressman is assisted by his own set of aides, who are selected on their merit , and who provide analyses and criticism of governmental inputs , we have ill-informed MPs with no back-up help from any side office of their own . If democracy has to work well in this country , we need knowledgeable and dedicated MPs , who are then provided with full professional assistance —– but , this situation may remain a dream of the idealists for decades to come !