The Atomic Genie in India’s Bottle

While the world has been preoccupied with the possibility that Iran is preparing to produce weapons-grade atomic materials, India is probably going to get there first, if it can get its act together, and nobody seems particularly concerned about it.

The 500 MWe prototype fast-breeder reactor that is being constructed at a facility in Kalpakkam, near Chennai is scheduled to come onstream in two years, producing weapons-grade plutonium. In a 2006 interview with the Indian Express, Anil Kakodkar, the chairman of India’s Atomic Energy Commission and the secretary of the Department of Atomic Energy, made no secret of plans for the fast-breeder program. It was confirmed in December 2007 by two scientists, Alexander Glaser, with the Program on Science and Global Security at Princeton University of USA and M V Ramana of the Bangalore-based Center for Interdisciplinary Studies of Environment and Development, India, in a paper published in Science and Global Security.

Surprisingly, however, the leftist Indian parties including the Communist Party of India (Marxist) and the separate Communist Party of India from which it split, outspoken against the manufacture and purchase of nuclear arms and warheads and frequently criticizing US imperialists for their belligerent foreign policy, have maintained a silence on the issue, as does the US government, which is obviously aware of the construction. Civil rights organizations seem blissfully unaware of the Indian government's nuclear blackmail.

Calculations by Glaser and Ramana reveal that "up to 140 kilograms of weapon-grade plutonium could be produced with this facility. India's large stockpile of separated reactor-grade plutonium from its un-safeguarded spent heavy-water reactor fuel could serve as makeup fuel to allow such diversion of the weapon-grade plutonium from the blankets of the fast breeder reactor."

The plant apart, a reprocessing plant and two heavy-water reactors already in operation at the facility in Kalpakkam – as well as stockpiles of separated plutonium or spent fuel from India’s heavy water reactors – are storing an estimated 500 kg, enough for 100 nuclear weapons.

The reactor is scheduled to operate on mixed-oxide fuel of plutonium and uranium. When it becomes operational, it is expected to generate about 140 kg of plutonium a year, according to Glaser and Ramana.

"If the reactor is operated in a military mode, and blanket material is diverted for weapon-purposes, then about 240–250 kg of reactor-grade plutonium from irradiated pressurized-heavy-water-reactor-type (PHWR) spent fuel would be required as makeup breeder fuel for every 100 kg of weapon-grade plutonium diverted,” Glaser and Ramana wrote. “India could easily meet this demand for plutonium from either its existing stock of unsafeguarded PHWR spent fuel or from ongoing spent fuel discharges from its unsafeguarded PHWR reactors."

However, the outcome of the Kalpakkam venture is as yet unsure, as India's research claims on atomic energy are more on paper than actual results. The atomic energy department began its fast-breeder program two decades ago as part of a three-stage nuclear effort. After several time and cost over-runs, the reactor was built at long last in October 2004, but proper commissioning is still a mirage.

However, the lagged performance is a blessing in disguise to genuine peace-lovers in the Indian subcontinent. India outlined its three-stage nuclear program as long ago as the 1950s and it still struggling with it. The Indian atomic establishment mandarins refuse to draw lessons from global experience in fast breeder technologies. Saifur Rahman, head of the Advanced Research Centre of Virginia Tech told reporters that no fast breeder reactor "is in commercial operation today anywhere in the world and the US policy too is not to pursue this. This is very complex technology and the prospect for nuclear proliferation is high. France had developed a prototype, the Pheonix project, but now it is dormant.”

Where this will end up to is uncertain. Sujay Basu, formerly director, School of Energy Studies at Jadavpur University, Kolkata, in eastern India, is bitterly opposed to nuclear power generation, especially fast breeder reactors. "Almost every fast-breeder reactor the world over met with at least one accident,” he said. “The Kalpakkam venture is no exception. The radioactive fallout is almost certain and nobody knows its probable spread"

Glaser and Ramana, opposed to the weapons orientation of the facility, advocate a more farsighted option for these reactors under safeguards" to prevent an accelerated arms race in the region, which appears almost inevitable."