By: Our Correspondent

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."