Anil Kakodkar , Chairman, Atomic Energy Commission (AEC) and Secretary, Department of Atomic Energy (DAE), is retiring on November 30 after a 45-year career in the DAE. In this context, he spoke to The Hindu in his office in Mumbai on November 23. Excerpts:
You have had a distinguished career in the DAE. What was the most satisfying part — getting India out of nuclear isolation by convincing the Nuclear Suppliers Group to waive its guidelines, signing the 123 nuclear agreement with the U.S., building its 540 MWe Pressurised Heavy Water Reactors (PHWR) at Tarapur or BARC building the Pressurised Water Reactor (PWR) for the nuclear-powered submarine, Arihant?
I was fortunate enough to see through many important milestones. But the important thing for me is that we are a homogeneous lot today — the entire DAE. There is a high degree of coherence in our strategy to implement our programmes and it looks to me that a thousand minds working in coherence will be formidable. That is the biggest satisfaction for me.
What was the most challenging assignment of your career?
Luckily for me, I have been able to engage myself in new things. So, everything was a challenge. Everything new has more excitement compared to something which has gone by.
Can you give examples?
For example, the Dhruva reactor is unique even conceptually. It is completely Indian. We began it as a concept and engineered it all the way through. In PHWRs, I had a lot of opportunity in developing different components and various systems. But decidedly, the 540 MWe reactors at Tarapur going critical was a very important moment. The beginning of the construction of the Prototype Fast Breeder Reactor (PFBR) at Kalpakkam was also important — it is not an event completed yet — but one had to go through an assessment of where we were and the capability to do things.
Of course, building the submarine reactor was an excitement in itself. The nuclear tests — I was involved in both the 1974 and 1998 tests — were challenging. The PHWRs, the opening of civil nuclear cooperation … they are all unique in themselves, each one different, each one full of excitement.
It is always the new challenge which has more excitement that the old one.
Can you give me an assessment of what you have been able to achieve as Director, BARC, and Chairman, AEC?
… The important thing for me is that we have been able to take bold decisions which are right for making rapid technological process. There is the satisfaction, when you look back, that these bold decisions were timely.
What were the bold decisions?
To begin with, we decided to adopt electron beam welding for Dhruva. Electron beam welding machine for such a large construction was unthinkable in those days. Even now, not many have adopted it in such large constructions. We did it and that was how we were able to make that unique design.
There were several bold decisions we took in the context of the submarine reactor — the PWR. I cannot give you the details. We took technologically bold decisions in the repair of the two units at the Madras Atomic Power Station. Conventional wisdom would have led to writing these reactors off. There are many examples like these. But the important thing is that we could pick up enough courage and confidence to take these bold decisions.
You had your doubts about the 123 agreement with the U.S. You opposed the U.S. demand that India should put its breeder reactors under safeguards. Later, you became a supporter of the agreement. When did you change track?
The fact is that the energy requirements of our country are very large. As I had mentioned several times at BARC, even with the contribution of different energy sources in the most liberal fashion, you will find that there will be energy deficit in terms of availability. The only way to meet this deficit is to import energy.
It is clear that when you import energy in the form of fossil fuels, you will have to keep importing it for all time to come. On the other hand, if you import that energy in the form of uranium, you can recycle the uranium used in the reactor because it contains a lot of energy value. In fact, you get more and more energy out of the same fuel. So it becomes an extremely valuable additionality to our indigenous programme because we have a significant multiplier of energy production on the basis of our three-stage programme. We have only a limited quantity of uranium and we can set up only 10,000 MWe of PHWRs using this uranium. But when you recycle this uranium and adopt the three-stage strategy, you can go up to 200,000 MWe. Likewise, whatever uranium we import, we can bring in a similar multiplier on that uranium also if we have gone through the development of the three-stage strategy.
So the opening of the civil nuclear cooperation not only brings in that additionality but because of the domestic development of the three-stage programme, we will be able to bring in a multiplier on the imported uranium and bridge the shortage for the future. This is what I call the move towards energy independence. For us to be able to do that, the domestic programme must continue, the way it was planned earlier. There should be no constraints on its implementation.
If there were to be constraints on that, I would have opposed the whole thing. But we have been able to negotiate well and people are also convinced [about it]. So we are in a position to go ahead with the civil nuclear cooperation without hindrance to our domestic programme, and bring in both additionality and energy independence in the long-term. So it was not either my being opposed to or supportive of… It is a pragmatic move forward which benefits the country.
What exactly is the sticking point with the U.S. on our reprocessing the spent fuel from the reactors to be imported from America because the 123 agreement gives us the upfront reprocessing right? You told a delegation of the U.S.-India Business Council last January that there would be no reactor purchases from the U.S. without reprocessing rights. Has the U.S. gone back on our right to reprocess the spent fuel from its reactors?
No. The 123 Agreement gives us the upfront reprocessing consent rights. It is a done thing. What the 123 also says is that we have to negotiate and agree on “arrangements and procedures”. What we are discussing now are the details of the “arrangements and procedures.” This work is in progress. We have had a number of rounds of discussions and we are making progress on that with the U.S. As far as other countries are concerned, there is no issue on that.
The Union Cabinet has approved the Nuclear Liabilities Bill which, it is said, will protect the American companies from demands for compensation if there were to be accidents in the American reactors to be built in India. Why should we do that?
No. It is not a question of protecting the American companies or any such thing. Our effort to develop the domestic nuclear liability legislation, in fact, predates the start of the discussion on the Indo-U.S. nuclear deal. We have gone through a lot of studies. We appointed external groups to look at the necessity or otherwise of developing civil nuclear liability legislation and what form it should take.
In case of an unfortunate accident — which is very unlikely — we will have to compensate for the damage caused. Currently, all reactors belong to the government or the Nuclear Power Corporation of India Limited, which is a government company. So it is a 100 per cent government activity.
If the scale of compensation is very large, we should be able to mobilise the required funding. It is a kind of insurance. There are four international instruments for mobilising the compensation. So the groups looked at the merits and demerits of joining one of them, and came to the conclusion that India’s best choice would be to be part of the Convention on Supplementary Compensation (CSC) because this allows, beyond the threshold, tapping international funding for compensation.
Now the CSC requires a domestic legislation which is consistent with the provisions of the CSC. That is where our action to develop the domestic legislation began. As India expands its nuclear programme with several business partners being a part of such a programme, it is important that we have a proper nuclear liability regime and this is at the core of the development of such legislation.
“The nuclear tests, the PHWRs, the opening of civil nuclear cooperation … they were all unique, each one different and full of excitement.”
Keywords: Anil Kakodkar, Atomic Energy Commission, Department of Atomic Energy, interview, civil nuclear liability, nuclear cooperation, nuclear liabilities bill, Pressurised Heavy Water Reactors, Pressurised Water Reactor