Sethna - the man who dared to dream

Homi Nusserwanji Sethna, the former Chairman of the Atomic Energy Commission and an important figure in India's nuclear programme, passed away at his home in Mumbai on Sunday night. He was 86.

Homi Mehta, a long-time associate, told The Hindu Dr. Sethna was suffering from lung fibrosis. “For the past two years, he was on oxygen for 24 hours. Because of that he was on a wheelchair and could not go out. However, despite the debility, he worked from home.”

Dr. Sethna played a key role in the country's first peaceful nuclear explosion of May 18, 1974, called the Smiling Buddha, or Pokhran-I.

Virtually encapsulating his achievements and qualities, Dr. P.K. Iyengar, former Director Atomic Energy Commission (AEC), who worked with Dr. Sethna, said: “He was the one who dared to put Indian technology in nuclear science to this level. He was not afraid to do things for the first time. He believed in self-reliance and never asked for favours. He went ahead in areas in which information and technology were denied. He made plutonium in 1964 and he was not afraid of politicians. He never asked for obligation or favours. He was a great Indian technologist and worked all his life in India.”

Dr. Sethna, who was Chairman AEC from 1972 to 1983, had the second longest tenure, next to Homi Bhabha, and was a pioneer in several aspects of India's atomic energy programme. He made a critical contribution to nuclear materials development and production over the entire nuclear fuel cycle.

He was born on August 24, 1923 and did his B.Sc. (Tech) from the University Department of Chemical Technology, University of Bombay, in 1944 and did his M.S. in the University of Ann Arbor, Michigan. After working with Imperial Chemical Industries in the U.K., he returned to India in 1949, inspired by Dr. Bhabha's call for Indian scientists to return.

Dr. Bhabha hand-picked him in 1949 to head Indian Rare Earths at Aluva, Kerala, which would separate rare earths from monazite. This marked the beginning of the exploitation of nuclear material in India. In 1959 he joined the Atomic Energy Establishment at Trombay, now the Bhabha Atomic Research Centre (BARC), as Chief Scientific Officer. He later became Director of the Engineering Group with the responsibility for the designing and construction of the plutonium plant at Trombay and concurrently of the Uranium Mill at Jaduguda in Bihar. He was Director BARC from 1966 to 1972.

Dr. Sethna pioneered reprocessing technology in India and played a crucial role in the designing and setting up of the first plutonium separation plant at BARC. This plutonium went into the making of the nuclear device that was tested in on May 18, 1974 at Pokhran. India's first nuclear explosion, the Peaceful Nuclear Experiment, took place when Dr. Sethna was AEC Chairman.

He was project manager of the 40-MWe Research Reactor Canada India Research US (CIRUS) during its formative years in 1956-58. He was responsible for the development of mixed oxide (MOX) fuel as an alternative fuel for the enriched uranium fuel for the American-built reactors at Tarapur when the U.S. reneged on its commitment to supply enriched uranium for these reactors in the aftermath of India's PNE in 1974.

Dr. Sethna was opposed to the Indo-U.S. nuclear deal and said India would be better off signing the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, which permitted the exit of any signatory-nation, rather than the nuclear deal with the U.S. that would bind the country in perpetuity. Press reports said he felt that what Dr Manmohan Singh was about to sign was worse than joining the NPT regime.

M.R. Srinivasan, former Chairman AEC, told The Hindu: “When the nuclear debate began in our country, he was at an advanced stage of retirement, but he believed that India should move ahead, and at the same time not compromise its position He had a very broad sweep of the many facets of technology. While chemical technology was his forte, he encouraged aspects of basic Chemistry and newer facets of technology, for example laser technology. He had a strong interest in material areas, especially corrosion and high temperature materials. I recall, when he was the Chairman of the Board of Governors of IIT Bombay. He took a regular interest in issues related to quality of curriculum and encouraged research and development.”

Dr. Sethna imbibed some of Dr. Bhabha's aversion to bureaucracy and red tape and was deeply inspired by him. He maintained a hectic work schedule even when debilitated by illness. In “Musings of Dr. Sethna,” in a brief recorded meeting with Professor A.K. Grover of the Tata Institute of Fundamental Research (TIFR) in 2009, Dr. Sethna said his contact with the late Dr. Bhabha [in the TIFR] was more peripheral than anything else. “For instance, he would ask me, what I thought of Mr. A or Professor B or whatever it is and I had to tell him frankly, what it was.”

Dr. Sethna was on the Research Advisory Committee of the Planning Commission in 1998. He was conferred the Padma Vibhushan, the Padma Shri and the Padma Bhushan and won a number of other awards and honours, including the Shanti Swarup Bhatnagar Memorial Award in 1960 and the Sir Walter Puckey Prize by the Institution for Production Engineers. He was a member of the New York Academic of Sciences. From 1966 to 1981 he was member of the scientific advisory committee of the International Atomic Energy Agency. He was chairperson, Tata Electric Companies, and Director Tata Sons. He was a member of the Royal Swedish Academy of Engineering Sciences, the United Nations Scientific Advisory Committee and other organisations.

He was Sheriff of Mumbai in 1991. In September 2009, Dr. Sethna was involved in a spat with former President A.P.J. Abdul Kalam over the Pokhran test. Dr. Sethna had asked politicians to keep out of science and not interfere in scientific matters. In an interview in 2006 to, Dr. Sethna, lively as ever, had said they belonged to Dr. Bhabha's school of thought and Dr. Bhabha had taught them to be ageless.

Srikumar Banerjee, Chairperson, Atomic Energy Commission, recalled how Dr. Sethna displayed leadership qualities when the Canadians abandoned the construction of the second pressurised heavy water reactor (PHWR) at Rawatbhatta in Rajasthan in the wake of the PNE. “When the Canadians went away in 1974, we had to take up the development of the PHWR on our own. Under his leadership, a standardised model of the indigenous PHWR was evolved,” Dr. Banerjee said.

Anil Kakodkar, former Chairman AEC, described Dr Sethna as “a no-nonsense person” who gave “bold and courageous leadership to the DAE during several times of crisis.” When the Tarapur fuel supply from the U.S. was interrupted in 1974, there was an “angry” school of opinion that said India should press for its legal rights to get the enriched uranium from the U.S. “Sethna showed tremendous courage at that time, preparing the country for alternative fuel supply. The French stepped in and gave us enriched uranium. If that had not happened, Dr. Sethna was getting ready with his MOX programme to run the Tarapur reactors on MOX fuel. We got the supply from France and we also developed the MOX fuel.”

(With inputs from R. Ramachandran and Rahi Gaikwad)

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