Fast-breeder reactors: obstacles take new form

CHENNAI Aug. 10. A different kind of obstacle is being placed in India's path as it strives to construct its first fast-breeder reactors, according to nuclear scientists here.

This involved firms in a developed country first accepting orders to supply technologies and equipment from Indian nuclear and allied establishments, and later, after considerable delay, communicating that the firms were not in a position to supply due to objections from its Government.

"There are many ways of putting obstacles (to development of a technology). Asking for a quote and then going back was just one of them, to delay that process," said the Indira Gandhi Centre for Atomic Research Director, S.B. Bhoje.

"Earlier they (companies in the West) were not taking orders. Now they take order and after one year say that (their) Government is not giving permission. We have to again start at that stage. Our programme is delayed. Though no one can stop it, it can be delayed."

Dr. Bhoje said that the IGCAR followed the "normal procedures" in the purchase of the equipment that it needed from abroad. He told The Hindu that a U.S. company was under investigation for having sold testing equipment indirectly to the IGCAR.

According to a recent report in a U.S. newspaper, Star Tribune, a U.S. company, MTS Systems Corporation, was being investigated by the Federal Authorities on the suspicion that it illegally sold testing equipment for nuclear weapons research at the IGCAR. The equipment, Thermal Mechanical Fatigue Testing Systems, uses hydraulic pressure to test material strength.

The newspaper said, "the company regards itself as the world's leading provider of mechanical testing systems and simulation equipment."

"In February 2001, the (U.S.) Department of Commerce received an anonymous letter, alleging that the IGCAR, a national nuclear research lab in Kalpakkam, Tamil Nadu, India, and another entity on the (U.S.) Government's restricted list obtained an MTS testing equipment. The letter said MTS sold the machine to an Indian company called Technology Options that was mentioned in the previous letters. The letter also included a copy of the purchase order from India's Department of Atomic Energy to Technology Options for the purchase of an MTS testing system. In addition, it asserted that a nuclear scientist of IGCAR had already visited the MTS plant in Minnesota," the newspaper said.

Responding, Dr. Bhoje said that there was a great deal of misunderstanding on the nature of work at the IGCAR and this possibly was responsible for part of the problem, he said.

"Many people say that the IGCAR is producing nuclear weapons. But the fact is that the IGCAR is not producing any nuclear weapons. We are doing research and design of a Fast Breeder Reactor. We are still under (U.S.) sanctions because we handle plutonium," he said.

He said that the work at the IGCAR could not be halted merely because there were some sanctions. "We were procuring (equipment and material) even during the period of sanctions. These come through agents and intermediaries. When we float the tender, whoever quotes, we place the order on them and then get it. Somebody says he cannot supply and someone else says that he can supply, I will place the order on him and he will give it here," he said.

There was no foul play here because the tenders were open documents. "Our tenders are open because they are part of the Government set-up. Some body quotes it. He brings it from somewhere. We take it. Whether he is in Singapore or here does not matter as long as it meets our requirements we buy it. We are very clear," he said.

On the visit of an IGCAR scientist to Minnesota, he said that this was always part of any purchase order.

"When you place an order for, say, Rs.50 lakhs, you have to go and inspect it. I cannot take a risk on an equipment of that nature," he added.