India and talks on the nuclear issue

R. Ramachandran

ACCORDING TO news reports following the recent round of discussions in New Delhi between India and the United States around the Indo-U.S. nuclear agreement of July 18, 2005, progress seems to have hit a roadblock because the Indian position that the fast breeder programme cannot be placed under safeguards of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) was not acceptable to the U.S. (see `Safeguards for breeder reactors a key obstacle' and `IAEA inspections will compromise breeder research' Siddharth Varadarajan, The Hindu , Jan. 21).

The argument of the Indian Department of Atomic Energy (DAE) has been that since the breeder programme - the 40MWth Fast Breeder Test Reactor (FBTR) at Kalpakkam and the 500 MWe upcoming Prototype Fast Breeder Reactor (PFBR) - is still in the R&D phase, there is no need to bring it under safeguards. "When the technology becomes mature it is a different story," Atomic Energy Commission (AEC) chairman Anil Kakodkar had said in an interview (see T. S. Subramaniam, The Hindu , Aug. 12, 2005).

However, this argument - which India seems to have continued to maintain even during last week's negotiations - has failed to impress Nicholas Burns, the U.S. Under-secretary of State for Political Affairs, who led the U.S. delegation. The issue is whether the programme is civilian or military and not whether it is R&D or established technology. Also, the 245 facilities that the U.S., as a nuclear weapons state, has offered for safeguards include many R&D facilities. It is another matter that the IAEA has decided to implement inspections only for four U.S. facilities, one of which (BWX Technologies Facility) may well be an R&D facility.

What India should be arguing is that by not putting the breeder programme in its present phase under safeguards, it is actually serving the non-proliferation objectives of the U.S. How is that?

India has an estimated total inventory of unsafeguarded plutonium stockpile of about 10 tonnes by reprocessing of the spent fuel from the unsafeguarded pressurised heavy water reactors (PHWRs). The PFBR fuel is a mixed oxide of this plutonium and depleted uranium again from the PHWRs. The first loading of PFBR will consume about 3-4 tonnes of this unsafeguarded plutonium. According to DAE scientists, for exigencies an equal amount of plutonium needs to be kept in the pipeline. This means that eight tonnes of the estimated stockpile of 10 tonnes would be earmarked for burning in the fast breeder reactor during its R&D phase.

However, if the PFBR is brought under safeguards, this un-safeguarded plutonium is released for weapon purposes because now India can shop around for plutonium. Plutonium from the dismantled weapons of the U. S. and Russia is now available in plenty. Indeed, now Russia is exporting such plutonium to Japan for burning in its breeder programme and also for use in mixed oxide (MOX) fuel development. In fact, India should consider offering PFBR for safeguards under an assurance of supply of plutonium under safeguards for the breeder programme with the caveat that safeguards on the breeder programme would be terminated if and when such supply gets terminated for whatever reason.

It is not clear why the U.S. non-proliferation lobby is missing this argument and is bent on bringing the breeder programme too under safeguards. And assuming an average of about even 10 kg of reactor-grade plutonium per weapon, eight tonnes of unsafeguarded plutonium is a huge amount.

It is tempting to recall what Georges Vendryes, the father of the French fast breeder programme, said in response to the U.S. opposition to the development of the breeder cycle. "I do not understand these Americans. I cannot understand their opposition. In a breeder we are actually burning plutonium and that is good news for non-proliferation."

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