India's tough stand on the Iran nuclear issue makes one thing clear: The country's nuclear status is such that, though foreign assistance may be desirable, it is certainly not indispensable. India has attained self-sufficiency, as the statements by experts indicate.

M. Ramesh

A NOTEWORTHY aspect of India's approach in the ongoing nuclear talks with the US is that it has shown no signs of desperation. As expected, perhaps. There have been at least two indications that India is prepared to dig its heels in.

First, it refused to put the fast breeder test reactor and the upcoming prototype fast breeder reactor under international safeguards, in keeping with its stand that putting under safeguards any nuclear facility that has no foreign inputs is tantamount to accepting the nuclear non-proliferation treaty, which is discriminatory.

Second, it reacted with indignation when the US Ambassador said that if India does not vote against Iran at IAEA, the July 18 understanding between the two countries could be soured. (The `July 18 initiative' was essentially a step towards India getting uranium from the US and other nuclear suppliers.)

These two instances could be interpreted as mere `posturing' at the negotiation table, but there is really no reason to believe that India would need to budge from its stand.

Today, India's nuclear status is such that, though foreign assistance (technology and fuel) may be desirable, it is certainly not indispensable. The country has attained self-sufficiency, as the statements by experts indicate.

For example, in an `information capsule', Dr A. N. Prasad, former Director, Bhabha Atomic Research Centre, says: "The present assessed reserves of commercially exploitable grade uranium ore in India can, at best, support a nuclear power generation of 10,000 MW, if natural uranium is used in thermal reactors on an once-through basis.

However, if the plutonium produced in the uranium fuel is recovered and recycled as fresh fuel in fast breeder reactors, the electricity generation could be increased to about 350,000 MW."

In an interview to this correspondent in 2004, Dr Anil Kakodkar, Chairman, Atomic Energy Commission, had said: "A few 100,000 MW is no big deal" for India in the long term, though the country may not see huge capacity additions in the next 10-20 years. It is important to note that these numbers are based on the existing reserves of uranium (78,000 tonnes, enough to support 12,000 MW for half a century), not taking into account the plutonium produced by the uranium-based plants or the `thorium cycle' that India is working on.

Uranium reserves could increase in fact, at a recent press conference in Chennai, Mr S. K. Jain, Chairman and Managing Director, Nuclear Power Corporation of India Ltd (NPCIL), said he was "confident" that more reserves of the mineral would be found.

Mr Jain must have had at the back of his mind the recent discoveries of the mineral in Domiasiat, Wahkyn and Tyrnai regions of Meghalaya. Uranium Corporation of India Ltd says that it is "on the verge of opening new deposits" at Domiasiat, Lambapur-Peddagattu in Andhra Pradesh and Bagjata and Banduburang in Jharkhand.

The uranium put into `pressurised heavy water reactors' (PHWR) a technology India has mastered can produce a huge inventory of plutonium, which can be used in fast-breeder reactors. These breeder reactors need just a third of uranium that the PHWRs do, so it is possible to conserve uranium for many decades.

Work on the thorium cycle has begun in right earnest and, given India's learn-it-yourself track record, the R&D work would most likely lead to commercial operations. Bhabha Atomic Research Centre's proposal to start building the 300 MW experimental Advanced Heavy Water Reactor is awaiting approval from the Atomic Energy Regulatory Board.

India has the world's highest thorium reserves 360,000 tonnes which can fuel nuclear projects for 2,500 years.

So, why does India need the help of US, or any other country for its nuclear programme? One answer is, the fast breeder reactors are costlier to build. Therefore, if somebody is willing to give uranium, why not use it to build the cheaper PHWRs?

Second, if India's nuclear programme gains full international acceptance, the country could participate in project opportunities in other countries. This was hinted at by Mr Jain at the recent press conference in Chennai.

Neither of these implies a desperate need for international uranium. True, fast breeder reactors are costlier, but it is possible to exercise control over costs, at least to some extent, by measures such as standardisation and capacity scale-up.

The US government knows this only too well. Therefore, it is not likely to push India too hard. Against this backdrop, it should be interested in watching India's behaviour at future negotiations.

If India flinches, it means there are deeper strategic issues behind the nuclear talks energy security is certainly not the only issue.

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(This article was published in the Business Line print edition dated February 2, 2006)
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