Interview with Anil Kakodkar, who recently retired as Chairman of the Atomic Energy C

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    RAM The southern Man Senior Member

    Jul 15, 2009
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    Interview with Anil Kakodkar, who recently retired as Chairman of the Atomic Energy Commission

    An inside view of the research reactor Dhruva at BARC at Trombay. “Dhruva is unique even conceptually. It is completely Indian

    , Chairman, Atomic Energy Commission, and Secretary, Department of Atomic Energy, retired on November 30 after a marathon 45-year career in the DAE. His tenure included nine years as Chairman of the AEC and Secretary of the DAE. He was earlier the Director of the Bhabha Atomic Research Centre (BARC) at Trombay near Mumbai. During his professional career, Kakodkar was primarily involved in the research and development of nuclear reactors. He made pioneering contributions to the development of many critical systems for the indigenous Pressurised Heavy Water Reactors (PHWRs), both the 220 megawatt electrical capacity and 540 MWe capacity reactors. These systems helped India establish its self-reliance capability in nuclear power reactors. He was among the chosen few involved in India’s first nuclear test in May 1974 at Pokhran, Rajasthan. He played an important role in the five nuclear tests conducted in May 1998, again at Pokhran.

    He is one of the architects of the Dhruva reactor at Trombay. This reactor is based on a completely original concept and is one of the most powerful reactor systems of its type. Kakodkar’s engineering capability came to the fore again when he helped in the rehabilitation of both the power reactors at the Madras Atomic Power Station at Kalpakkam, Tamil Nadu, when they were on the verge of being written off. He made significant contributions to the designing of the futuristic 300 MWe Advanced Heavy Water Reactor (AHWR), which will use thorium as fuel. He drove a hard bargain with the United States before India signed the 123 Agreement, and he was able to convince the Nuclear Suppliers Group to relax its guidelines, which enabled India to enter the nuclear mainstream. Frontline met him at his office in Mumbai on November 23. Excerpts from the interview:

    Tomorrow, the fifth reactor at Rawatbhatta in Rajasthan is reaching first criticality. You are going there.

    This reactor was ready for some time and waiting for fuel. It forms part of the Separation Plan, and accordingly, we have fuelled this reactor with imported fuel. So it is ready to start. Capacity addition is always a good thing. This fuel is from Russia.You have had a distinguished 45-year career in the DAE, capping it with your retirement as Chairman of the AEC and Secretary of the DAE. What was its most satisfying part? Was it getting India out of nuclear isolation by convincing the Nuclear Suppliers Group to waive its guidelines, or India signing the 123 Agreement with the U.S., or India building its own 540 MWe PHWRs at Tarapur, or BARC building the Pressurised Water Reactor (PWR) for the nuclear-powered submarine Arihant?
    There are many important milestones that I was fortunate enough to see. 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.

    But what was the most challenging assignment of your career?

    Luckily for me, I have been able to engage myself in new things, every time something different from what I had done earlier. So everything was a new challenge. Everything new has more excitement compared to something which has gone by.

    Can you give some examples?

    For example, the Dhruva reactor is unique even conceptually. It is completely Indian. Even today, Dhruva is the only reactor of its kind. We began it as a concept and engineered it all the way through. In PHWRs, I had a lot of opportunity to develop 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 nuclear tests – were challenging. The PHWRs, the opening of civil nuclear cooperation… they are all unique in themselves, each one is different, each one full of excitement. As I said, it is always the new challenge which has more excitement than the old one. So for me, what is important is that I got the opportunity to do new things every time.

    Do you feel sad that the thorium-fuelled AHWR project did not take off during your tenure? You told me in 2004 that the ground-breaking ceremony for the AHWR would take place by the end of 2004. It is yet to take place. Has the AHWR become a non-starter?
    It is not a non-starter. I would have liked to see the AHWR construction start before I laid down office. Nevertheless, the AHWR will continue to remain an important development both from the Indian and the global perspective. [The construction of] the AHWR will be an important development whenever it takes place, and it will take place. There is no doubt about it at all. It is just that for a new development, you have to ensure that everything that should be taken care of has been taken care of and in the process, you lose time. I have no great excitement about when it takes place – during my time or others’ time. But that it will happen one day is an important thing.

    Can you give me an assessment of what you have been able to achieve both as the Director of BARC and as the Chairman of the AEC?

    I listed them just now. The important thing for me is that we have been able to take bold decisions, which are right for making rapid technological progress. There is the satisfaction, when you look back, that these bold decisions were timely. It is these things that allow you to move faster and even leapfrog.

    What were those bold decisions?

    To begin with, we decided to adopt electron beam welding for the Dhruva reactor. An electron beam welding machine for such a large construction was unthinkable in those days. Even now, not many have adopted it for 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 Pressurised Water Reactor. 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 and I am very happy about it.

    You had your doubts about the 123 Agreement with the U.S. You opposed the U.S. demand that India put its breeder reactors under safeguards. Later, you became a supporter of the agreement. Why did you change tack?

    The fact is that the energy requirements of our country are very large. As I had mentioned several times at BARC, even with the contributions you can get from different kinds of energy sources in the most liberal fashion, you will find that there will be an energy deficit in terms of availability. The only way now 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 that energy 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.

    The Prime Minister was in the U.S. on November 23. What exactly is the sticking point with the U.S. on our reprocessing the spent fuel from the reactors to be imported from that country? You told a delegation of the U. S.-India Business Council in January 2009 that there would be no reactor purchases from the U.S. without reprocessing rights. Has the U.S. gone back on allowing India the right to reprocess the spent fuel from the reactors that will be imported from that country?

    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” [to do that]. 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.

    You have told me that “If I want, I can reprocess the spent fuel from [the existing American reactors at] Tarapur tomorrow”. Will you do that?

    We will do the reprocessing in accordance with our priorities. Reprocessing the spent fuel from Tarapur is not the most important priority at this moment. But what I stated was the legal position.

    The Union Cabinet has approved the Nuclear Liability Bill, which, it is said, will protect American companies from demands for compensation if there are any accidents involving 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 India-U.S. nuclear deal. We have gone through a lot of studies. We had appointed external groups to look at the necessity or otherwise of developing civil nuclear liability legislation and what form it should take.

    Now the issue is the following. In case of an unfortunate accident – which is very unlikely but supposing it takes place – then we will have to be able to compensate for the damage caused. Currently, all the reactors belong to either 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 that becomes necessary is very large, then we should be able to mobilise the required funding. It is a kind of insurance. For that, there are four different international instruments for mobilising the compensation. So this group 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 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.

    India has to give an “Assurance 810 letter” to the U.S. that commits it (India) to the non-transfer of U.S. nuclear technologies to third countries. Without this letter, the U.S. Department of Energy may not give licences to American companies to sell reactors to India. Why should we give such a letter?
    Whatever we do, we will do within the framework of the bilateral agreement, which provides for assurances on the peaceful uses of nuclear energy or non-diversion [of nuclear material]. It is consistent with whatever we have agreed. After all, we are talking of civil nuclear cooperation, is it not?

    Now that locating the DAE’s India-based Neutrino Observatory (INO) at Singara in the Nilgiris district in Tamil Nadu has been ruled out, where will it go from here?

    This is a setback, I must admit. We will propose this problem to the INO group to think about what to do. One important thing is the urgency. It was planned to be a very important experiment. But it will not remain important if time is lost because the world of science would have moved on. So the INO group is looking at what to do.

    How will you ensure the strategic component of India’s nuclear programme 15 years down the line? You had stressed earlier that you would not allow the 123 Agreement to compromise India’s strategic programme.
    First of all, in our agreements with different countries, we have built in enough protection. There is a legal part of it. In technical terms, we are looking at it as a multiplier of the three-stage programme, even on the imported part. This, in turn, will mean that you cannot build the multiplier if you have not mastered the fast breeder reactor technology or the thorium technology. That thrust has to be continuous. Our ambition is not just to expand our nuclear power generation capacity through imports, which is a short-term requirement. The long-term requirement is to make India energy independent. That can happen only through the full development of our three-stage programme. That action remains undiluted because it is necessary for multiplying both the domestic and the imported programme. So our strategic independence is guaranteed.

    During your tenure as AEC Chairman, there were landmarks such as the 50th year of the DAE, the 50th year of BARC and Homi Bhabha’s birth centenary. Which was closest to your heart? Did you use them adequately to project the DAE’s achievements?
    They are all important. I used them more for introspection, to send out messages internally in terms of understanding our own legacy, for recommitting ourselves to the goals of the DAE, to look at strategies where we can do better than what we have been doing in the past. All these events have helped us to consolidate our position and develop greater clarity in our strategy. That is how I look at these things.

    What was the most frustrating part of your career? Was it when you could not exploit the natural uranium in Meghalaya because of opposition?

    I am still optimistic that we will exploit all the uranium deposits in the country, including in Meghalaya, for nuclear energy production. But obviously, it is a difficult exercise – taking people along, which we will do because after all everything is in the country’s interest. As long as everybody understands that, I am sure they will cooperate. I have no doubt about that. There are delays, of course. I would have been happier if it [mining of natural uranium in Meghalaya] had happened earlier. But I remain optimistic.

    Would you like to say something about the recent controversy over the yield of the thermonuclear device that was tested in 1998?
    That controversy was unnecessary. We said earlier and we are saying now, after this controversy erupted, and we have given a lot of information in the public domain [that we got the yield we wanted from the thermonuclear device]. Since you have asked me this question, let me again state that the yield of the tests done at Pokhran in 1998 have been verified by independent methods. These independent methods have been used by diverse groups, and we get the same answer, confirming that the desired yield [of the thermonuclear device] was achieved. So, there is no issue whatsoever.

    What lies ahead for the DAE?

    We have to concentrate on our continuous search for technological advancement. That should remain the key to our progress. Now I look forward to such technological achievements on the basis of Indian basic research. Through strong linkages between Indian basic research and Indian technology, we will be able to make India much stronger.

    You are a workaholic. You work 18 hours a day. So what is your next assignment?

    No problem. I can also sleep 18 hours a day!

    You have survived on two to four hours of sleep a day.

    I can survive on two hours of work! (Laughter)

    You said in Kolkata recently that if the people of Haripur in West Bengal were opposed to setting up a nuclear power project there, then “we will not go there....” No.
    The question [that was posed to me] was that the people were opposed to the project. What I said was: “As a first step, we have to take the people into confidence. We have to tell the people that nuclear reactors will bring benefits and not create any harm. I hope I will be successful in doing so. But we do not want to do anything against the wishes of the people.”

    Many a milestone

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