WE INTERVIEW A LEADER OF INDIA'S NUCLEAR PROGRAM

In this month's issue, Senior Editor Harry Goldstein presents an interview he conducted in Mumbai recently with Sudhinder Thakur, executive director of corporate planning for the Nuclear Power Corp. of India Ltd. (NPCIL), a government enterprise charged with building and running the country's nuclear power plants. Their conversation covered topics from last year's agreement between the United States and India on nuclear power to the potential of the latter's own variety of nuclear technology based on thorium. Here are some highlights.

Thakur said India's total nuclear-generating capacity currently produces nearly 4000 megawatts (MW) of power, with over 3000 MW of capacity presently under construction. Asked by Goldstein about India's own fast-breeder reactor program, Thakur said that the country's first such commercial reactor, rated at 500 MW, is being built now and that they anticipate the unit, in Chennai, will become operational in 2011. "This is the first of its kind," he noted.

Goldstein asked Thakur about the agreement India and the U.S. signed in March 2006 to cooperate on light-water reactors and a stable supply of uranium and where that helps India in its commercial power generation ambitions. He received a complex reply from his subject. Thakur said:

"We have a very limited amount of uranium but plenty of thorium, so we have developed a three-stage program to exploit it. In the first stage, we load pressurized heavy-water reactors with natural uranium, which consists of 99.3 percent uranium 238 and 0.7 percent uranium 235. That 0.7 percent produces most of the power. Some of the uranium 238 does, however, get converted to plutonium, and when the spent fuel comes out, we can separate the plutonium out.

"In the second stage, we load the right mix of plutonium and uranium 238 into fast breeder reactors, which produce energy and more plutonium. Later on, we put a blanket of thorium around the reactor, and some of it converts to uranium 233, which we extract. In the third stage, we use the uranium 233 as fuel.

"We have enough thorium in the country to meet requirements for thousands of years, much more than our supplies of coal or other sources of fuel. So, this three-stage program has great potential, but the technologies needed for the final stage will take decades to fully develop."

As to the nature of the somewhat controversial nuclear negotiations between India and the U.S., Thakur told Goldstein: "We agreed to separate our civilian from our military programs, which will be subjected to the same inspections that other countries are subjected to."

"It is not right to say that first we will separate our activities and then we will sign an agreement," Thakur added. "All these things are happening simultaneously. We will negotiate what is known as the 1-2-3 agreement with the United States—which will mark the conditions for the availability of the technology from the U.S. and nuclear supplies, too—and we will negotiate further international agreements with the Nuclear Suppliers Group [a group of nuclear supplier countries that seeks to contribute to the nonproliferation of nuclear weapons] and the IAEA."

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