Friday, September 01, 2006

Termites and Telescopes

The Indian nuclear establishment, which has already consumed a vast proportion of the country's R&D resources, now promises us infinite power in some indefinite future

(This article appeared in
Hindustan Times August 23, 2006)

A quarter century ago, I came across a video of a lecture by the physicist Philip Morrison titled ‘Termites and Telescopes’. So fascinating was the theme that I heard and reheard it several times. I don’t recall much now, but it had to do with Morrison’s fascination with termites and their unique work habits. But one strand has remained stuck in my mind — Morrison’s statement that given infinite time, termites could construct telescopes. Unbidden has come the thought that this sounds a lot like what our nuclear scientists, especially of the retired variety, seem to be saying today: Leave us alone, give us all the resources we want and we will deliver you limitless nuclear power, but in some indefinite future.

A lot has been said about India’s deified nuclear scientists, their valiant fight against the big, bad non-proliferationists of the West and so on. But little has been written about their not-so-great record. After consuming a disproportionate percentage of the country’s science and technology budgets in the last 50 years, our nuclear power capacity in 2006 stands at around 3,500 MW, less than that of the largely privately-funded wind energy systems. Most of this comes from pygmy nuclear reactors whose average size is 220 MW, where the world average, since the past decade, has been at around 1,000 MW. Our great scientists have given us nuclear bombs, but think — this is technology of 1945 vintage (the Fifties vintage thermonuclear bomb apparently did not work too well). As much has been achieved by South Africa and, more recently, North Korea, not to mention Pakistan.

The excuses for this are familiar enough — government didn’t invest enough, the embargoes crippled the programme and so on. But real merit would have been in scoring despite the challenges. Perhaps the greater failure of our Department of Atomic Energy (DAE) was not that it failed to match Pakistan or North Korea, but that it did not meet its self-assigned goal— to provide 10,000 MW of nuclear power to the country by 2000.

A similar embargo was placed on the Indian Space Research Organisation (Isro). Yet, it has, despite slippages, achieved a great deal. Indian multi-purpose satellites are the envy of the world and the launch vehicles, while not quite cutting edge, are impressive and more than meet India’s requirements at this stage of our space requirements. The Isro leap from the sounding rockets and SLV-3 to the PSLV and GSLV has been orders of magnitude greater than what the nuclear community has achieved with reactors.

A major reason for this was the brutal infighting that hit the DAE in the Eighties. One set of scientists were livid with the other for wanting to import of French light water reactors and sabotaging the sacred indigenous 3-stage programme. Others felt that the nuclear weapons were our priority and not nuclear power, leading to our being left behind in both fronts. The uniting characteristic of both sides was a self-defeating arrogance. Every report of Pakistani advances was dismissed with a contemptuous shrug and the comment, “A country that can’t make a bicycle can’t make a nuclear bomb.”

Today these very scientists have overcome their distaste for each other to come together for the unique cause of maintaining what trade unions term ‘closed shop’— an institution open only to members of a union. This closed shop’s aims are motivated not merely by a trade unionist mentality, but a desire not to let the world know just how much was not achieved by them in the Eighties and Nineties. And once again, this is being done through boasts that India has world-class technology that needs to be protected from the big bad wolves of the West. These scientists’ more pernicious demand is that of a veto over the government’s moves to strike a deal with the US to end India’s isolation from the world’s nuclear technology. This demand seems to be based on a kind of assumption that only a priestly class of nuclear scientists can understand the technical issues related to nuclear power, and hence they must have the final say. By the same measure, we may soon have retired army officers demanding a veto on any decision to pull out from Siachen, or the navy on whether there should be an agreement on Sir Creek because it has implications for our maritime borders with Pakistan.

Since the Eighties, a peculiar spirit, call it ‘Brahmanical’ if you wish, began to overtake India’s nuclear and missile programmes. Its defining character was the assertion, false when examined closely, that whatever had been achieved in nuclear and missile programmes was ‘indigenous’ and therefore ‘pure’, and imports were impure and bad. In this foolish mood, the country didn’t get missiles from the erstwhile Soviet Union. Its reliance on indigenous efforts has led to a situation where we are forced to parade dummy Agni missiles on Republic Day. From here, it is a little leap towards asserting that ending India’s nuclear isolation is tantamount to violating the purity of the Indian programmes.

All you need to do is to cast your memory a little bit back and you will find that all major achievements of today have had their roots in some ‘impurity’. The SLV-3 is a dead ringer for the Scout rocket that Nasa used in the Sixties and whose detailed designs were available for the asking. The PSLV’s liquid propellant engine derived from the French Viking and the GSLV’s cryogenic engine is of Russian design. Our first research reactors were set up with US and Canadian help. In fact, a whole generation of Indian scientists benefited from access to US universities and nuclear establishments in the Sixties. The pressurised heavy water reactors that India uses are lineal descendants of the Candu reactor of Canada. The vaunted fast breeder coming up at Kalpakkam has design elements similar to the Russian BN-600 (operational since 1980) and the now closed French Superphénix.

This is not to decry the Indian effort in developing and even advancing these technologies, but merely to point out that in the world of science and technology, the exchange of ideas and knowhow is the norm. History has shown that it is impossible to keep scientific and technological knowledge secret for any amount of time. If you are denied, you must have the gumption to defeat the denial by hook — or as Pakistan, North Korea and Iran have done, by crook — and not whine about it or boast of modest achievements. That an exchange of ideas and technology is the basis of scientific advance is well attested to by the dense international networks that scientists create in virtually every field.

The Indo-US nuclear deal that will lift the international embargo on nuclear technology on India, presents a golden opportunity for us to set things right. It will enable India to acquire reactor technology and nuclear materials, as well as allow our scientists to be part of international collaborative R&D efforts. Actually, with some skilful handling, the government can even turn the ‘closed shop’ mentality of some in the DAE to good effect. Two competing power programmes can now be allowed to function. This method of competing parallel programmes, which has been used in Pakistan, works much better than the single-window mission approach. So, while DAE pursues its 3-stage programme that culminates in an advanced heavy water reactor using thorium, we can hedge the risk of its failure by another track where the private or joint sector reactors using the most advanced technology available in the world also come up.

In infinite time, to paraphrase Morrison, our nuclear scientists will undoubtedly deliver. But with a bit of competition, they may actually do so within our more finite lifetimes.

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