India’s U.S.-Influenced Decision to Shut Down Cirus Research Reactor

Cirus: A Testament to the Prime Minister’s Double Talk


Brahma Chellaney

Covert magazine, July 1-15, 2008

One of the great mysteries still begging for illumination is Prime Minister Manmohan Singh’s embrace of nuclear energy. No week or month passes without Singh alluding to the benefits of nuclear power for India. But as finance minister during the 1991-95 period, Singh starved the nuclear programme of funds, disabling new projects and halting uranium exploration.

The uranium crunch India confronts today is rooted in the fact that the actions Singh set in motion were not reversed until several years after he left office. The nation today has a right to know whether Singh’s new-found interest in nuclear power is centred on imports — a concern reinforced by his government’s 2008-09 budget, which slashes the Department of Atomic Energy’s funding by $529 million.

Another baffling mystery is Singh’s decision, as part of the controversial nuclear deal with the United States, to permanently shut down by 2010 one of the country’s two bomb-grade plutonium-production reactors. The prime minister has offered no explanation to the nation for overruling the nuclear establishment and agreeing to shut down the Cirus research reactor, located at the Bhabha Atomic Research Centre.

Much of India’s cumulative historic production of weapons-grade plutonium has come from Cirus, operating since 1960. In fact, Cirus had been refurbished at a cost of millions of dollars and reopened for barely two years when Singh made the surprise announcement to close down the reactor. Speaking in the Lok Sabha on March 10, 2006, the prime minister claimed that, “while the Cirus reactor was refurbished recently, the associated cost will be more than recovered by the isotope [production] and the research we will be conducting before it is closed”.

But Singh still hasn’t answered the key question: Why did he succumb to U.S. pressure over a reactor that remains crucial to India’s strategic programme? Not only does the country still lack a credible minimal nuclear deterrent against its main challenge, China, but also current international estimates of India’s weapons-grade fissile material stockpile put its quantity just marginally higher than Pakistan’s. Given that Singh is now committed to “work with the U.S.” for the early conclusion of a Fissile Material Cut-off Treaty (FMCT), India needs to sharply accelerate its rate of weapons-grade plutonium production as it doesn’t have time on its side. Singh’s action, however, throws a larger spanner in the works.

The shutdown of Cirus two years from now, if the nuclear deal goes through, will deprive the nuclear military programme of almost one-third of its current supply of weapons-grade plutonium. Of course, India could build a replacement reactor. But the long lead time needed to build a research reactor, and the government failure thus far to sanction such a facility, will leave a major production shortfall.

The fuel burn-up in large, electricity-generating reactors produces plutonium of a quality far less desirable for weapons. Therefore, for military-grade plutonium, India has relied on its research reactors, Cirus and Dhruva. But Dhruva — commissioned in 1985 — faced major start-up problems that took several years to rectify. That is why the 40-MWth Cirus has contributed the larger share of India’s cumulative historic production of weapons-grade plutonium — a point noted by Paul Nelson et al in a 2006 paper funded by the U.S. Department of Energy. In having insisted that New Delhi dismantle Cirus, America’s aim, needless to say, was to crimp India’s nuclear-deterrent plans — an objective the deal seeks to serve also by enforcing a permanent test ban.

Cirus — the source of plutonium for the 1974 nuclear test — was built with Canadian technical assistance and received US heavy water under two separate 1956 contracts that predated the 1957 establishment of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) and the 1968 finalization of the Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) text. Because the concept of international “safeguards” (inspections) had not yet been devised, India gave no explicit undertaking to abjure nuclear-explosive uses.

Indeed, just after Cirus came on line, Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru openly declared: “We are approaching a stage when it is possible for us … to make atomic weapons”. Decades later, the shutdown decision has given the non-proliferation lobby in the U.S. and Canada much to celebrate: India is tacitly conceding its 1974 test was born in sin and, to atone for it, it will shut down Cirus. Singh’s action, besides compromising the strategic programme, mocks various international (and even official American) legal opinions clearing India of any Cirus-related wrongdoing.

Brahma Chellaney is Professor of Strategic Studies at the Centre for Policy Research, New Delhi.

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