Archive for the ‘India’ Category

What would a missile defense system for India achieve?

March 18, 2009

Manasi alerts me to this Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists article on a possible Indian missile defense system developed with help from the US. As always, the questions to be asked are; Would it work? and What would it achieve?

I have often talked about the recurring problems with conceived US global missile defense systems as pointed out by various experts over the years and the fact that missile defense in one form or the other has been an unrealized dream for US presidents for 40 years. In India missile defense acquires a very different character from the proposed US missile defense systems against supposed ICBMs from Iran or North Korea. Pakistan is a stone’s throw away from the Indian border, and as Gopalaswamy in this essay and Mian and others in a more detailed 2003 Science and Global Security article explain, flight time for a missile to reach New Delhi from Pakistan would be about 4-7 mins. What would the Indian authorities do in such a short time? Detecting any such signal and confirming it as a true one would consume all the time needed for authorities to determine it as a hostile missile launch from Pakistan. The detection would be done by the Arrow system that India acquired from Israel that’s located about 200 kms from Delhi. But because of this very short flight time, there would be no time for further deliberation and any response would have to be a predetermined one.

As Mian and his colleagues state in their article, there are two forms which predetermined response could take; civil defense and/or retaliation. Retaliation if at all possible in such a short time would have to be very quick. Retaliation against nuclear-tipped missiles would be very difficult in the boost phase (right after the missile lifts off, which gives the defense about 90 seconds to destroy the missile) and extremely dangerous in the terminal phase (the phase before the missile hits the target during which its destruction could nonetheless cause great damage to the home territory). As both articles state, with such predetermined responses the threat of false alarms and nuclear conflict increases, an assertion borne out by several close calls during the Cold War even when the response time was much longer.

As the articles state, the prospect of talks on missile defense between the US and India is definitely a welcome sign of relations between the two countries, but we should think twice before spending taxpayers’ money and scientific and human capital on a system that may not really work, but which may encourage the adversary to build more offensive weapons; after all a single one getting through would be enough to cause havoc. As Gopalaswamy says, ultimately technology will decide the operational capability of such a system. Perhaps more attention should be paid to civil defense, a gesture both prudent and practical, and perhaps less threatening.

Mian, Z., Rajaraman, R., Ramana, M.V., “Early Warning in South Asia-Constraints and Implications”. Science and Global Security, 11: 109-150, 2003

Uranium Problems and India’s Energy Future

October 28, 2008

More critical and unbiased thinking please

Surendra Gadekar has an article in the latest Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists in which he asserts that the Indo-U.S. nuclear deal won’t save India from energy problems. Even assuming that this fact holds, Dr. Gadekar seems to think that it logically implies that India should not pursue nuclear power or at the very least put it on the back burner.

The logic is a little messy and ignores some facts.

To be fair, the article has a lively history of India’s determined efforts to wisely go for CANDU heavy water rather than light water reactors (uranium enrichment is much more technologically demanding than heavy water production), and its continued commitment to nuclear research even in the face of worldwide sanctions imposed by the 1974 test. Dr. Gadekar then talks about the dismal state of India’s uranium resources with most regions containing extremely low-grade ore, making it expensive to mine. In many regions officials are unwilling to mine because of local pressure and the Maoist insurgency.

So far so good. One would think that it’s precisely these factors that would make the nuclear deal attractive. But then Dr. Gadekar goes in a different direction, claiming that France and the United States’s ‘moribund’ reactor industries would somehow force the Indian government to buy not just fuel but also reactors. I don’t think I have read a statement to the effect that the government wants to buy reactors by default along with fuel. In any case, if the government does it, Gadekar says that the price of nuclear power will go up.

The conclusion? The nuclear deal is bad for India and nuclear is not the way to go, according to Dr. Gadekar. If nuclear power is really going to become expensive, then wouldn’t we want to adopt the opposite position for now and lap up all the nuclear fuel that we can? Fear that uranium prices would go up in the future as more countries adopt nuclear power should just mean that India with its already well-developed nuclear capacity should embark on a crash program to generate more power with our existing reactors which are for years running at partial capacity.

But a more important development which Dr. Gadekar ignores is that in thorium processing. The Advanced Heavy Water Reactor is one of the most advanced nuclear reactors in the world and the result of years of doughty development by India’s nuclear scientists and engineers. India plans to start serial production of AHWRs by 2020. Here’s what Charles Barton, a veteran nuclear engineer who has retired from Oak Ridge National Laboratory (a vast industrial complex built for extracting the Manhattan Project’s uranium), has to say:

The Indians are engaged in a significant thorium fuel cycle. The Indians have already built and tested both thorium fuel cycle proof of concept and developmental thorium fuel cycle reactors and have built or are building prototype thorium fuel cycle reactors including the just completed AHWR, the soon to be completed Prototype Fast Breeder Reactor (PFBR) at Kalpakkam, and the more advanced , Fast Thorium Breeder Reactor (FTBR) underdevelopment at the Bhabha Atomic Research Centre in Mumbai is the second thorium fuel cycle breeder. The Indians are in the last stage of a 3 stage developmental program for a complex Uranium/thorium reactor fuel system, that is many times more energy efficient than the Uranium/light water reactor fuel system.

The Indians plan to build thorium fuel cycle reactor capable of producing 20 GWy of electrical energy by 2020, and to produces 30% of their electricity from thorium cycle reactors by 2050. Indian scientists calculate that the assurred thorium reserve of India is large enough to provide it with electricity for 400 years.

More efficiency will mean dwindling cost of uranium as well as efficient exploitation of India’s vast thorium resources. But this can only happen if nuclear development is not impeded and more efficient ways of exploiting both uranium and thorium are investigated. Dr. Gadekar’s opinion seems to imply that the scenario for nuclear power based on uranium is so pessimistic that we should forgo the nuclear deal and nuclear development or at least not pursue them vigorously. Not so paradoxically, this very action will indeed hamper future development.

In the end, if Dr. Gadekar really thinks that nuclear is not the way to go, he should shed light on alternative efficient, plentiful and cheap sources of energy. The reader is unfortunately left groping in the dark when Dr. Gadekar sheds not light but darkness on any such analysis with a single concluding statement;

India’s true energy crisis lies in its inability to harness its sunlight and biomass, which would provide a truly useful resource for the majority of its people

This seems to contradict all of Gadekar’s beef with uranium prices. I would be very interested to know how exactly Dr. Gadekar thinks solar power or biomass will produce energy as cheaply as he thinks uranium won’t. Unlike Gadekar, I am not discounting the role that solar and biomass will play in India’s future energy needs. But the technology for their large-scale use is still expensive and far off; nuclear technology is already widely used and highly developed, and pound for pound, nuclear still provides the biggest bang for your buck. India with its power-hungry economy needs as much of this as possible. What it does not need are superficially plausible arguments based on incomplete data. Dr. Gadekar may be well-meaning, but I have a feeling that since he edits a magazine named Anumukti which as its name suggests is in favour of a non-nuclear India, he already is wedded to dogma. It’s sad when intelligent people like Dr. Gadekar try to pen reasonable arguments when they have long since already taken sides.

© Ashutosh Jogalekar

Richard Rhodes@Google

February 8, 2008

As part of the Authors@Google talk series that Google has organised, everyone’s favourite nuclear historian Richard Rhodes gave a talk at the company, partly on general nuclear history and policy and partly about his new book (which I reviewed here). In the end, he asked the bright folks at Google for advice about how best one could possibly implement an international system of tracking nuclear material.There were several interesting points about both history and current policy that he made that I think are worth noting as summaries (for those who may not have the time to watch the entire one hour talk)

1. Paul Nitze was a highly influential official in the State Department who served through six administrations, advising presidents on nuclear policy. After surveying the damage caused by atomic bombs in Japan and comparing it with the damage caused by strategic bombing, he erroneously concluded that atomic weapons are not much different in their effects from conventional incendiary bombing. He set the tone for policy partly grounded in this belief in 1950 when he drafted a key document named NSC 68 which outlined George Kennan’s containment doctrine and advocated increasing nuclear weapons building as the best way to counter the Soviets. Although the report was opposed for its exaggerated tone by some, the Korean War that began that year sealed the deal, and the report more or less set the tone for US nuclear policy for the next six decades. Nitze could well be called the “father of threat inflation”

2. Most of the estimates about nuclear weapon targeting made during the Cold War or at least during the early years were underestimates because they neglected the effects of fire. Fire effects and the resulting strong winds cause a firestorm in a nuclear attack, and they can contribute up to 60% of all the effects. Most initial calculations only included blast effects. In a somewhat dramatic illustration, Rhodes showed the possible blast and fire radius of an attack on Google with a 300 kT weapons. The fire radius is much larger than the blast radius, and in addition fires can spread far and wide depending on vegetation.

3. In another telling illustration, Rhodes showed the nuclear winter that would result from a “limited” exchange of about a megaton between India and Pakistan. Within a few months, the simulation shows that the average temperature of the world could drop by 5 degrees, a catastrophic result. One can scarcely comprehend the nuclear winter that would have resulted from an estimated exchange of 10,000 megatons between the two Cold War superpowers. The illustration showed that even a small regional war waged with nuclear weapons could have extremely serious global consequences.

4. The real problem with nuclear proliferation is that like any complex machine, the system can go haywire and is subject to “normal accidents”. More accounts than would make us comfortable exist of nuclear weapons accidentally armed or delivered somewhere instead of conventional weapons.5. Rhodes also noted that both the Indian and Pakistani nuclear arsenals don’t have Permissive Action Locks (PALs). This makes the situation uncomfortable. I am interested in knowing his sources for this information.

5. Rhodes again outlined an ambitious plan by many former US experts including Henry Kissinger, George Schultz and Sam Nunn for universal disarmament. These gentlemen were early advocates of security through minimal deterrents. But after 9/11, they realised that nuclear terrorism makes only universal disarmament an ideal goal to be pursued for securing peace. Rhodes makes the accurate observation that nuclear proliferation can be stopped only by satisfying nations’ security needs. However, I disagree with his projection for Pakistan’s nuclear disarmament. Senior Pakistani officials have ostensibly said that they would disarm if India would disarm. But I doubt it because the Pakistani arsenal (about 40 weapons) is as much a deterrent against India’s conventional forces superiority as it is against India’s nuclear arsenal (about 60 weapons), and India inherently has the conventional advantage because of its size and resources. I don’t see how this could stop being seen as a threat by the Pakistanis.