From The Globe and Mail, 15 June 1998:
How the nuclear ban bent for India
Monday, June 15, 1998
Bombay - Before launching five nuclear tests last month, some of India's top nuclear scientists visited Canada and met with their Canadian counterparts in what one Indian said was an unofficial attempt to break more than two decades of Canadian sanctions on nuclear co-operation.
In interviews, several Indian scientists said that despite Ottawa's restrictions, they were able to gain access to Canadian expertise over the past decade, mainly through old friends. In 1996, the head of India's nuclear power program was allowed entry into two nuclear reactors in Ontario.
Canadian experts also visited Indian reactors in recent years, including a facility not under international safeguards in January.
Officials in both countries said none of the information shared helped India develop its bombs.
"Our scientists and your scientists are sensible fellows," said Y. S. R. Prasad. Mr. Prasad, chairman and managing director of India's Nuclear Power Corp., visited the Canadian reactors. "We are human beings. We are not politicians. We want what is good for humanity."
Indian and Canadian officials said the information they exchanged was used only by India's civilian nuclear program, and was unrelated to the May tests or weapons development. However, some observers question the separation of the civilian and military programs in India.
Since the tests, at least four Indians connected with the nuclear program have been denied visas to Canada for conferences and academic work.
The Canadian government has banned most forms of nuclear co-operation with India since 1974, when India tested its first nuclear device, using plutonium from a Canadian-donated test reactor. The two countries are not allowed to trade nuclear hardware, materials, spare parts or research.
Canadian scientists are permitted to meet their Indian counterparts as part of the Candu Owners Group, an informal club of Candu operators, to share public information on safety. But there appears to be disagreement between Canadian scientists and the Department of Foreign Affairs on how much they can discuss - a split which the Indian side has noticed.
"We are trying to rebuild ties," said P. K. Iyengar former chairman of India's Atomic Energy Commission.
"The scientists have always been friendly," he said. "The scientists are not the problem. It's your Foreign Affairs people. If I may say so, the Canadian bureaucracy is more bureaucratic than the Indian bureaucracy."
Many of India's top nuclear scientists trained in Canada in the 1950s and 1960s, and maintain friendships with their Canadian counterparts. Mr. Iyengar, who trained at the Chalk River facility in Ontario, said he and his colleagues frequently visited Canada in the 1980s and early 1990s, and "exchanged notes" with Canadian scientists. He said most discussions were about "pure science."
Mr. Prasad, who spent three years at Douglas Point generating station in the 1960s, visited the Pickering and Darlington reactors in 1996, after attending a conference on nuclear safety in Toronto.
An Ontario Hydro spokesman said Mr. Prasad was taken to the reactors to brief Ontario Hydro staff about a series of recent accidents in India's Candu reactors. Mr. Prasad described it as "a social visit".
After the visit, India decided to replace all 306 coolant tools in its troubled Rajasthan Atomic Power Plant, which was built in the 1970s using the Douglas Point design. Indian officials said they were turned down when they asked Atomic Energy of Canada Ltd. and Ontario Hydro to help with the repairs.
Having carried out major repairs on its own to a Candu reactor, India plans to build at least 10 more like it over the next 15 years.
The expansion almost certainly will increase India's stockpile of weapons-grade plutonium and tritium, said David Martin, research director for the Nuclear Awareness Project in Uxbridge, Ont. He said that India makes no clear distinction between its civilian and military nuclear programs, and often uses the same scientists and research facilities for both.
"Aid for one is aid for the other," Mr. Martin said.
Canada has a policy of making public, non-proprietary information available to Candu owners, including India, so that they can safely maintain the reactors, government officials said.
"If [the visit] was for safety information on their reactors, if they're not getting any secret information, then there's nothing wrong with that," said John
Embury, a spokesman for Natural Resources Minister Ralph Goodale.
Canadian scientists have also beat a steady path to India's reactors in recent years.
Atomic Energy of Canada Ltd.'s chief engineer last year visited the troubled CANDU reactor in Rajasthan and was supposed to be followed by AECL president Reid Morden. Mr. Morden reportedly attended a nuclear conference in Bombay in January but cancelled the Rajasthan trip at the last minute, Indian officials said.
Despite sanctions imposed by Canada and the U.S. since the 1970s, India has developed its own nuclear designs, equipment and material, and built scientific ties around the wor1d.
Ottawa is considering new sanctions against India's nuclear program, including the removal of India from the Candu Owners Group. But Mr. Prasad said such measures would have little impact because Indian scientists can access international expertise through other bodies such as the World Association of Nuclear Operators.
"I have been under sanctions since 1974. I survived," Mr. Prasad said in an interview at the Bhabha Atomic Research Centre in Bombay, home of the Indian nuclear program. "I'm going to survive whatever you do."
The Bombay centre and an adjoining research reactor were established in the 1950s with Canadian aid, and are thought to still produce much of the fuel for India's weapons program.
Although most of India's facilities are not under international safeguards, they are shown to international experts as part of a peer-review process. One team, including Canadian and American technicians, spent two weeks in January at the troubled Kakrapar reactor, which is not under international safeguards.
"We get the best people from America and Canada," Mr. Prasad said.
As part of the Candu Owners Group, Indian scientists meet regularly with Canadians and nuclear experts from other Candu clients such as South Korea and Argentina.
Both India and Pakistan were admitted to the group in 1988. Pakistan has relied on the group's expertise to repair a Canadian-built reactor.
Using designs given by Canada in the 1960s, India operates seven Candu clones, and plans to add 10,000 more megawatts of nuclear power by 2010.
India also has developed a rare ability to extract highly radioactive tritium from its reactors. Tritium is important to the creation of hydrogen bombs.
Mr. Prasad said India developed the technique, which will be used in operations in about a year, without assistance from Canadian scientists or the Candu Owners Group. He also said he did not see any of Ontario Hydro's tritium-extraction facility at Darlington - the only one of its kind in the world - during his visit.
"Only Canadians have developed that process and we don't know what process they are using," he said. "What catalyst they use is a commercial secret. What good is it to me when I go to see the plant? Even an operator doesn't know what's inside".
Copyright © 1998, The Globe and Mail Company.