War and Peace in the Nuclear Age; Interview with Raja Ramanna, 1987
Letterman if I could ask you first what were the goals of India's early atomic program and how did Atoms for Peace affect the India program. Don't forget. That On our program our interest in atomic energy goes back. To a time when even the Hiroshima and Nagasaki bombs had not been exploded. I do not know whether you know the famous letter which Dr. Baaba wrote to the door of the Tata Trust. Saying that when atomic energy becomes an economic proposition. India will not be. Found wanting in exports. Now that's a remarkable statement to make. Towards the end of 1944 before the Hiroshima and Nagasaki bombs were
actually exploded. So right from the very beginning starting from fundamental research. India has been interested in nuclear energy. So. What do you think. And that's talk of energy program. Well the major goals of an atomic energy program right from the beginning has been the development of nuclear power and the use of isotopes for medicine agriculture and industry. But above all leave people originated our program knew that in a country like India a developing country like India atomic energy could become the springboard. For modern technology. And this is not fully appreciated. People think our atomic energy was only for prp. Matters dealing only with
the atom. But this is not correct. They saw in it a new technology has come and that we should exploit the atmosphere and situation of the times to make sure that we will not lose the second industrial revolution. How far back does the Internet to go. Well lenient I'm going to program. Many people. Don't know this starts even before the nuclear explosions that were used to destroy Hiroshima and Nagasaki. In a letter dated towards the end of 1944. To the chairman of the daughter of the Tata Trust Dr Bob our founder made it quite clear in a letter in which he says. That when atomic energy becomes an economic proposition. India will not be found wanting in
trained people. Now this is almost prophetic statement. It is true that even before the war the scientists knew all over the world that atomic energy is a feasible proposition. But then it became a weapons proposition because of the Second World War. But in countries like India people went on thinking about this a new but. Useful energy could be produced from the atom. So I would say that India started very early and therefore when independence came. To be the importance on science was very high. Because Mr Knodell the prime minister then was very keen on development of science in all all its aspects and at Ahmadi an energy came just about the right time for the development. Yes. What was it like being a scientist in those early days. Who were the other people. The fans. Well. Don't forget that atomic energy science in India
has a history starting from the early days of the century. And there was tremendous interest in fundamental science particularly mathematics and spectroscopy and various aspects of Agriculture. So. The general atmosphere of the country was yes we must do science. But the idea of it being useful. All benefit to the people is a subsequent development. Previously it was. Purely academic in nature. And when we had I was going to program I started there was total commitment by all scientists of the country that it should be developed but developed by who. And in which form and which structure was the argument of those days. And I recall a meeting in 1954 in which our prime minister presided as to how we should organize ourselves to have a
rapid development of the use of atomic energy both for power and the applied census. What do you recall about him. His interests. That. One did not do. It was quite a remarkable man. He had been of course been in Cambridge. And understood the importance of modern science. He knew enough about Indian culture in that science scientific research was embedded in the ancient writings. And Sanskrit literature right up to almost the 17th century. You get very interesting documents referring to the importance of science. We had chemistry physics mostly mathematics astronomy. And he knew this had to be combined to sort of allow the Indian genius to sprout. And when he became prime minister he gave the highest importance to scientific development.
I just asked you specifically what his views were on nuclear energy inside. From the amount of information available. There was enough to say that it could be very useful. In the development of power though at that time it had not really been shown that useful power can be obtained. But I did think he looked upon it as a trace a springboard for modern technology to get out of the old systems and jump several centuries and come into a new era. In which one could. Get the benefit of these new discoveries as fast as possible. What was it like being a young nuclear scientist at that time. While not only being a nuclear scientists just just being young usually enough scope to be the enthusiastic on practically everything. Impatient on most
things. And it's I must say it does quite a remarkable period of Indian history. But a lot of things that were modern entered our lives in a very short span of time. And of course the difficulties came financial difficulties industrial problems getting things. But I must also add that when you did ask me what how one did know to look at the development of science in India. Id had at the back of his mind that we should become as self-reliant as possible. And that basis of self-reliance shows itself in all our subsequent developments. He thought we were a big country with a big population. And we should shore watched. Our Strength and development in getting maximum use of the people. To do new things. And. Develop new technologies. Just repeat for me the phrase that I heard often enough about India
not missing out on the next industrial revolution was that his here. I do not know what I can attribute that phrase to him. But it has been subsequently used because whenever large sums of money are spent by the government the economists get into. Into the fray. And they use the word industrial revolution very often and probably it fitted in to explain that to the times. So did India participate in fact it did indeed benefit from it. I would say that the first Atoms for Peace Conference held in Geneva was a scientific epoch making event. For one thing never in the history of mankind so much information on modern technology modern science was.
Let lose to the public because there was so much secrecy involved previously. And so much connected with the water. But that science could do so much for people. And. How much had already been done. Suddenly it came out you know almost a flood a torrent of literature. And for the first time scientists from all parts of the world began to say hello to one another. So I think it was a neat pock making event. But how did India benefit. It's true we were at the beginnings of our own scientific endeavor in the lauch there was science in the small but science at large. But it's remarkable when you look at even the papers that we contributed for instance I recall myself publishing a paper on them on the. Diffusion Constance a bit earlier Mach said which can be used as a moderator which is a very fancy materia. And we had to develop new techniques to measure these quantities
and all that brought in a new enthusiasm that we could contribute even at the forefront of scientific development. Even as early as 1955. What was Dr Pampas contribution at these conferences. Well not about US contribution to India. He's so deep. And saw. The. Soul. Undescribable e lost. That to merely say that he contributed to the conference would be a very small part of his personality. But. I think that for him the 1955 Geneva conference would not have been a success because he played the role of an intermediary as president of the conference between the Eastern groups of scientists all distinguished people and the Western groups of course well known
for a long time for their eminence. And he brought about an atmosphere. In which. There was a more free exchange of information than could have been without his deep knowledge personality and the charm. How did doctors contribute to the Indian atomic energy program in the early days. Well there are many ways. He broke the barrier shall I say. To get into the modern age. The first was to collect scientists. Keep them in enthused. And give the necessary atmosphere for them to do research. The second was his own deep knowledge of physics. It was a very good physicists and he had some training in engineering earlier.
But if you ask me what is the. Most important thing he did was. To bring about a change in the administration for science. That is MIT made a tremendous difference between this organizations and several others. He broke all those old methods. The colonial methods of dealing with scientists not simply as administrators in some district but se very important people. You give them. A new feeling of being wanted and that they could play a part in the development of the country. What does India depend on foreign assistance at this point. What. Other dollar while funded you was very keen that India should develop a self-sufficiency in all its aspects. He was certainly very keen that we should get their systems of friendly countries wherever possible. And in the early days and even the first reactor went into operation. It's the United Kingdom which
does the fuel because now we make our own fuel but in those days the doc on nine hundred fifty four fifty five. Then later we had the Canadians you will have a lot of assistance and with a lot of enthusiasm. Unfortunately misunderstandings have a little bit here because let's just set it in the time frame because we'll come to that later. What kind of assistance did India have in the early days. From. What we had chances of being able to go to a lot of peace. To see the work there to take part in it sent teams for training. And I was told in Canada a lot of people went for operator training science training. And attendance at conferences where you frequent. He's a little bit about the Canadian and the British assistance the actual the building of the grant from the British assistance it was not pretty much except that they gave the
fuel. And power. We had a little competition a small one between reactor being built in the United Kingdom. And ourselves and we want to beat them as to which reactor would go critical first and ours went critical one month earlier. The old fool was dead we built the rest of all the things here. Now this is a very good exercise in our development because the control system the cooling system everything was built in India as early as 1954 and that made a big difference to our. But with the Canadians. The connection was deeper and we had hoped. That it would be a long connection because we were also building heavy water natural uranium reactors to eventually make into fuel ourselves. And there was an excellent report. But then it broke and that's a subsequent part of our history. Can you recall why the decision was taken in 1958 to build a reprocessing
facility. Well. Reprocessing is a part of the fuel cycle of any atomic energy program. And in those days it was quite clear that if you produced plutonium in your reactor specially heavy water natural uranium reactors you should collect them back again and use it and that would give economic benefits and that was one thing. And the second thing is. That it has it so what is left or is waste and you can't put plutonium as waste. And in those days the idea of. Of being filled with plutonium didn't occur to anybody. And we thought well we should have the entire knowledge of the fuel cycle and research was done. For our developing plutonium chemistry and the first we're going to block those was built. It's just do that again with a little brief you don't need if you cannot say one and two just to
make it a little brief. Why did why did India need every part we pursing front ones decision taken. Well India needed a reprocessing using plant because it was interested in the entire field cycle so it's just one more time. India was interested in reprocessing. Of spent fuel for recovery of plutonium because it was interested in of anti fuel cycle as it would improve economics off nuclear power. I mad there that at that time it was wig. But we wanted to use that plutonium in fast breeder reactors and for breeding using plutonium to breed in podium which of you have plenty in this country was vaguely mentioned in May various surveys and reports. And all this is a part of our need for the process which is now of course in actual use.
What's to stop a second. Wind. What do you think. What are your recollections of the opening of the service reactor trying day or I remember it very well. I'm talking of the formal opening the criticality was some days earlier but if I recall. While it was a very gala opening the prime minister was present. It was not what I call the most successful of the openings because the reactor was not functioning. It developed problems of a very specific nature which even the Canadians were not aware of. It's a very interesting techno technical point which I don't mind mentioning it however technical it is. It is because the coal and water would develop a kind of bacterial clogging only available in our waters and this stop the reactor from going to full power. So when the
Opening Ceremony was on. The reactor was not functioning but there was another tiny reactor called Zerlina which was built about the same time and that was functioning. So I remember one of the delegates from Canada saying oh it is our leader we are celebrating not Cyrus. And so that was the first thing and the other was at the actual ceremony. We had put up $1 a call in India a place where the prime minister everybody sits. And an unusually strong wind developed and it tore all the butt of cloth and decorations to pieces. Fortunately the structure was steel and it stayed. And I have never seen that happen again I didn't realize how powerful the wind could be. But this happened at the actual speechmaking ceremonies. Can you tell me your recollections of the opening the Cyrus. Reaction. It's anything strange about the event.
The opening bell decider si actor was a gala event because it was a big reactor built in a developing country with discipline assistance and saw everything had been prepared in a very big way. But it actually happened on the day the reactor was not functioning for a very curious technical reason. Because it would not have happened in Canada but it happened in India. And that is because some bacterial growth was developing in the hot more hot waters of this region. And so the cooling couldn't be carried on under the Act it had to be shut down. So we were celebrating the opening of a reactor when it was not quite operating. But fortunately there was a zero energy reactor opera operating just across on the same day we went critical and saw people said we are celebrating the small reactor door the function was meant for the bigger reactor.
This early period was it a period of tremendous triumph. How did it feel as a scientist in working in the Indian program at the time although there's no question that the enthusiasm was at its highest. Because everything we did was new. And oh lots of people coming and joining us and dipping in the development of atomic energy. It was novel it was exciting it was very modern. And there's no question that it was at the peak period of enthusiasm. Now let's move to the nonproliferation treaty. So it's ration treaty. Oh that's an old story. You will recall that before nonproliferation there was the agency safeguard system. And this was discussed. At great length in the IAEA the International Atomic Energy Agency. Whether we should even sign the safeguard system.
Because it is the policy of the government of India that there should be no discrimination between country and country and one set of countries said all we are weapon we can do what we want. This we thought was not good for the future of the world. But we accepted safeguards on the basis that one day the war advanced countries of the so-called weapon countries would come down stop testing and gradually moving to disarmament. Unfortunately this has not happened. They have been increasing uneven I'm sorry can I just put you in the time frame in the in the 60s the late 60s India decided not to sign. What were the reasons at that time. While I had to give the previous history of it because the NPT comes out of Agency safeguards and it wasn't Agency safeguards that we said that we will only sign the safeguards in the hope
that all countries would participate after a few years. This is usually forgotten and that's why I bring this to our attention. Then instead of countries participating in this a new thing was started called a nonproliferation treaty with the basis that imports to certain countries will stop if they don't sign NPT. So this was a threat to countries which just did not have the capability. And so the suggestion came Watts and Indian opinion was that countries were forcing their will on other sovereign countries which they had no right to. And that is why NPT was not signed because once we signed the safeguard condition and that of many reactors on this Agency safeguards which have been operating that way for a long time and it is made out as though India has not contributed to nonproliferation at all which is a lot of nonsense. We have been contributing to nonproliferation in more than one way and more effectively perhaps than many others.
But it happens that they keep producing new treaties to make it more difficult for countries with a policy to follow. Through. They just gave us a separate point. Why was the idea of full scope safeguard so unacceptable to India. This is the time of the month or for a ship treaty we objected to both nonproliferation we objected to nonproliferation and full scope safeguards because it contained things which would definitely effect national sovereignity. For one thing. Yeah let's just if you could repeat that exactly. We have objected to the Nonproliferation Treaty and full scope safeguards. Mainly because they come in the way of national sovereignty.
If you ask me why. These treaties propose. That if we don't sign the treaty. Even conventional things will not be available to us like bombs heat exchangers. And many little things connected with the reactor. We have always agreed that safeguards should apply to sensitive materials like plutonium safeguard heavy water systems. OK. Why were the safeguards the idea of so full scope safeguards Why wouldn't someone acceptable to India this time. India had strongly objected. To the no NPT and safeguards mainly because it came. In the way of national sovereignty. The reason being that embargo was being placed. On even conventional equipment like bombs heavy water.
And again yeah I must be careful. OK. I was going to basically put that next sudden change with it. India. Was against Nonproliferation Treaty. And. The full scope safeguards mainly because it was against many aspects of national sovereignity for instance. These treaties provided for an embargo on even conventional equipment. Like bombs. Heat exchangers. And so forth. And there were many lists prepared by so-called clubs. Like the London club and various Zanger Liston and so forth. Which. Gave a clue to when does. That they should get their PA
government permission and they can be stopped in any manner the wish. We had always believed that safeguards should be only on sensitive material and that is like heavy water and breached material and so forth. But to apply to all sorts of things smacked a little bit of colonialism. Would NPT have. Hampered the Indian programme was this a consideration at the time. Npt hampered the Indian programme to the extent that it delayed. The completion of many reactors. But I'm glad to say that it has not really in fact hampered the Indian programme. Why and how was the decision taken to extend a peaceful nuclear device in 1974. Were you part of that. Are you privy to the decision. While I was not only in a sense privy to the decision but I took part
in its in the India experiment as we call it. For one thing. If you look at the literature it's in so 1974 and earlier what the Soviet Union and the United States and Western countries what full of praise for the possibilities of how the peonies could be used for peaceful purposes like and hence mint of oil making big holes in the ground and so forth and even turning rivers and so it is a part of the program to develop this technology and I have seen many examinations even in 1050 a Geneva conference on the plow share program and its possibilities. But it's only after we did the experiment. A lot of papers came about how it would be impossible it's an economic and so forth sold. Well that's all I have to say but why have you described is the midwife of
the Indian bone. That's how you've been described in the literature. What I don't know how to combat is incomes because I don't not quite sure of the functions of a midwife. But all that I know was I took part in the program and led the group. Can you just describe your role it's what I'm ready to see here. I was in charge of the group which did the experiment. Overall charge of the group and was it. Do you mind answering a few more questions about the test. Well I think I've said and OK. I just wondered if it if I mean it it was a moment of great pride to understand India as a whole. Which is just part of the pride of having taken part in modern technology in all its aspects. And. The other thing is people always ask why haven't there been more follow up tests that should be governmental decision. What will India's energy requirements of the stage and how they form a 70s.
But if I can still go back to that question. I think India has done more for nonproliferation by not doing any experiments than any other country in the world. That's not fully appreciated. It's almost 1974 makes almost 12 years and we have not carried out explosion in new explosions and that itself is an indication of our interest in nonproliferation. What worries India's energy requirements at this stage in the anything. All our production of energy for a country like this was. Addison Lee does but. If I can use that expression. Our hydro sources were not fully developed I'm talking of the early 50s and 60s. And the development of hydros sources is a long term affair because you're going to build big dams. There were multiple projects I would call these restricted and location are very specific
and to come to the industrial centers it gets pretty expensive. And so we needed a lot of power. And I do hear the famous statement Obama which said that no power is more expensive than Obama. And I think that still holds. Can you explain why there was such an emphasis on plutonium and fast breeder reactors. Oh very much so. Our interest in breeder reactors is fully justified. And we are the only countries who should be interested. Of all other countries and that is because we have so much boredom and in our country and you can pick up the totem in your hands. Unlike your enemy you have to dig. And if that totem can be converted by breeding into uranium 233. Our fuel problems will be solved to a great extent and breeding in toward him is the first essential. The basis of our atomic energy development program and we will continue to
do it. What impact did President Carter's policies have on the Indian program specifically the Nonproliferation Treaty his own nuclear nonproliferation. I'm afraid that's a question I cannot answer except in what has happened subsequently. If there was a feeling that there should be nonproliferation in the world that all big countries should have taken part at least in the suspension of tests which they have not done. Can you tell me anything about the time or poor business you obviously were involved in. Yes I'm fully aware of it but the man thing we should be happy about is the terrible reactors are working very well and are deluding power even as of today. Which would result in Maharashtra goods. You don't want to explain how things while at the time a lot of obsolete discussions. I think it's counterproductive so it's counterproductive. And the
Nuclear Suppliers Group What was your reaction to that organization. Well I said the Nuclear Suppliers form themselves into clubs so I don't like clubs of this type and I use a somewhat rough word and call them Colonial. I think there are things like I mean huge agencies and all that which would look after such matters. What formation of little clubs by companies is not a good thing is that you feel it is my feeling now OK. Can you remember the time. Could you comment on the time or time frame or more. Absolutely the same. And the international fuel cycle evaluation how was that. How did you really I don't think they're all very important in the context that there were simply discussions being held for the sake of discussions but not to get to the real benefit of political nonproliferation. I seem to say this was they were barking up the right tree was this.
Well you can keep things going by making people talk. If you want nonproliferation to stop testing in the first instance then the steps we're going to follow. You think proliferation can be controlled as such provided all countries agree. Now I was getting to the point that people have said that Carter denied technical access and in fact you can't. You can't stop a country if a country wants to you know build bombs will build weapons. Well you're talking historically. This is what they said to the Soviet Union in the 40s. They said the same thing of China later and has went on and on so I think I don't agree with that philosophy. What's your reaction to the news in the late 70s that Pakistan was in Barking on the and the New Richmond program how seriously did you take the Pakistan development. I don't know really much about the program and I know that
most people given the chance in the world can develop their technologies sooner or later depending on how much industrial development there is or how much assistance they get from other countries. So with that we just are understood that they were interested in and then treatment. That's all the comment I have to me. Do you think you comment on the status of the Pakistan program. I don't know enough to know better. I don't none of you know obvious question is do you think Pakistan has the bomb. Well from the newspapers it seems that they're very keen of some people in that country. But I don't know what their policies. What are the goals of the present program in India. The two goals of the present program in India are quite clear in the smaller but moneymaking possibilities the use of isotopes in industry agriculture and medicine is unbelievable especially in agriculture and producing new nutrients and in industry where they need it all the time
but we are so short the power that even if we don't look all over our older sources all our colder sources all over either or so it would be so short a power so there's no question of this or that you how to develop nuclear power. And a very big way. People certainly in America are concerned about the amount of plutonium sitting in stockpiles all over the world including and they will cite India as an example. Because this might be an easy access for terrorists for 20. Or Rio always plan that are put on them should be burnt in the reactors or in a fast reactor. I prefer to mix it with terrorism. Here's another complication which I have no expert to talk about just because people are very concerned about this Could you just explain again. You're using you're not just sitting.
OK well I think a lot of plutonium was used in the first reactor that is used in a fast reactor called pocket and we plan to put more fast reactors up. So what would you say to people you know these concerned groups. It's impossible to answer all these groups because we never know that I know of groups whatever you tell them they want to believe you don't have made up their minds. Could you try and just explain. No I have no further comment. I think the first time. And really just is proliferation something that can be controlled and how you start to see the next 10 years proliferation is a political problem. If the political will is there I'm sure it was. I'm more after being in the business for nearly 40 years. I'm quite sure it can be done but it's part of a bigger problem. It's a part of a bizarre moment as a part of.
Politics and it's not a technical problem and I'm essentially a technical man. When you say professional you mean nuclear weapons spread of the nonproliferation I meant the spread of nuclear weapons. It's like this car if I that just one more time when I say proliferation it is a spread of nuclear weapons. What is the technology required to make a bomb and how does it differ from that used to generate electric power. Well I thought this question would find its answers in the text books. But if I can clarify. It's true the same materials are used whether it's a power generator or an explosive device. But it's only the nuclear part which is common. The materials that go into it the rest are entirely different because
in one case like nuclear power your main interest is to see that the heat is generated and extracted as well as the other one. You optimize for an explosion. But that is. Not the thing that is to quote for a weapon or weapon requires many other things like the delivery system. The accuracy of the delivery the miniaturization. So if you take overall they're entirely different. They may have a small common or lap in the base in the material side but otherwise they're entirely different from what was what the physics required for the long run. The physics is the same physics for books except that you. Control one and the other one you don't control you optimize it for explosion. Can you explain how that control the control name and can you
explain. The difference difference in the weapons. System. And the said weapon requires a delivery and weapon require studied must go with accuracy otherwise it should not fall on your own face or expression and destroy your own wherever you are. So all these things require a lot of and I think that is more and more difficult and more important than just the material which is common to both. Lastly I can just ask you again what your contribution was to the test in 1974. Well I don't know because it was a group of people. I had to take decisions of which should go where oh where did. I'm ready to take place I'm now learning a lot of I've talked to so far as being incredibly proud vacation I'm just trying to get at what I was the leader of the team.
That's good enough. That means if it had not gone up. Well can you tell me any little anecdotes like you tell me about all the other things stories you can tell one on that day. Or have had so many anecdotes which are even published and we're just it's just really a lot of just choose one. Well I don't know you'd probably call me facetious. And that is. When the. Explosion took place. We were watching for the distance of all kilometers away. And we saw the ground going up and going down and we thought well that is it. But when we were coming down the ladder from a little platform which you're looking from. The shockwave game and nearly took me off the ladder and I should have known better that the shock wave would take some time to come. Well of all that and I didn't confirmation of the thing. But then we went
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- Interview with Raja Ramanna, 1987
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- Dr. Raja Ramanna was a nuclear physicist. He served as Director of Bhabha Atomic Research Centre (1972-1978 and 1981-1983), from where he oversaw India's first nuclear test. He also headed the country's Atomic Energy Commission (1984-1987) and served as the Secretary for Defense Research (1978-1981). In the interview, he goes into the history and purposes of India's nuclear program. He recalls the Atoms for Peace program as an "epoch-making event" and recounts the importance of key people - Nehru, Bhabha - and of foreign assistance to the country's nuclear activities, including the Trombay reprocessing facility. On the issue of nonproliferation, he describes India's attitudes, especially toward the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, which Indians view as mainly a threat to the national sovereignty of states. The interview also touches on the London Suppliers Group, the International Fuel Cycle Evaluation, India's emphasis on plutonium and fast breeders, and Jimmy Carter's nonproliferation policy. Finally, he goes into the differences between the technologies for making a bomb and for generating electric power.
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- Bhaba, Homi J.; Pakistan; Soviet Union; United States; Canada; Great Britain; India; Radioactive wastes; Terrorism; Physicists; Nuclear nonproliferation; Nuclear Disarmament; nuclear fission; Nuclear Energy; nuclear weapons; World War II; United States. Nuclear Nonproliferation Act of 1978; Treaty on the Non-proliferation of Nuclear Weapons (1968); International Atomic Energy Agency; Carter, Jimmy, 1924-; Nehru, Jawaharlal, 1889-1964; China
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Writer: Ramanna, Raja, 1925-2004
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- MLA: “War and Peace in the Nuclear Age; Interview with Raja Ramanna, 1987.” 1987-02-14. WGBH, American Archive of Public Broadcasting (WGBH and the Library of Congress), Boston, MA and Washington, DC. Web. September 18, 2020. <http://americanarchive.org/catalog/cpb-aacip-15-mc8rb6w99r>.
- APA: War and Peace in the Nuclear Age; Interview with Raja Ramanna, 1987. Boston, MA: WGBH, American Archive of Public Broadcasting (WGBH and the Library of Congress), Boston, MA and Washington, DC. Retrieved from http://americanarchive.org/catalog/cpb-aacip-15-mc8rb6w99r