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India’s tritium route to the hydrogen bomb

Zafar Bangash

Of the five explosions carried out on May 11 and 13, India said one was a hydorgen bomb (thermonuclear explosion). Evidence had emerged months prior to the explosions that India had indeed embarked on the fusion route and made some progress. In an article in the Janes Intelligence Review in January 1998, T S Gopi Rethinaraj had discussed ‘the importance of tritium as a strategic material in the creation of thermonuclear weaponary.’ He then drew certain inferences about the manner in which Indian scientists had gone about extracting highly enriched tritium.

Rethinaraj wrote that scientists at India’s Bhabha Atomic Research Center (BARC) managed to extract highly enriched tritium from heavy water used in power reactors. The technology has two advantages: it assumes heavy water as the moderator in power reactors instead of light water used in most other reactors; and it has a short gestation period. The Indian tritium facility takes less than two years for completion and at a fraction of the estimated US$7 billion needed to produce the isotope at current costs using the accelerator process, as was done in the US.

Rethinaraj traced Indian plans to a paper written by two BARC scientists which appeared in a book titled, Heavy Water - Properties, Production and Analysis. Authored by Sharad M Dave and Himangshu K Sadhukhan, together with a Mexican scientist, Octavio A Novaro, the paper says on p. 461 of the book:

‘The Bhabha Atomic Research Center, Bombay, India, also having developed a wetproof LPCE, catalyst for liquid phase catalytic exchange [the process that yields highly enriched tritium from heavy water], has employed it for detritiation. A pilot plant based on LPCE cryogenic distillation with about 90 percent tritium removal from heavy water has been commissioned and is under experimental evaluation. Reportedly, this facility seems to be the only operating LPCE-based detritiation facility in the world. A commercial detritiation plant based on this process is being set up at one of their nuclear power stations.’ The BARC pilot plant was set up in 1992.

The author notes that Indian scientists insist on referring to this process as ‘detritiation’ instead of admitting to producing tritium because it avoids the charge of stockpiling a strategic raw material. Carried out under the cloak of lowering tritium content in heavy water circulating around the moderator circuit, the project allegedly was designed to prevent the many health hazards associated with leakage of tritium from reactors. Though commendable, the scientists’ purpose was not entirely altruistic. Millions of Indians face equally threatening health hazards in other fields without anyone batting an eyelid for their well-being. Millions more die each year from preventable diseases and starvation.

A commercial version of the ‘detritiation’ plant at Kalpakkam near Madras is already operational. With eight operating Pressurized Heavy Water Reactors (PHWRs) at Kalpakkam, Rawatbhatta, Narora and Kakrapar plus more to come in future, India will have enormous supply of tritium. According to technical estimates, 2400 curies of tritium could be produced for every MW of electricity produced in heavy water reactors.

Unlike fission (nuclear) bombs, fusion (thermonuclear) bombs have no critical size. Bombs of various intensities could be fabricated using tritium. Fusion bombs require an ambient temperature of 100 million degrees Celcius to overcome the Coulomb Repulsion Barrier (CRB) which prevents lighter atoms from coming together - meaning that fission bombs are a prerequisite for detonating fusion bombs. India first exploded a fission (nuclear) bomb on May 18, 1974 in the deserts of Pokhran in northwest India, the site of the latest explosions as well.

Though tritium is present naturally in the environment, its amount is too small for practical recovery. For strategic purposes it has to be produced artificially. There are two ways to do this, both involving nuclear reactions with neutrons. In the first method, neutrons are made to strike a target of lithium or aluminum metal, which gives tritium and other by-products; the second method involves a neutron reaction with helium-3 which gives tritium and hydrogen as by-products.

Tritium finds peripheral use in medical diagnostics, but it is mainly used in the manufacture of hydrogen bombs and to boost the yield of both fission and thermonuclear weapons.

One of the ironic twists to the Indian nuclear and weaponization programmes is that its top scientist is a Muslim - Avul Pakir Jainulabedeen Abdul Kalam. At a press conference in Delhi after the explosions, Abdul Kalam lamented the fact that India had never invaded any country in 2500 years but ‘others have come here, so many others.’ Among those whose arrival he lamented were Muslims. Had they not come, Abdul Kalam would probably still be a Hindu.

His bomb’s most likely victims will be Muslims!

Muslimedia: June 1-15, 1998

Article from

Crescent International Vol. 27, No. 7

Safar 06, 14191998-06-01

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