India Moves from Smuggling to Exporting Heavy Water

India’s nuclear program requires a steady stream of heavy water, which looks and tastes like ordinary water but is used to run reactors that make plutonium. In the past, India relied on clandestine imports to help fill its reactors, but today India makes enough heavy water to sell abroad. Last year, India agreed to sell 100 tons to South Korea for nearly $23 million. India needs nearly 2,000 tons of heavy water to run its unsafeguarded reactors. To meet this demand, India bought its first production plant from Germany in 1962 and then built seven more with help from France and Switzerland. Until recently, most of the heavy water plants were plagued by fires, breakdowns and production shortfalls, causing India to depend on foreign supplies.

During the 1980s, India arranged secret shipments of Chinese, Soviet and Norwegian water to help start the Madras and Dhruva reactors. Secrecy was essential to enable India to start the reactors unfettered by international controls. Plutonium made in uninspected reactors is free for use in atomic bombs whereas plutonium made in inspected reactors is not. Buying the heavy water openly from legitimate sellers would have obliged India to put its reactors under inspection. India denies it ever imported heavy water clandestinely, despite overwhelming documentary evidence of the sales.

The Risk Report possesses shipping declarations, company audits and diplomatic cable traffic showing that India received clandestine shipments of Chinese, Norwegian and Soviet heavy water in the 1980s through a West German nuclear materials broker named Alfred Hempel, now deceased. The documents reveal the exact cargo amounts, flight numbers, departure and arrival times, officials involved, and in one case, even the bribes paid.

The documents show that between 1983 and 1989 India received at least 80 tons of Soviet heavy water under the table, and 26.5 tons of Norwegian heavy water through diversions. Norway took diplomatic steps to recover its water but announced in 1992 that it had no legal means to compel India to return it. Norway had confronted India with official Romanian records proving that 12.5 tons of Norwegian heavy water were diverted to India through Romania in 1986.

A 1988 report by the Indian Comptroller and Auditor General shed light on India’s heavy water deficit. The Auditor’s report calculated India’s total heavy water production from 1978 through 1986 at about 190 tons, far short of the production level needed to make the 600 tons to run India’s four uninspected reactors. India was forced to turn to foreign sources to make up the difference, and India chose secret sources to keep its reactors and plutonium free from international controls.

India plans to start several new reactors by early next century that will require a steady supply of heavy water. To help finance them, India hopes to sell heavy water to South Korea and perhaps supply reactor technology to Iran. The water would come from its new production plants. If heavy water production lags, however, India could turn again to foreign suppliers. Producers in Canada and the United States are not permitted to sell heavy water to India until it allows international inspection of all its plutonium-making reactors.

Plant: Current annual output* (tons), Total thru 1994 (tons)

Nangal: 10, 285
Tuticorin: 45, 465
Baroda: 45, 350
Kota: 50, 325
Talcher: 1, 10
Thal: 45, 260
Hazira: 70, 265
Manuguru: 100, 305
Total 366; 2,265

*Annual output is estimated from reports on the plant’s operating history but also takes into account the plant’s design capacity.