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Dr Sethna: Firebrand who realised India's N-dreams

September 13, 2010 18:54 IST

A N Prasad pays tribute to Dr Homi Sethna, one of the pioneers of India's nuclear programme, who passed into the ages recently.

In the passing away of Dr Homi N Sethna, former, chairman of the Atomic Energy Commission, India has lost a dynamic leader, a brilliant chemical engineer and a true patriot who believed that India can do it!

While Dr Homi Bhabha, the founding father of the Indian nuclear programme, was a great visionary, Sethna was the chief architect. As a close confidante of Bhabha, he dedicated himself to translating his vision into a reality. Having started my professional career as a member of the team lead by Dr Sethna on a top priority project, I had ample opportunities to interact with him closely. I consider it a privilege to pay my tribute to that great leader and a fine human being.

One of Bhabha's visions was India acquiring long-term energy security through major contribution of electricity by nuclear sector. For realising this, he postulated an ingenious three-stage nuclear power programme aiming at utilisation of vast thorium resources in the country using limited uranium reserves as starter. The three core technologies needed for success of this strategy are production of nuclear grade uranium, thorium extraction and spent fuel reprocessing to separate plutonium. It is to Dr Sethna's credit that he conceived and started all these programmes from scratch which are now fully developed production scale activities. The Indian nuclear programme should be deeply indebted to Sethna's pioneering contributions to the indigenous development of all the vital nuclear fuel cycle technologies to the envy of even the advanced countries.

It is a strange coincidence that Dr Sethna's first task as soon as he joined the nuclear establishment on his return to India was setting up of Indian Rare Earths Plant in Kerala to extract various important minerals from the beach sands in addition to thorium which is to become ultimately the backbone of the indigenous power programme in the long term. He then went on to set up a plant at Trombay for production of nuclear grade thorium for use in fuels.

Development of technology for production of pure nuclear grade uranium from uranium ore concentrates for fuelling reactors is another pioneering contribution by Dr Sethna to the country's nuclear programme.

Perhaps the most significant achievement of Sethna was in taking a bold step to launch the spent fuel reprocessing programme in India way back in 1959, at a time when only four nuclear weapon states -- USA, Russia, UK and France -- had this technology. Thus India became the fifth followed by China, Germany, Japan and a few others much to the envy of many developed countries. The fact that reprocessing technology, considered complex and highly sensitive was introduced into the country's nuclear programme pretty early, speaks volumes of the great vision of Bhabha and sheer grit and determination of Sethna. They were pretty firm in their conviction that without reprocessing there is no hope of India gaining long-term energy security through the thorium route.

Undaunted by the fact that he is making a foray into the unchartered territory of complex reprocessing technology with no particular experience in this field, no specific published design information or any possibility for interaction with any other country familiar in reprocessing, Dr Sethna showed tremendous courage in taking up the challenge that too at a time when the country's nuclear programme was in its nascent stage.

A small core team of young bright engineers, mostly freshers who started their professional careers with this project directly under the leadership of Dr Sethna took up the task of development of technology and design of the first ever reprocessing plant at Trombay. I was fortunate to have been chosen as a member of this core team and had an opportunity to experience at close quarters and learn many a lesson on project execution.

Because this project was declared as of high priority it could be executed in a record time of less than five years -- 1959 to 1964. It was formally inaugurated by Prime Minister Lal Bahadur Shastri in 1965 and Dr Sethna made sure to invite many leading nuclear chiefs from various countries including some Nobel laureates. He wanted to showcase this achievement globally -- a creditable achievement indeed.

Dr Sethna always believed in leading from the front, extremely sharp and a dynamic leader. He had an amazing eye for details and endowed with a sixth sense to pin point anything missing to the discomfiture of his team members. Nothing could escape his attention. He was very quick in taking bold decision and I have never seen him getting bogged down on any account.

In dealing with his staff he never used to mince words, quite outspoken and considered a fire brand. I have seen people literally afraid of approaching him. But in spite of all the tough posturing he used to exhibit outwardly, he was soft at heart, quit receptive to constructive ideas and open minded. He used to have a typically mischievous smile through his eye glasses.

I recall an incident during the time I met him a couple of years ago while going to the prime minister's residence to discuss the Indo-US nuclear deal.

Seeing him with a walking stick, I jokingly remarked, Dr Sethna you were once such a fire brand. What a change! You are so mellowed down. For this, pat came the reply. What do you mean? I am still a fire brand! That was his spirit even when well past 80!

Having started my professional career under him and under his grooming, I have learnt a lot which has been immensely useful while handling responsibilities as a leader in my later years. His fond memories will always remain with me as long as I live. Every time I used to make a mistake he used to say I will kill you. I have been killed many times in words.

But he has allowed me just as many of my colleagues to be alive to remember him for all that he has done for technological advancement of the country's indigenous nuclear programme which has made the country proud and be recognised as a force to reckon with. It is some what sad that towards the end of his life he appeared disturbed at the terms of the nuclear deal as finalised which seem to compromise the values he attached to the long term energy independence and security of the country.

A N Prasad is former director, Bhabha Atomic Research Center and former member, Atomic Energy Commission.

A N Prasad