Heavy water paranoia

Heavy water paranoia The US government's paranoia over nuclear proliferation has led it to ban the transfer of its fertiliser plant technology to India, according to reports published in the beginning of September. The US government spokesperson says the technology may be diverted to manufacture of heavy water or deuterium oxide (D2O) -- an isotope of hydrogen with almost twice its mass, which is used in nuclear power plants.

The Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT), which India has not signed, bans its members from exporting any technology that might be used for developing nuclear capability. But experts call the US fears illogical. There is nothing covert about the use of fertiliser plant technology by many nations -- particularly the ammonia-hydrogen process -- to manufacture heavy water. In fact, six of India's eight heavy water units use this technology. The process involves using ammonia and a mixture of hydrogen and nitrogen called synthetic gas, obtained from fertiliser units, to extract the deuterium molecules. Besides, according to R Chidambaram, secretary of the department of atomic energy (DAE), India is self-sufficient in heavy water.

The ban would have no serious consequences for the Indian fertiliser industry, contends N K Krishnan, secretary in the ministry of fertilisers. "There is not much to choose between America's Kellogg technology and the Italian Snamprogetti -- the staple technology of most of our fertiliser plants. Both are equally efficient, except that the American technology probably has a slightly more efficient version of the ammonia-hydrogen process," he argues.

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