CEA-AEC Camaraderie

Frédéric Joliot-Curie was friends with severa Indian scientists. There were frequent correspondences between Homi Bhabha who was in Bombay, K.S. Krishnan in Bangalore, S.S. Bhatnagar in Delhi and Meghnad Saha in Calcutta. 

Saha, when consulted by the AEC “advised the government to follow the French model as the conditions were similar in the two countries”. Saha explained that France, “on termination of the war, they found themselves in an unenviable position. The government of General de Gaulle appointed an AEC at the head of which they proposed Professor Joliot-Curie, a professed communist, and Roger D’Autry, a civil servant. They set to work with great energy but found themselves handicapped on account of dearth of raw materials (uranium, thorium, graphite, beryllium), instruments and trained personnel.”

Seven distinguished scientists who comprised the Scientific Advisory Committee of the IAEA met on 4 June 1959 to advise the Agency on scientific matters concerning its activities: Dr. R Spence for Sir John Cockcroft, Dr. Isidor. Rabi, Dr. B. Groess, Prof. Emelyanov, Dr. Homi Bhabha, Dr. Bertrand Goldschmidt, Dr. Henry Seligman, Dr. W. Lewis and IAEA DG Sterling Cole. (Vienna, Austria, 4 June 1959) [Photo Courtesy: IAEA]

Along with Curie, Bhabha also had great personal relations with French Chemist Bertrand Goldschmidt who was the only Frenchman to work on the Manhatten Project and later became an expert on nuclear policy. Following Bhabha’s unfortunate death in 1966, Vikram Sarabhai who was the Chairperson of the Indian Space Program succeeded him to become the Chairperson of the Atomic Energy Commission. Sarabhai, known for his profound insight into the social function of modern science, negotiated with his French counterparts, the breeder reactors. These reactors were plutonium-fuelled and were based on the pioneering French technology of plutonium-breeding reactors. 

India acquired the designs for these reactors and Indian scientists were sent to France for training. The agreement thereby also justified the use of plutonium acquired from the Cirus reactor that was being supplied by the Canadians. Sarabhai was invited to witness nuclear tests conducted by the CEA of France in Mururoa, an atoll in the South Pacific region in the early half of 1972. Unfortunately, he suffered a heart attack on 30 December 1971 and passed away. 

The reign then fell into the hands of Raja Ramanna and Homi Sethna, who refurbished the ties and strengthened the Indo-French nuclear program. 

In May 1974, India conducted its first nuclear tests in Pokhran and was faced hostility from its nuclear allies such as the US, Canada, Australia, and Japan. The Soviet Union went silent. France on the contrary sent a telegram from the CEA then led by André Giraud congratulating India for a great “scientific feat“. France was the only country from the western world that continually stood with India and expressed encouragement to its endeavours. 

This partnership between AEC and CEA was not only fruitful scientifically, but it was also crucial to the political placement of the countries involved. Both France and India had vociferously opposed discriminating nuclear information censorship led by the US. The alliance was also important for ensuring the independence of foreign policy which was evidently seen when both France and India refused to sign the biased Non-Proliferation Treaty in 1968.