India & France: Beginning of the Common Nuclear Era

India and France share a long friendship and collaboration in nuclear and atomic energy research. It began way back during World War II when Homi Bhabha started corresponding with Frédéric Joliot-Curie amidst wartime information censorship by the Allied Forces. India passed its Atomic Energy Act in 1948.

Frédéric Joliot-Curie, then chairman of the French atomic energy commission (CEA), was invited by Bhabha and Nehru to India in 1950 during the Indian Science Congress in Poona under the presidentship of Prasanta Chandra Mahalanobis, the founder of Indian Statistical Institution.

J. D.Bernal , Nirmal Kumari Frederic Joliot- Curie, Madame Irene Joliot-Curie and Prasanta Chandra during a visit in January 1950. Credit: Indian Statistical Institute (https://www.isid.ac.in/~pcm125/ImageGallery.html)

During this visit, Frédéric Joliot-Curie and his counterpart Homi Bhabha who was the then Chairperson of the Atomic Energy Commission of India made efforts for technical cooperation between the two countries. The placement of these talks was extraordinary because it was also the time when India declared non-alignment and something like this had serious foreign policy implications. These talks initiated negotiations of the first bilateral nuclear cooperation agreement outside the Manhattan Project.

A special meeting was held in New Delhi on 17 January 1950 of the Indian Atomic Energy Commission (AEC). Joliot-Curie, representing the French counterpart of AEC, proposed that France would share technical information pertaining to Uranium purification, reprocessing of graphite, and most importantly the designs of a low power reactor. This was negotiated in exchange for thorium, beryllium, and uranium to be exported by India to France.

It was hard to believe that such negotiation had happened especially under the backdrop of US-led scrutiny and censorship over atomic and nuclear research and nuclear technology.

The Indo-French collaboration materialised in 1951. With the signing of a bilateral agreement for the research and construction of beryllium-moderated reactors, India and France entered a new era of nuclear capacity building. The agreement also made the AEC one of the first foreign atomic energy bodies with which the CEA collaborated in a magnific capacity.