Thursday, April 11, 2013

A curious case of Uranium 235 offered for sale to US embassy in Nepal

The latest tranche of US diplomatic cables exposed by WikiLeaks has brought out into open, an interesting aspect of US-India relationship in the 1970's decade or during Kissinger years. This episode began with US embassy in Kathmandu, Nepal being approached by a Nepali businessman Mr. J.C. Thakur, to sell Uranium-235 to the Embassy.

On 26th September 1973, Kathmandu embassy sent a cable to US state department in Washington DC, informing them about attempt of this businessman. They also sent an intimation to US consulate in New Delhi. On the very next day, US consulate in New Delhi responded and informed Washington that this information should be conveyed to Government of India as the offered Uranium is likely to be from Indian sources. Their cable as exposed by WikiLeaks says:

Embassy would appreciate guidance from the department on whether we should bring this offer to the attention of the Indian government. We believe we should do so. We are confident the GoI would not permit or facilitate such a “sale”. If U-235 has been smuggled from nuclear power facilities in the Bombay area, it has almost certainly been stolen and the GoI should be informed,”

Expressing their opinion that this offer is more like to be a hoax, the cable adds further:

GoI should still be told we have been approached with a sale offer of purported U-235 smuggled from secret Bombay facilities. We believe that leveling with the GoI on this case would contribute to the atmosphere of trust and confidence in which we would like to deal with the Indians on peaceful uses of nuclear energy,”

Concurrently, the U.S. Consulate in Mumbai, which was informed about the offer, also came out with advice for New Delhi and Kathmandu on how to deal with U-235 in close proximity. It however refused to make any inquiry with the Indian Department of Atomic Energy, on possible loss of fissile material and said:

Congen [Consul General] has no relevant background on this matter or on J.C. Thakur. We will report any information which may come up on Thakur but hesitate make any inquiries at Indian DAE for fear arousing Indians’ suspicions.”

Washington cleared the request of New Delhi consulate in a week's time. It told the Kathmandu embassy to procure samples from the seller. It also advised New Delhi consulate, to use its discretion and apprise the Government of India informally of offer and indicate that we are attempting to obtain sample for analysis and will inform them of results.

Accordingly New Delhi consulate informed External Affairs Ministry, Government of India about the offer by Nepali businessman Thakur and his approach to the U.S. Embassy in Kathmandu. It also clarified to the MEA officials, that the Kathmandu Embassy was trying to get a sample for analysis and would inform the Indian government of the results.

Meanwhile Nepali businessman Thakur approached US consulate in Kathmandu and offered to lower down the price to US$ 35000 per Kg from the initial offer price of US$ 40000, and assured that he was in a position to supply 2 to 3 Kg of Uranium every month.

US consulate in Mumbai also informed The Indian Department of Atomic Energy chairman Homi Sethna, who was in direct touch with U.S. officials on the issue. He came up with a trivial but important issue. If the Uranium samples are sent to the U.S. for testing, US government would be actually associating itself with unauthorized shipment of nuclear materials. He therefore offered the Department of Atomic energy facilities in Mumbai for this test in the presence of U.S representatives.

However it is not known, whether Mr. Thakur really supplied any material in Kathmandu? If anything was supplied at all , where was it tested? Mumbai or in US? Only thing that is known is that there was no Uranium involved at all. It was a big hoax.

What is perhaps more important is to note the atmosphere of trust and confidence that existed between US and Indian Governments and willingness to share intelligence with each other, prior to India's first underground Nuclear test in Rajasthan in 1974. This was broken after that and only after the civil nuclear deal signed by President Bush in 2006-07, some amount of old trust and confidence could be regained.

(This article is based on a report in The Hindu)

11th April 2013

1 comment:

  1. I just hope that while India and US were still discussing the issue, Pakistan or China did not gobble up all Uranium!