The damsel of Trombay

Print edition : May 04, 2007

Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru, with Homi Bhabha, dedicating Apsara to the nation on January 20, 1957.-THE HINDU PHOTO LIBRARY

"APSARA was the catalyst for everything," said V.K. Raina, Director, Reactor Group of the BARC, summing up how everything connected with India's nuclear power programme began with this research reactor on BARC's premises. When it went critical at Trombay on August 4, 1956, it marked the arrival of India's nuclear energy programme. DAE officials recall how Homi Bhabha himself conceptualised the design of the reactor, how it was built entirely by Indian engineers in "a record time" of about 15 months; how Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru named it Apsara; and how it will soon take "a new avatar". The Apsara mystique has never waned.

Apsara is a swimming-pool-type reactor loaded with enriched uranium as fuel. The fuel core is suspended from a movable trolley in a pool filled with water. The pool water serves as coolant, moderator and reflector, besides providing the shielding.

The "damsel" has aged gracefully and her 50 years sit lightly on her shoulders. Other research reactors such as Purnima-II and Zerlina, which were built several years later, have been decommissioned but Apsara is raring to "rejuvenate" herself.

The histories of BARC and Apsara are intertwined. On January 20, 1957, Nehru inaugurated the Atomic Energy Establishment (which was later named after Bhabha) and named the research reactor Apsara. Nehru explained why the name "Apsara" was appropriate for the reactor. He said, "The name we suggest for it is Apsara which, you know, means a celestial damsel or a water nymph. This is a swimming-pool reactor and Apsara is specially connected with water. Therefore, it is appropriate. So I am sure with your approval, I name this swimming-pool reactor Apsara."

BARC has three operating research reactors: Apsara, CIRUS and Dhruva. A fourth research reactor is all set to go critical in May or June. Nuclear scientists will use this critical facility to study the core physics aspects of the 300-MWe Advanced Heavy Water Reactor and the Pressurised Heavy Water Reactors.

D.K. Shukla, Scientific Officer, Reactor Operation Division, BARC, said, "It will be a benchmark for computational models under ideal conditions. We have designed the systems to test theoretical models. "

BARC also has plans to build a 30-MWt (megawatt thermal) research reactor in Visakhapatnam in Andhra Pradesh. It will be a test-bed for solid-state physics, radioisotope production for high-specific activity, for fuel testing and material testing.

A publication called Apsara brought out on the 40th anniversary of the reactor, sums up its importance thus: "Apsara enabled our scientists and engineers to gain insights into the complexities of design and construction of a nuclear reactor and to learn the intricacies of controlling the nuclear fission chain reaction... Apsara served as the stepping stone for advanced work in several nuclear facilities that were subsequently set up at Trombay."

According to P.K. Iyengar, former AEC Chairman, Bhabha's friendship with Sir John Cockcroft, Director of the Atomic Energy Research Establishment at Harwell in the United Kingdom, enabled him to obtain the fuel (enriched uranium) for the reactor since Harwell was also building a similar reactor. Bhabha decided that the civil works, the shielded pool and the control system of the reactor should be designed and built in India. The DAE plans to upgrade Apsara. The March 2006 Separation Plan entails that its core will be shifted out of BARC but it will have double its original core in its "new avatar".

The next reactor to be built at BARC was CIRUS, which reached criticality on July 10, 1960. This 40-MWt reactor uses natural uranium as fuel, heavy water as moderator and light water as coolant. CIRUS has been used for production of radioisotopes, research in solid state physics and fission physics.

But the reactor that makes "even the Americans quake in awe" is the 100-MWt Dhruva, which went critical in August 1985. It is one of the high-flux research reactors in the world and serves as a tool for research in frontier areas of nuclear science and technology.

T.S. Subramanian

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