Centre of nuclear power

Print edition : March 25, 2005

A view of the Tarapur Atomic Power Stations-3 and 4. - VIVEK BENDRE

Maharashtra occupies a special place in the history of India's atomic energy programme, with its world-class facilities at Mumbai, Trombay and Tarapur.

MUMBAI, Trombay and Tarapur, all situated in Maharashtra, occupy a special place in the history of India's atomic energy programme. The programme had its genesis in Mumbai, with the establishment of the Tata Institute of Fundamental Research (TIFR) in 1945. It was at the Bhabha Atomic Research Centre (BARC) at Trombay, near Mumbai, that the programme metamorphosed into a world-class one. BARC began working in 1957 as a small research and development centre under Dr. Homi J. Bhabha and it was renamed after him in 1967. Dr. B. Bhattacharjee, former Director, BARC, said: "BARC is the premier institute in science and technology in India, and perhaps is the largest R&D centre in the world under a common roof, where the widest spectrum of activities in nuclear science and technology is being pursued." In short, BARC is the mother-institute from where the entire programme of Indian nuclear science and technology has grown.

It was at Tarapur that the country's nuclear power programme took a commercial leap when two reactors started generating electricity in 1969. The reactors, called boiling Water reactors, were imported from the United States. The two units, called Tarapur Atomic Power Station 1 and 2 were built by the General Electric of the United States and have a capacity of 160 MWe each.

Today, history is being rewritten at Tarapur. The largest indigenous reactor built there, the fourth unit of the Tarapur Atomic Power Project (TAPP), attained criticality on March 6. The third unit, called TAPP-3, will reach criticality before the end of this year. TAPP- 3 and 4, both built by the Nuclear Power Corporation of India Limited (NPCIL), the flagship public sector undertaking of the Department of Atomic Energy, will generate 540 MWe each. Tarapur-4 is reaching criticality about eight months ahead of schedule. Both TAPP-3 and 4 are called Pressurised Heavy Water Reactors (PHWRs), and they use natural uranium as fuel and heavy water as both coolant and moderator. They are the largest PHWRs to be indigenously built, as 12 other PHWRs in the country have a capacity of only 220 MWe.

S.K. Jain, Chairman and Managing Director of the NPCIL, described TAPP-3 and 4 as "world-class reactors". Jain told Frontline: "As Mr. V.C. Agrawal, Project Director of TAPP-3 and 4 said, they are the first of their kind, totally developed in India by the NPCIL and the various constituent units of the DAE. The entire concept, design, equipment and fabrication technology are ours. The plant has been completed in less than five years, which is a significant achievement". On March 2, Agrawal said, "Right now, we have completed the addition of bulk heavy water into the reactor. Step by step, we are doing our job. More tests will be done and their results reviewed. Then the Atomic Energy Regulatory Board (AERB) will give us the final permission for the first approach to criticality."

According to D.K. Goyal, Station Director, TAPP-3 and 4, many new systems have been added to these two reactors and they have undergone extensive tests. They include the integrated emergency core-cooling test, the emergency power supply test, and the reactor regulation and protection system test. Goyal said: "All these systems have been commissioned and they have undergone tests to ensure that the design parameters have been met. During these tests, we created abnormal conditions to see how the systems behaved. Only after we tested them successfully were we given permission to load fuel into the reactor."

Nuclear power generation in India now is 2,820 MWe. Nine reactors are under construction in different parts of the country - the largest nuclear construction work going on in the world. These nine reactors will together account for 4,460 MWe. The NPCIL next plans to build PHWRs that will generate 700 MWe. It has ambitious plans to generate 20,000 MWe of nuclear electricity by 2020.

At the Tarapur Atomic Power Project, loading a nuclear fuel bundle, made of natural uranium, into a calandria channel of the fourth 540 MWe reactor.-VIVEK BENDRE

If today India is an advanced country in nuclear power technology, the man behind it is Homi Bhabha, the pragmatic scientist-visionary. He had the foresight to initiate efforts in 1944 itself to start nuclear research in India so that "when nuclear energy has been successfully applied for power production, say, in a couple of decades from now, India will not have to look abroad for its experts but will find them ready at hand."

Anil Kakodkar, Chairman, Atomic Energy Commission, said: "When the atomic energy programme was initiated by Dr. Bhabha, he was clear in his mind that nuclear science and technology should be used for national development in a big way, in not only electric power supply but several other applications. He visualised it as a programme that would be demonstrated indigenously, by Indian scientists and engineers... This laid a strong foundation for our programme. It is one of the most robust programmes. In terms of the range of atomic energy facilities, you name anything, we have a capability here. Of course, the ability goes beyond nuclear science and technology because there are several allied areas - computers, robotics, superconductivity and so on" (Frontline, February 27, 2004).

MAHARASHTRA occupies the pride of place among the States in hosting several DAE facilities. They include BARC, the DAE headquarters, and the NPCIL headquarters, all in Mumbai; nuclear power plants, the waste immobilisation plant and the fuel reprocessing plant at Tarapur; and several other facilities in Mumbai and in Nashik district. BARC, at Trombay, is the nursery of research and development not only in nuclear power technology but in the applications of nuclear energy in agriculture, medicine and food processing; nuclear weapons; nano science; robotics; human genomes; accelerators; lasers; superconductivity; supercomputers; artificial intelligence; virtual reality; nuclear fuel fabrication; and desalination.

Said Dr. Srikumar Banerjee, Director, BARC: "The Bhabha Atomic Research Centre is not just a research and development organisation; it is oriented to research and development, demonstration and deployment. This totality is our activity." BARC's major thrust areas today include the Advanced Heavy Water Reactor (AHWR) and the High Temperature Reactor (HTR). The AHWR, whose construction will begin this year, will use thorium as fuel. The HTR will be useful not only in generating electricity but in the production of hydrogen, the fuel of the future.

Dr. Banerjee said: "Our research in energy conversion is focussed in the direction of hydrogen energy. Another big area is the non-power application of nuclear energy in health care, agriculture, desalination and the hygienisation of municipal waste" (Frontline, July 16, 2004).

Radiation processing of food involves treating food items, mostly with gamma rays. This prevents sprouting in onion, potato, ginger, garlic and yam and disinfestation of cereals, pulses, spices and dry fruits, and renders meat and meat products pathogen-free. The Board of Radiation and Isotope Technology (BRIT) plays an important role in health care, industry, agriculture and research. BRIT, which is an industrial unit of the DAE at Navi Mumbai, manufactures radio isotopes and sells them to medical users all over the country. It supplies radio pharmaceuticals and allied products to 120 nuclear medicine centres for investigating body organs, and for the diagnosis and treatment of thyroid disorders. BRIT has set up a high-dose plant at Navi Mumbai for radiation processing of spices.

Another plant, using low-dose radiation processing, has been established at Lasalgaon in Nashik district for preventing sprouting in onions, potatoes and yam, and for the preservation of agricultural products. The Radiation Medicine Centre, Mumbai, which fathered nuclear medicine in India, provides radio-diagnosis and therapy. The Tata Memorial Centre, also in Mumbai, is a premier institution in the treatment of cancer - it is one of the best radiation oncology centres in the country. The mandate of the Advanced Centre for Treatment, Research and Education in Cancer (ACTREC), located at Navi Mumbai, is to conduct research on types of cancer common in India.

BARC has so far developed 23 varieties of mutants. Of them, 11 are varieties of oilseeds, including nine groundnut and two mustard, 10 blackgram and one each for rice and jute. About 30 per cent of the groundnut and 40 per cent of the blackgram cultivated in the country are varieties developed at BARC.