Published : Feb 27, 2004 00:00 IST

A MOOD of optimism pervades the Department of Atomic Energy (DAE), which is celebrating its golden jubilee. The DAE's main mandate is to generate nuclear power in a safe and economical manner using indigenous uranium and thorium. Its growth in the past 50 years has been phenomenal. The DAE today is an empire that runs 63 organisations, including research centres, industrial organisations, public sector undertakings, aided institutions and service organisations, across the country. It has achieved world-class expertise and self-reliance in all areas and activities relating to nuclear electricity generation. India prospects, mines and mills its own uranium; converts it into yellow cake; produces heavy water; manufactures reactor vessels, seamless calandria tubes, turbines, generators and other critical equipment; and fabricates instrumentation and control systems for reactors. Besides, it designs, builds and operates its own Pressurised Heavy Water Reactors (PHWRs); recovers plutonium as a byproduct from the spent fuel; recycles that plutonium as fresh fuel for use in breeder reactors; and safely disposes of the radioactive waste. It can decommission aged reactors or extend their life too. The DAE has thus mastered a host of highly complex technologies, which no country would share with India.

The DAE has also done useful work in radiation medicine; nuclear agriculture; desalination; irradiation of potatoes, onions and spices to prevent their decay and sprouting; radio astronomy, lasers, accelerators, plasma, cryogenics and so on. The Nuclear Fuel Complex (NFC) in Hyderabad, a unit of the DAE, has developed seamless calandria tubes for use in the reactors of the Tarapur Atomic Power Project-3 and 4, according to its chairman and chief executive Dr. C. Ganguly. This is the first time seamless welding of the thin sheets used in the calandria tubes has been demonstrated anywhere in the world.

Also, depleted uranium has been used as a start-up material to power the second unit of the Madras Atomic Power Station (MAPS) at Kalpakkam. This is a big achievement because the depleted uranium comes from the reprocessing plants of the Bhabha Atomic Research Centre (BARC) using a novel dry process method, said Ganguly. While natural uranium contains 0.7 per cent of uranium-235, depleted uranium contains even less of it.

The DAE, which was established on August 3, 1954, owes a great deal to Dr. Homi J. Bhabha and Jawaharlal Nehru. Together, they were responsible for India reaching an enviable position in the field of atomic energy. Bhabha was a physicist, a pragmatic visionary and an excellent administrator. He started working in the field of nuclear power in 1944 and is acknowledged as the creator of India's atomic energy programme.

On March 12, 1944, he wrote to Sir Sorab Saklatvala, chairman of the Dorab Tata Trust, urging him to found an advanced school to do work in nuclear energy. Bhabha wrote: "When nuclear energy has been successfully applied for power production, in say a couple of decades from now, India will not have to look abroad for its experts but will find them really at hand." (Less than two years earlier, the first controlled nuclear fission chain reaction had been achieved in Chicago, in the United States.) This led to the setting up of the Tata Institute of Fundamental Research (TIFR) in 1945.

The Atomic Energy Act was legislated in April 1948, and on August 10 that year the Atomic Energy Commission (AEC) came into being. In November 1954, three months after the DAE was established, at a conference titled "Development of nuclear power for peaceful purposes", Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru said: "We want to utilise atomic energy for generating electricity because electricity is most essential for the development of the nation."

At the heart of the DAE is BARC at Trombay, Mumbai. It is the mother-institute from which the Indian nuclear science and technology programme has grown. It began as a small research and development centre in 1957 under Bhabha and was called Atomic Energy Establishment Trombay (AEET). It was named after Bhabha in 1967 following his death in 1966. Says B. Bhattacharjee, Director, BARC: "BARC is perhaps the largest R and D centre under a common roof in the world, where the widest spectrum of activities in nuclear science and technology is being pursued." BARC specialises in nuclear fuel development, breeder reactors, nuclear medicine, irradiation of food, desalination, robotics, artificial intelligence, virtual reality, superconductivity, super computers and fusion.

The flagship company of the DAE is Nuclear Power Corporation of India Limited (NPCIL), which operates 14 reactors - 12 PHWRs and two Light Water Reactors (LWRs). It is building nine more reactors in various parts of the country. There was a time when heavy water, which is used as moderator and coolant, was in short supply, but today India exports it to South Korea and China. Eight plants, located at Nangal, Tuticorin, Baroda, Talcher, Kota, Thal, Hazira and Manugura, manufacture heavy water and are run by the Heavy Water Board of the DAE.

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