`Name anything, we have a capability'

Published : Feb 27, 2004 00:00 IST

Interview with Anil Kakodkar, Secretary, Department of Atomic Energy.

On the occasion of the DAE's 50th anniversary, T.S. Subramanian met Anil Kakodkar, Chairman, Atomic Energy Commission and Secretary, DAE, in Mumbai on January 14. "Bhabha's philosophy was to find a scientist and build a laboratory around him. This is how the capability grew," said Kakodkar.

Kakodkar assumed his present responsibilities in December 2000. He was earlier Director, BARC. He played a key role in the indigenous development of a large number of critical systems of the Indian PHWRs. His work in the rehabilitation of both reactors of the Madras Atomic Power Station and the first unit of the Rajasthan Atomic Power Station bears testimony to his engineering capability to solve difficult problems. His pet project is the Advanced Heavy Water Reactor (AHWR), which will be powered by thorium, "the fuel of the future". The construction of the AHWR will begin in this fiscal. Excerpts from the interview:

The DAE is celebrating its 50 years. What were the targets when it was formed? What has been achieved? How do you plan to fill the gaps?

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. Naturally, emphasis was on enhancing the knowledge base and technological capability in nuclear science and technology. We had to go through a very difficult and challenging learning process because this is a technology where you will not get information easily.

Bhabha emphasised human resource development, training programmes and allowing scientists to develop things based on their ideas. He used to call it development from the grassroots. 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 capability goes beyond nuclear science and technology because there are several allied areas - computers, robotics, superconductivity and so on.

What is BARC doing in all these areas, including artificial intelligence?

We shall come to that. Bhabha's philosophy was to find a scientist and build a laboratory around him. This is how the capability grew. Then we got into the phase of deploying these technologies in the commercial and industrial domains, and that was a fairly big learning process. There were several issues of scale-up and there were problems of commercial performance. In those days, when the programme began, the industrial capability was rather limited. This posed a significant challenge. Then there was a phase when the exchanges were very strict after 1974 (when India conducted its first underground nuclear explosion at Pokhran). But the programme was robust enough. There were inherently strong capabilities and everything was overcome.

Today, we have reached a level where our commercial and industrial performances are at a level of global excellence. We benchmark our performance with the most competitive in the world. This is one positive side. The second part is that our PHWR technology is in the commercial domain... maybe, some part of the radiation technology is in the commercial domain. There are several areas, which are still to be developed to a level of mature deployment but the capabilities - the science and technology infrastructure - that have been built are so strong that there is confidence that realising these new developments is surely possible.

What are these developments?

For example, the Fast Breeder Reactor (FBR) technology, the thorium technology (AHWR), Accelerator-driven Sub-Systems (ADSS) and the hydrogen technology (Compact High Temperature Reactor). On the societal side, there are questions of food security, water security, health security and so on. We have good experience and a good foundation in these. There are several new areas where success can be achieved and, on the basis of the infrastructure we have, it is clear that these can be realised.

The other day, I heard NASA personnel say, with regard to the Martian rover Spirit, "We do not know what we cannot do."

A couple of days after India's 1998 underground nuclear explosions in Pokhran, the then AEC chairman, Dr. R. Chidambaram, used similar words about BARC. He told me, "There is nothing that BARC cannot do."

That is true. That confidence is there. What we are trying to do now is that just as pioneers in those days had big visions of using atomic energy to make a difference to society, we now have to scale it up, take it to a much higher level. Today, nuclear power accounts for 3 per cent of the total electricity generation. How to make it ten times larger, for instance? There are other applications of atomic energy. They contribute a small fraction to the Indian economy. How to make them big? There are strong possibilities. We have divided our programme into major areas. We have defined the key drivers and they will form the basis for pushing our programme.

There is another aspect. We are basically a research and development organisation. We have to see how we can create a multiplier effect in terms of whatever technology we develop. But the resource for technology development comes from somewhere else. I am of the strong opinion that if the technology we develop is good, is of use to society, it should be self-generating. Ultimately, we are talking of energy, food, agriculture, health, water resources, environment-based waste management and such other issues. These are areas where there are programmes of the Government of India and other governments, and also activities.

It should be possible for us to configure our action in such a way that we develop the technology and channel it through some mechanism so that it automatically grows rather than we try to do it ourselves. We become the technology providers and facilitators. We also do networking - bringing the financing people, bringing the user of the technology, putting them all together. So we have become the node for technology and we facilitate the process of its reaching society.

So BARC has been doing technology transfer. But we want to give it a special focus in specific areas where we have proven technologies. Even among them, we have chosen some as thrust areas.

What are the thrust areas?

The first thrust area is a larger share of nuclear power. The second is to explore the possibilities of the role of nuclear power as a primary energy source. Right now we are talking of nuclear power as an electricity source, and it will be an important electricity source for a long time to come. Very soon we will reach a situation where the energy source, such as oil and gas, will be in short supply. As our energy use grows, we will have to tap all our energy resources such as hydro, coal, oil and gas. It looks to me that there will be a stress on all these sources.

Our nuclear energy sources, particularly from thorium, are vast. Our technology focus at the moment is how to generate electricity from thorium. What about a point of time when the general energy sources are stretched? The question then is from where will we get the energy for transportation? From where will we get the energy for industrial processes? Just as we get crude oil, and refine it into energy products such as petrol, diesel, kerosene, naphtha, etc., I think the day is not far off when we will have to look at nuclear energy as the primary energy source.

So the question is, using nuclear energy can you produce hydrogen? Or can you facilitate pyro-chemical or pyro-metallurgical processes. In all these, the important thing is the temperature at which the energy is available. In the PHWRs, you get energy at 300C, and in the FBR at 500C. But for other applications - energy conversion applications - you require energy at 1000C. This is a technology development challenge and this is something we have begun doing (Compact High Temperature Reactor) so that in the years to come, we can look at nuclear energy as a primary energy source.

So, the first thrust area is to increase the share of nuclear power in the electricity generated. The second is to expand the source of nuclear power as the primary energy source. The third is what we can do in the area of agriculture. Thanks to the Green Revolution, we are better placed in agricultural output. Even so, oilseeds and pulses are areas that require more attention. That is where the strong point of BARC is - the mutant seeds developed in BARC. It is more focussed on oilseeds and pulses.

What has BARC done in the areas of oilseeds and pulses?

Of the 23 varieties of mutants developed in BARC, 11 varieties are of oilseeds (nine groundnut and two mustard), 10 are of blackgram (pulses), and there is one each of rice and jute. This is an important area where we still have to do work. These BARC varieties have been successfully cultivated and they have reached large areas. For instance, 30 per cent of the groundnut and 40 per cent of the blackgram cultivated in the country are BARC varieties. The idea is to contribute to enhance the production of oilseeds and pulses. We are talking to the Union Ministry of Agriculture, seed corporations so that the production grows. R and D for new mutants will continue.

The fourth thrust area is food. We are an agricultural economy. That is how we have been and it is still of great significance. We have two problems. One is migration from rural to urban areas because there are better jobs in the urban areas and better livelihood opportunities. The second problem is we don't do much value addition in food production. If there is large value addition in agro-production, it makes a big difference to the country's economy.

What kind of value addition?

A good part of value addition will take place in rural areas because that is where the raw material is produced. So you are creating employment opportunities in rural areas. These are employment opportunities with a technology content. This is a big opportunity for us to reverse the migration. Instead of the rural population moving to urban areas, we could not only arrest but reverse the trend. People will move from urban to rural areas because of large livelihood opportunities.

In the DAE, we have been concentrating on food technology in a comprehensive way. The first aspect is that we have been focussing on radiation processing of perishable food products to increase their shelf life. Something that would have lasted a few weeks can last several months. Thus farmers can access markets that are farther away. Besides, you can be choosy about your market and location. If the market (prices) is low, you can hold back your products for some time till the price improves. The farmer can be sure of getting the net returns on his investment. If he is sure of lucrative returns, he will cultivate more of that food item. This makes a fundamental difference to the economy. We are also looking at other technologies in food. There is the technology for osmotic rehydration and the technology by which insect infestation of grain can be tackled. We think these will make a fairly big difference to farmers.

The second part is food security from the point of view of health. There is difficulty in the hygiene quality of many of our exported items. If we hygienise them by using radiation technology, we can access markets abroad better. Especially chicken and other meat. If they are processed by radiation, a lot of complications can be avoided. Thus, our fourth thrust area is to enhance the shelf life and hygienic quality of food items, both of which together can contribute sizably to economic growth.

The fifth thrust area is health. In the DAE, we have been concentrating in a major way on tackling cancer. Radiation is an important treatment methodology for cancer. We have the Tata Medical Centre, which is a premier cancer treatment centre in the country. There are several regional cancer treatment centres, which have their own satellite hospitals and rural outreach facilities for diagnosing and treating cancer. With the cooperation of the Department of Space and the Union Health Ministry, we are talking of a telemedicine link, networking different hospitals.

For cancer treatment?

Yes. For instance, the link between the Cancer Centre in Guwahati and the Tata Memorial Hospital in Mumbai is already operational. There are 19 cancer centres in the country and we want to interlink all of them. Through that link, exchange of expert opinion, transfer of data, training programmes and service to patients can be done. Outreach can increase.

We have other activities in nuclear medicine. BRIT (Board for Radiation and Isotope Technology), for instance. BRIT manufactures about 25 pharmaceuticals and caters to the requirements of about 70 nuclear medicine centres in the country, in addition to exporting the medicines to a few neighbouring countries. About three lakh diagnostic studies and 15,000 to 20,000 therapies are done annually using the radio pharmaceuticals provided by BRIT. It has set up a plant at Navi Mumbai for radiation processing of spices and other products.

The sixth thrust area is urban and rural waste management. The DAE has a plant in Baroda [Vadodra], which has produced good results in the hygienisation of sewage sludge produced in the municipal limits of the city. The sludge that is hygenised and dried in the plant has a lot of nutrient value as manure. The Krishi Vigyan Kendra in the area, with which we have links, has applied this manure to plants in field trials and the results are good. The Krishi Vigyan Kendra sells this manure to farmers. Normally, this sludge is separated from water, dried and dumped somewhere. It has a lot of pathogens, which cause pollution. However, if you hygienise it, you kill all the harmful bacteria. If you inoculate it with some favourable bacteria, it becomes a biofertilizer and you can recycle it back to the farmers. So, on the one hand you avoid pollution, and on the other you get good organic fertilizer. We are taking this up with different departments to see how we can create a multiplier effect.

Simultaneously, scientists at BARC have developed a biodigester called Nisara-guna.

There is biodegradable waste that can be digested to yield manure and methane gas. Again, if you dump this waste somewhere, it emits a foul smell and becomes a host to harmful bacteria. Instead, if the biodigester plant is used to convert the waste into manure and methane, you have a wonderful source of energy and fertilizer. So all solid and liquid waste can be converted into manure, using our technologies.

The biodigester has been developed at a five-tonnes-a-day scale. We want to see how it can be scaled up to 25, 100 or 1,000 tonnes a day. We can address this issue of waste management in a completely environment-benign manner.

What you can do in the urban areas, you can also do in the rural areas. For example, the agricultural residue that results after the crop is cut is usually burnt and made into compost. But if you put the residue through the biodigester, you get a lot of energy and manure. Sugarcane bagasse has been used for power generation. This can be done for anything, not only sugarcane bagasse, and we will play the role of a catalyst.

Is desalination one of your thrust areas?

It is the seventh thrust area, converting sea water or brackish water into potable water by using either reverse osmosis or thermal desalination technology. We have a big desalination plant at Kalpakkam [near Chennai]. We want to grow on that experience. In Lakshadweep, water requirements are increasing, but it is bound by sea on all sides. It is a perfect case for setting up a desalination plant.

We are also talking about a barge-mounted desalination plant. It floats on water, moves along coastal areas where there is water scarcity. It can move from place to place and convert saline water into potable water.

Have you done it?

The barge-mounted desalination plant is under development. It is a Tenth Plan project. It has a small capacity; 30 or 50 tonnes a day. Big plants will not help in rural areas.

When will the first barge with the desalination plant be ready?

By the end of this Plan. Maybe in 2006 or 2007. People are working out the engineering details. We have taken this up as a mission.

The third direction we want to move in is in societal applications. For example, if you study the livelihood and resource patterns in a group of taluks or districts, you can define a basket of technologies that can contribute to the enhancement of livelihood in these areas. The technologies may come from anywhere. They may have been developed by BARC, the Department of Space or the CSIR (Council for Scientific and Industrial Research). But you have to configure programmes that can address the needs of a particular area, and that are consistent with the resources and economic activities of the region. We are trying to stimulate such a programme. It will take time. All this can be done with the help of scientists and engineers.

Have you planned any celebrations for the golden jubilee?

We have not thought of that. We are not in the celebrations mode.

Fifty years of the DAE is an important milestone. Don't you want to get nationwide attention?

Attention is there. We are spreading the message. It is also time for introspection. This 50-year message is strong in the department. One element is introspection and looking at how to prepare ourselves for the future. The second is we are trying to capture some important aspects of the history of the atomic energy programme in our country... . Of course, we do plan a function. We have not given a careful thought to it yet. We are in the introspection mode right now. We would like to carry this message to students, scientists and society at large.

Sign in to Unlock member-only benefits!
  • Bookmark stories to read later.
  • Comment on stories to start conversations.
  • Subscribe to our newsletters.
  • Get notified about discounts and offers to our products.
Sign in


Comments have to be in English, and in full sentences. They cannot be abusive or personal. Please abide to our community guidelines for posting your comment