On IAEA's 60th Birthday, Remembering Indian Contributions to Nuclear Tech

"India’s abiding interest in nuclear energy grew out of a deep conviction that the power of atoms can be harnessed to help the country achieve human and societal development."

The IAEA headquarters in Vienna, Austria. Credit: iaea_imagebank/Flickr, CC BY-SA 2.0

The IAEA headquarters in Vienna, Austria. Credit: iaea_imagebank/Flickr, CC BY-SA 2.0

The International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) is celebrating its 60th anniversary from September 26-30, 2016. The agency’s statute received approval on October 26, 1956, and the first session of the agency’s general conference took place from 1-23 October, 1957.

During the plenary session at the 60th conference, fifty delegations had made formal statements. Sekhar Basu, the chairman of the Atomic Energy Commission and secretary to the Department of Atomic Energy (DAE), is leading a team of nine delegates including K.N. Vyas, director of the Bhabha Atomic Research Centre; S.A. Bharadwaj, the chairman of the Atomic Energy Regulatory Board (AERB); and Pranay Verma, joint secretary (external relations). Delivering the formal statement at the general conference, Basu recalled the historical developments that led to the formation of the agency.

“India’s Department of Atomic Energy and the IAEA have grown together and share a glorious history,” he began. “India’s abiding interest in nuclear energy grew out of a deep conviction that the power of atoms can be harnessed to help the country achieve human and societal development. That vision, espoused by Dr. Homi Jehangir Bhabha, the founder of India’s atomic energy programme, also shaped the evolution of IAEA,”

Striking a sentimental note, Basu reminded the delegates that Homi Bhabha led the international conference in Geneva in 1955 where IAEA’s inception took root. There was a tie between Geneva and Vienna on the choice of the agency’s headquarters. Bhabha, who chaired the body entrusted with the selection, voted decisively in favour of Vienna as he admired Vienna’s cultural and musical life.   

India has consciously made a strategic choice to pursue a low-carbon growth model in the coming decades. Basu informed the delegates that as announced by Prime Minister Modi, India’s intended nationally-determined contribution (INDC) announced at the COP 21 summit in Paris late last year will be ratified next week on October 2, the birth anniversary of Mahatma Gandhi.

Highlighting the developments in India in the field of nuclear power generation, Basu disclosed that India is currently preparing a comprehensive plan spanning the next 15-20 years to augment the investment in the nation’s nuclear power generation. With the addition of the Kudankulam-2 reactor to the national grid last month, India’s installed nuclear power capacity increased by 1,000 MWe.

“Our plants continue to work at high capacity factor. Nine more reactors, at various stages of implementation, will add additional 6,700 MWe capacity in the next six to seven years. We are also planning the construction of a number of additional PHWRs of 700 MWe capacity,” he said. Further, the ongoing engagement with Russia, the US and France will continue, and it will bring large additions of nuclear power in India. India is earnestly pursuing the finalisation of these projects with due attention to cost, technology and safety.

He referred to another notable development for India’s nuclear power programme. The country ratified the IAEA’s Convention on Supplementary Compensation (CSC) earlier this year. Apart from this, we have also operationalised the India Nuclear Insurance Pool with the launch of both the operators’ and the suppliers’ policies.

“These steps have now addressed all issues related to civil nuclear liability in India. India’s international civil nuclear cooperation in the last one year included conclusion of inter-governmental agreements on the peaceful uses of nuclear energy with the United Kingdom and Australia,” he clarified. He also asserted that India attached utmost importance to strengthening all aspects of nuclear safety measures, and that the safety performance of the country’s nuclear power plants continues to remain satisfactory.

Referring to the event at Kakrapar following a coolant channel failure earlier this year, he stressed that the safety systems worked perfectly and as designed and that there had been no exposure to operators or members of the public. Overall, the occupational exposures and the radioactivity releases from the nuclear power plants have remained well within the limits specified by the AERB, he said.

“It is a reflection of our commitment to the highest standards of maintenance that the Tarapur Atomic Power Station unit-2, which has been in operation since 1969, has been given regulatory clearance for continued operation.”

He then informed the audience that in conformance with the obligations under the Convention of Nuclear Safety, India has submitted a national report for peer-review at the upcoming seventh review meeting of the convention, which it will actively participate in over March and April, 2017. He also highlighted India’s association with the International Project on Innovative Nuclear Reactors and Fuel Cycles and noted that Indian scientists and engineers make regular contributions to it.

He listed some of the achievements  of  India’s nuclear fuel cycle facilities: the performance of several of these Indian fuel cycle facilities continues to reach higher levels every year; India has  initiated steps to develop new mining sites to augment its domestic  uranium production; uranium production at Tumallapalle Mill in Andhra Pradesh has also stabilised after the initial teething problems;  India set a record by producing 1500 tonnes of PHWR fuel at the  Nuclear Fuel Complex in Hyderabad last year; our Heavy Water Plants have worked at 115% capacity factor.

He revealed that in addition to meeting the domestic requirements, “we are trying our best to meet requests from many partner countries for export of heavy water.”

“Our reprocessing, waste management and fuel fabrication facilities dedicated to our second stage power programme continued performing very well. Performance of our research reactors has also been most satisfactory,” he said

The fast breeder test reactor at Kalpakkam has been operated at its highest-ever power. He stated that as part of technology development for metallic-fuel-based fast breeder reactors, irradiation has commenced. The production of metallic fuel is a challenging, high technology field. Basu enumerated the progress in many other areas of high technology: at the 500 MWe prototype fast breeder reactor at Kalpakkam, preheating activities prior to sodium-loading is in progress; commissioning activities are being pursued under rigorous regulatory oversight; the DHRUVA reactor at Trombay, producing medical isotopes, continues to operate at full power, recently touching its highest-ever capacity factor; research on thorium-related reactor technologies and allied fuel cycles have been assigned a high priority; and the INDUS-I and II synchrotron radiation sources at the Raja Ramanna Centre for Advanced Technology, Indore, are also continuing to perform well and utilise their beam-lines fully.

Various units of the DAE are working on all aspects of these technologies. The Tata Institute of Fundamental Research (TIFR) has discovered superconductivity in pure Bismuth at 500 micro-kelvin. TIFR has also developed three of the five major instruments being used onboard ASTROSAT, the first Indian satellite dedicated to astronomy.

Basu had thus highlighted the variety and diversity of R&D efforts. India is participating in several national and international mega-science projects like CERN, the International Thermonuclear Experimental Reactor, the Facility for Antiproton and Ion Research, the Square-Kilometre Array (SKA), the Thirty Meter Telescope, the Laser Interferometer Gravitational-wave Observatories (LIGO), and Indian Institutions and Fermilab Collaboration (IIFC). Basu also revealed that the MACE telescope being built at Ladakh in would become operational next year.  

India continues to support the IAEA’s member states by offering low-cost radiotherapy treatments to developing countries. The DAE’s Tata Memorial Centre is deeply involved in this activity. In July 2016, India presented its indigenous teletherapy machine Bhabhatron, along with a digital simulator, to the Bougando Medical Centre in Tanzania. India will soon also install a Bhabhatron at the Kenyatta National Hospital in Kenya, having made a similar contribution  to the National Cancer Centre of Mongolia in 2015. After the successful launch of the Cancer Staging App during last year’s general conference, another smartphone app developed by IAEA in collaboration with the Tata Memorial Centre and the All India Institute of Medical Sciences for “cancer staging for gynaecological cancer” was launched on September 28 at the Vienna Centre.

Basu described India’s continued active engagement on nuclear security issues through participation in the Nuclear Security Summit process, the Global Initiative to Combating Nuclear Terrorism, and through the activities of India’s own Global Centre for Nuclear Energy Partnership: “India believes that IAEA is the right global platform to discuss nuclear security issues.” He added that as part of India’s continuing contributions to IAEA’s nuclear security work, we are making a contribution of $1 million to the IAEA’s Nuclear Security Fund this year. India made a similar contribution in 2013.

“India looks forward to participating and contributing to IAEA’s international ministerial conference on nuclear security in December this year. We also congratulate the IAEA and the global community on entry into force of the 2005 amendment to the Convention on Physical Protection of Nuclear Material (CPPNM), the all-important legally binding convention on nuclear security.”

India was among the countries that ratified the 2005 amendment soon after it came into existence. As part of its commitment to global efforts to combat nuclear terrorism, India will host a meeting of the implementation and assessment group of the Global Initiative to Combating Nuclear Terrorism in New Delhi in February 2017.

“The global energy demands will continue to grow, and in order to ensure sustainable low-carbon energy generation, nuclear power is likely to remain a credible option and an important component of future growth strategy of many countries. In this scenario, India looks forward to IAEA’s continued leadership for fostering safe, secure and sustainable use of nuclear energy in the decades to come,” Basu said in appreciation of the agency.

India is closely associated with various activities of the IAEA and other agencies. For instance, during 2014-2015, over 60 scientists and engineers from the AERB participated in safety-related activities in the regulatory field alone. These include participating in the agency’s Integrated Regulatory Review Service, attending and contributing to conferences, workshops, technical meetings on diverse subjects such as advances in nuclear forensics, computer security and severe accident analysis, among others.

A bird’s eye view of various activities of the agency can be gathered from here. It is a time for calm contemplation and stock taking for. No one can ignore the seminal contributions the IAEA has made to the themes of this year’s Scientific Forum on Nuclear Technology for the Sustainable Development Goals.

K.S. Parthasarathy is a former secretary of the Atomic Energy Regulatory Board..