It is good to see two pressurised heavy water reactors (PHWRs) of the Bhabha Atomic Research Centre (Barc) — TAPS 3 and 4 — going critical during the centre’s golden jubilee celebrations. Prime Minister Manmohan Singh dedicated the reactors to the nation last Friday on a visit to Tarapur — the ancestral home of the late Homi Bhabha, the father of India’s nuclear programme. The new reactors, with a capacity of 540 MW each, augment the two boiling water reactors (BWRs) — TAPS 1 and 2 — already operational at Barc and could be used for strategic purposes. They are not among the 14 reactors to be put under international safeguards as per the Indo-US nuclear deal.
Fifty years after it was established, Barc can be proud of having become a unique nuclear research centre, developing technologies for everything from building reactors and fabricating fuel, to reprocessing irradiated fuel for wider application of radioisotopes. That it has achieved this despite crippling international sanctions on India’s nuclear research programme makes it more remarkable. This is a good time for India to take a closer look at its atomic ambitions. A one-billion-plus population cannot realistically hope to reach much higher levels of per capita power consumption through the use of fossil fuels alone, and only a shift towards sources like nuclear energy could provide a solution. But if India’s plans to increase its current 2.5 GWe of nuclear generating capacity to 20 GWe by 2020 is challenging, it is nothing compared to the long-term vision of making nuclear energy an essential part of our sustainable development strategy.
Although India has become self-sufficient in the nuclear fuel cycle — from uranium exploration and mining, through fuel fabrication, heavy water production, reactor design and construction, to reprocessing and spent fuel management — a weak uranium resource base is its Achilles’ heel. The best solution obviously lies in India’s vast thorium reserves that could power future reactors, producing up to 10,000 times less radioactive waste than uranium or plutonium reactors. Fortunately, having spent 50 years researching thorium-based reactors, Barc possesses the unique technology to unfold a new roadmap for India’s energy security.