I pass through four security checks on a tree-lined campus that will be off limits for inspections under the India-US nuclear deal, before I reach the boss of this 2,000-acre mini-city buzzing with 16,000 staff.
India’s premier and highly secretive nuclear research centre — the Bhabha Atomic Research Centre (BARC) — completes a half-century on January 20.
The man at the helm during this milestone is director Srikumar Banerjee who joined the BARC training school in the late ’60s. The director’s office was then under construction and a canteen that Banerjee frequented stood there. Trainees then stayed in barracks near Bandstand at Bandra where a five-star hotel now stands.
But those days, the high tide would wet the barracks and awe Banerjee, an IIT-Kharagpur alumnus unused to the sea.
"I had then seen the sea only rarely, as a tourist," said Banerjee. Now the director runs BARC from a sea-view room overlooking mangroves and the Cirus reactor that could be shut down in 2010 to avoid intrusive inspections.
With 4,200 scientists on his team, he is the expert-at-large who must make sense of ongoing technology research that covers science spanning less than a fraction of a second to designing reactors to survive a century. Some groups work on the best ways to store radioactive waste for centuries ahead. "Even if one spent 40 years at BARC, one would not be exposed to all its science,” said Banerjee. “I learn something every day."
And then there is the deal with the US, discussed among scientists here as a welcome breeze, but one that should not sweep them off their feet.
But Banerjee’s typical day is usually focused on science for civilian use. Developing alternative clean energy is high priority. "We are doing intense work on splitting water to get hydrogen as energy for transport and a substitute for petrol or diesel," said Banerjee. "Since water is not a pollutant, our biologists are also considering whether water molecules can be split with bio ingredients to retrieve hydrogen."
The materials scientist does not believe reading management books helps at the helm.
The day we met, he had meetings on issues like irradiating mangoes for export worthiness and a BARC project to desalinate seawater on a floating barge that can rush to calamity-hit areas with drinking water for six paise a litre.
Banerjee is partial to Tagore songs. He has just finished writing a 700-page book on the workings of zirconium and titanium alloys — in the time spared between scripting the 200 lectures he delivers every year.
Srikumar Banerjee Director, Bhabha Atomic Research Centre