Harnessing the Mighty Little Atom

Department of Atomic Energy (DAE) has orchestrated a decades-long programme in the country that has put India on the global map of countries with nuclear power, bringing myriads of benefits of nuclear energy through the power and non-power applications of nuclear technology in its many forms and blessings

A multispecialty organisation

Since 1954, DAE has driven a multi-faceted programme to realise the many benefits of nuclear energy that has touched every Indian directly or indirectly. The DAE is a conglomerate of many super-specialties, and at the forefront of its scientific and technological march are the “industrial units” of DAE, which are the workhorse of the organisation.Supporting them are premier national institutions engaged in fundamental research and higher studies, as well as the DAE’s aided institutions and other contributing organisations. With its formidable scientific and technological prowess, the department has grown from strength to strength over the years, and so has the nation along with it.

While nuclear technology has revolutionised agriculture,raised food security and enhanced nutritional value of agricultural produce, it has also fought cancer and brought the promise of a new life to many. From scientific and industrial applications, to space missions and biomedical research, nuclear energy is a versatile boon to the mankind. The atom is a storehouse of tremendous amount of energy – a force that helps generate clean and green planet-friendly electricity that fights global warming. No wonder, there is no citizen of the landwho is not touched by the benign power of the mighty little atom, enabled by the energetic multi-pronged efforts of the DAE.

In its remarkable journey, the DAE has steadfastly and continually raised the bar for public welfare, community health, rural growth and overall economic prosperity. This makes the DAE a unique organisation that not only serves the grassrootsof the society, but also makes vital contributions to fundamental frontiers of science. It has also engendered and fosteredmany a multi-disciplinary scientific advancement, and in the process, inspired generations of scientists and academicians, thus strengthening the roots of the tree of science and helping it flourish.

Clean power for the nation

By powering the wheels of progress, electricity drives the modern society. There is a well-established linkage between per capita energy consumption and economic growth. However, the call of the hour is to not just generate electricity butgenerate ‘environment-friendly’electricity. Nuclear power is one such proven option for ‘round-the-clock’ power generation that not only serves the needs of the people, but also offers clean, green and emissions-free electricity. The DAE has thus been a torchbearer of clean power generation as well as other beneficial uses of nuclear energy.

Starting with India’s first two commercial nuclear power plants at Tarapur in 1969, the nation today has 22 nuclear power reactor units at 7 nuclear power plant sites across the country. Eighteen of these reactors are Pressurised Heavy Water Reactors (PHWRs). We have mastered the PHWR technology and have developed comprehensive capabilities in all the related technologies – from mining and fuel fabrication, to designing, constructing and operating nuclear power plants indigenously.  In addition to setting up indigenous PHWRs, we have also forged international cooperation on nuclear power generation to deploy Pressurised Water Reactors (PWR) as an “additionality” to the indigenous nuclear power programme. This not only expands our capabilities further, but also speeds up power generation in the country using a diverse route.Currently, 9 nuclear reactors, totalling 6700 MW of electricity, are under construction. 12 more reactors have been approved that would augment the total capacity by 9000 MW of clean power.

Sustainable power generation and energy security

The DAE is also on the verge of realising another dream in the arena of nuclear power technology. The work on India’s first prototype fast breeder reactor at Kalpakkam in Tamil Nadu is approaching finality and the reactor is slated to be unveiled soon. This is the steppingstonefor entering the second stage of India’s long-term three-stage nuclear power programme formulated by Dr.Bhabha. Moving forward, over the next few decades, a growing fleet of second-stage fast breeder reactors will pave the way for unleashing the third stage of the programme, which will multiply the fissile fuel inventory using ‘breeding’ of fuel – a process in which more fissile nuclear fuel is generated from fertile nuclear material.This transitional phase will usher India into an age of thorium-based nuclear power reactors. The vast proven resource base of thorium mineral reservesin the country would ensure sustained large-scale thorium utilisation and commensurate nuclear power generation, providing vital energy security for the country for several centuries.

Health for people

Radiological medical diagnosis and treatment is a life saver. Cancer no longer means a certain death sentence that it was in the earlier times. Radiotherapy, coupled with chemotherapy, is used routinely across the nation to provide affordable and effective treatment for cancer. Bhabhatron, a completely indigenous cancer therapy machine, is one of the many success stories of Bhabha Atomic Research Centre (BARC) – the leading R&D centre of the DAE and a pride of the nation. What more, we are also helping other countries to reap benefits of the power of the atom in peaceful pursuits. For example, we have provided Bhabhatronmachines to other countries. Among the myriad uses of radioisotopes, use of radio(active)pharmaceuticals – a special class of formulations of radioisotopes, suitable for diagnosis or therapy of several specific ailments – has emerged as a major field in medicine. BARC and BRIT (Board of Radiation and Isotope Technology) have remained at the forefront of R&D and production of a variety of radiopharmaceuticals. These state-of-the-art radiopharmaceuticals are supplied to hospitals and nuclear medicine centres across the country at an affordable price, thus serving thousands of patients every day.

Better nutrition

Nuclear technology has benefitted rural communities as effectively as their urban counterparts. BARC has developed more than 40 improved crop varieties, including items of daily consumption, such as rice, pulses and legumes, bananas, etc. The enhancements range from higher draught resistance, better resistance against disease and pests, and improved nutritional value. Further, irradiating food with gamma rays using radioisotope Cobalt-60 delays sprouting in crops such as potatoes and onions, thus prolonging their shelf life, while the process also kills microbes, thereby dramatically reducing food spoilage. Irradiation technology not only helps consumers, but also enables farmers to benefit from higher incomes.

Potable water

There is more water covering the surface of our planet than land, but potable water for drinking and daily use is in severe shortage. Nuclear power provides neighbouring communities a much-needed relief in this regard. The waste heat from the power plant is used to distil saline water, converting it into drinking water. Nuclear power plants can provide their employee colonies and adjoining communities with drinking water in this manner, thus addressing a vital daily issue for many. At Kalpakkam, the DAE has the world’s largest water desalination facility. The DAE has also developed several low-cost water purification technologies, for both domestic and community use. The benefit could thus be extended to many more people. Also, employing special nuclear techniques, DAE has successfully traced groundwater streams and made them available for irrigation.

Waste into wealth

Urban waste is a problem in many ways. However, organic waste is rich in nutrients that are suitable for generation of biofuels. The DAE has developed a novel method for fermenting organic waste using specially modified microbes that digest the organic waste and release methane. This type of biogas production is an example of appropriate technology for our country. It also enhances rural incomes, while proving as an effective alternate remedy to traditional waste disposal. This cleaner gas is a friendly alternative for cooking, and it is also practical for other applications.Notably, biogas produced in this manner is also sustainable and environment-friendly, as it recycles natural carbon instead of burning fossil fuels.

The DAE has also developed a sewage sludge hygienisation technology. The sludge is irradiated with high-intensity gamma rays to kill harmful microorganisms. Thereafter, a helpful variety of bacteria is introduced in the sludge mass. The hygienised sludge can then be used as fertiliser. Earlier this year, Ahmedabad Municipal Corporation started using this technology to hygienise dry sludge.

These are just a few examples of beneficial applications of nuclear power technology, and applications of radiation technologies in the fields of agriculture, medicine, industry and basic research. Thus, the mission of DAE to bring the benefits of nuclear energy and other domains of science and technology to the citizens is serving the society in countless ways, touching the lives of all of us – surely, safely and silently.

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