India’s premier research and development facility in nuclear sciences and engineering, scientists of the Bhabha Atomic Research Centre (BARC) gave the country a strategic edge by developing the nuclear bomb. They have developed variants of nuclear fuels to meet the needs of the country’s nuclear power plants as well as strategic requirements for its nuclear arsenal. BARC was instituted as the Atomic Energy Establishment, Trombay (AEET), with Homi Jehangir Bhabha, who conceived India’s nuclear programme, as its first director. The primary task was to consolidate all research and development efforts for nuclear reactors and technology under the Atomic Energy Commission. AEET was renamed BARC in 1967. The first nuclear test reactors at BARC and the first power reactors at the Tarapur atomic power station were imported from the United States.
BARC has five test reactors. The facilities include research reactors for research and radioisotope production, plants for generating uranium metal and nuclear fuels, fuel reprocessing, waste immobilisation and seismic stations. Of all the research reactors at the centre, Dhruva represents the most significant engineering achievement. The high neutron flux reactor was designed, built and commissioned entirely by Indian engineers. It uses natural uranium as fuel, and heavy water as moderator and coolant. Dhruva is useful in investigations related to power reactor technology and production of radioisotopes required for special applications. The 100 MW reactor, though commissioned in 1985, initially experienced problems that delayed plutonium production for several years.
The plutonium nuclear fuel used in India’s nuclear tests in 1974 and 1998 came from BARC’s reactors. The effort gave Indian scientists the technological knowhow and confidence to not only develop nuclear fuel for future reactors but also the capacity to refine it into weapons-grade fuel for developing nuclear weapons. BARC has also designed and built India’s first pressurised water reactor, which was commissioned at Kalpakkam near Chennai, as well as the power unit and propulsion reactor for INS Arihant, the first indigenous nuclearpowered ballistic missile submarine commissioned in 2016.
With expertise in advanced reactor technologies, BARC is focused on developing newer technologies for generating nuclear power. At present, about 5,780 MW, or 3.5 per cent of the country’s power generation, is by nuclear energy. Substantial research has been done on technologies for using thorium in the nuclear fuel cycle and developing an Advanced Heavy Water Reactor—a technology demonstrator reactor of 300 MW to be located at Tarapur—as well as for use of thorium-based fuel on a large scale for generating commercial nuclear power, which is part of India’s three-stage nuclear power programme.
Construction of the Bhabha atomic reactor under way