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At Tarapur, scientists race ahead of world

Tarapur, Jan. 11: As the sun goes down on the edge of a clear January sky, an unusually placid Arabian Sea lashes at the periphery of the Tarapur nuclear plant.

Inside, scientists, migrant labourers and fresh-faced engineers are quietly working against time to complete India’s biggest nuclear reactor at the Tarapur atomic power project, around 150 km from Mumbai.

“It is historic and I think everyone, from the scientists to the welders, has an idea what we are aiming at,” said R.C. Rawal, the principal project director.

The country’s biggest nuclear reactor at 540 MWe — it has not gone over 220 MWe yet in India’s other nuclear stations — is almost ready, a staggering 10 months ahead of schedule.

France, Russia and the US — the best in the world — have a five-year gestation period. Scientists here are completing Tarapur 3 in a little above four years. India’s largest capacity nuclear plant will be ready by December this year instead of October next.

If there is burning ambition, there is also hurt pride among the country’s nuclear scientists for being left alone by the global community, which took Homi Bhaba’s promise to make India a nuclear powerhouse as a threat.

“The initial years were tough,” says D.K. Goyal, the station director, adding that the only collaborative offer came from Canada while installing India’s first nuclear reactor in Rajasthan four decades ago. But Canada, too, left the project after reports of radioactive leak, which was never conclusively proved. Indian scientists still believe it was a global conspiracy to halt India’s nuclear advance.

“The same thing happened in Tarapur some years back when some local people, at the behest of NGOs, showed some dead animals near the plant and said it was because of radioactivity,” said Goyal.

“But there was something nobody could explain — no human being was hurt. We still believe there were other powers at work and this was a conspiracy.”

Although scientists are working 24-hour shifts, there are problems. “The Nuclear Power Corporation (NPC) has been getting an AAA financial rating by Crisil consecutively for the last three years but we need money as there is very little participation from the private sector,” rued Ranjay Saran, the site planning engineer.

“We know we can do it but we need help. NPC can add 10,000 MWe in the next five years and after that we will be a self-sufficient profit-making company. But to go so far….”

Finding money is a worry but “India has just sanctioned nine nuclear power projects and that is unprecedented in the world”, Saran said.

After Tarapur 3, there is Tarapur 4, which is again scheduled to be completed ahead of time.

“All of us are in a hurry. Every house will be lighted up in 20 years and, after we are gone, Indian scientists will have to ensure that coal or no coal, water or no water, India will have light and it will come cheap. It will come nuclear,” Saran added.

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