Monday, 30th October 2017

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  • Published 22.07.14

The International Thermonuclear Experimental Reactor is an experimental fusion reactor being constructed at Cadarache in the south of France. It is the most challenging of all the research and development taking place in science and technology in the world today, and promises to go a long way in solving the world’s energy problems. This is an instance when Homi Bhabha was quite wrong; he had predicted in the 1950s that fusion power was just round the corner, but we are still thinking of uncertain dates at least 10 to 20 years hence.

The atomic nucleus holds the key to both nuclear fusion and fission. The energy in the fission reactor leads to electricity but one has to take great precautions against radioactivity. In the fusion process, deuterium and tritium are produced and there is no radioactive fallout. If and when the fusion experiment is eventually successful, it will provide unlimited energy to mankind that will last for more than 1,000 years.

The ITER is a magnetic toroidal device and is being built by several countries in a collaborative venture; the European Union, China, India, Japan, South Korea, Russia and the United States of America. An agreement was signed on November 2006 by India with ITER for this unprecedented partnership covering more than half the world’s population.

The ITER will produce 500 MW of fusion power with an amplification of 10, that is, the generation of ten times the input energy of 50 MW, from fusion reactions between deuterium and tritium atoms. It will start its first plasma operations around 2023 and the D-T operations around 2030. Even at that stage, it will still be a long way from commercial production.

India is participating as part of its plans to develop fusion as a source of abundant and environmentally-friendly energy. India was not a part of the initial design phase, but it was able to negotiate to join the ITER because, basically, it was invited to do so by the EU and the US, the latter because of the fact that the Indo-US civil nuclear deal was then being negotiated.

India’s capability in nuclear power and its knowledge based on research and development — being done at the Institute for Plasma Research at Bhat — were important in the assessment of the partners in the project. At present, about 300 scientists and engineers are working at the Indian end on India’s procurement and design activities.

India is obligated to supply a number of packages in kind to the project site. Among these are the Cryostat, the largest refrigerator in the world in the form of a stainless steel container to maintain the cryogenically cooled superconducting magnets of the ITER at liquid helium temperature, the Vacuum Vessel Pressure Suppression System, which is a large stainless steel pressure tank, the Vacuum Vessel In-Wall Shields, which are blocks of special steel to shield the neutrons produced in the fusion reaction, and other highly specialized items.

India is a participant in several international mega-science projects, such as the European Council for Nuclear Research at Geneva, the Electron Synchrotron and Facility for Antiproton and Ion Research in Germany, the Fermi National Accelerator Laboratory in the US and the Japanese synchrotron radiation facilities. Our prestigious involvement in the ITER project could therefore be considered only natural and proper.

Yet, it may be reasonable to raise a few questions in a spirit of inquiry. The Institute for Plasma Research was originally the brainchild of Vikram Sarabhai but its first tokamak fusion reactor did not work too well. The Superconducting Tokamak at Ahmedabad is yet to be commissioned but work is continuing steadily. Even the Saha Institute of Nuclear Physics in Calcutta has a small tokamak used for research purposes.

When we have inherent ability and capacity, can we not be more self-confident and follow in the footsteps of Homi Bhabha and Raja Ramanna, who had emphasized independence of action and self-reliance? It is probably true that we lack the financial resources to fund the whole project package, and that in today’s world, advanced industrialized countries would be loath to follow the lead taken by any developing nation. But it may have been fitting for us to take a leadership position rather than be admitted as a petitioner into a club of countries, not all of which are better endowed technologically than we are.