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News Analysis
India on way to joining the fusion club
Sridhar K Chari
Tribune News Service

The prospects of India joining a select band of countries exploring together ways to tap unlimited fusion reaction energy have brightened. This is the result of the Indo-US joint statement issued during Prime Minister Manmohan Singh’s visit to Washington.

The statement has a cryptic reference to something called ITER. The acronym is not even spelt out, and all that the statement says is, “India has expressed its interest in ITER and a willingness to contribute. The United States will consult with its partners considering India’s participation”.

A little sense of mystery is, perhaps, appropriate, as it deals with the rarefied realm of plasma physics. ITER—International Thermonuclear Energy Reactor—is an experimental ‘fusion reactor’ to be built by a consortium of several nations, including the US, many in the European Union, Japan, China, Russia and South Korea. They have come together to spend up to $12 billion (more than Rs 45,000 crore) to achieve the holy grail of nuclear technology – sustained energy from atomic fusion.

To some, the effort is akin to alchemy. To others, it is the answer to all our energy problems, promising not only a limitless supply, but almost total environment-friendliness.

It sounds almost too good to be true. Fusion research has been carried on for several decades now, but no group has really succeeded. A fusion reaction takes place when two atomic nuclei are fused together, overcoming their strong ‘repulsive’ reaction.

The way to do this is to accelerate the nuclei to great speeds and make them collide with one another. That is normally achieved by heating them to very high temperatures (that is why the reaction is referred to as thermonuclear). It is fusion reaction that powers the Sun, the source of all life and energy on earth.

It is also the reaction that takes place in a hydrogen bomb. The hydrogen bomb was first built in the 1950s. But it is one thing to just release all that energy in one go, and quite another to generate a sustained, controlled flow from a reactor.

This has been achieved with fission reaction (the `basic’ atomic bomb is a fission bomb), and this is what powers all the nuclear power reactors in existence in the world today.  In fission, energy release is obtained by a dividing nucleus. In a reactor, it gives off harmful radiation, generates toxic radioactive waste, and huge quantities of fuel are needed. These are disadvantages, which would hypothetically not exist in a fusion reactor. After months of negotiation, the consortium finally agreed to set up the reactor in France, at Cadarache.

The US now has formally committed to exploring the possibilities of India’s participation. Why is the government so keen? Will it help India?  The Department of Atomic Energy (DAE) believes so. “The project has a fairly high chance of success, if pursued along current lines”, says Dr R B Grover, Director of DAE’s Strategic Planning Group (SPG) and Associate Director of the Technical Coordination & International Relations Group at Bhabha Atomic Research Centre (BARC) in a conversation with The Tribune. DAE is not new to fusion work. The Institute for Plasma Research in Gandhinagar has been working on fusion for over 20 years, with a team of over 250 scientists. “The costs are indeed prohibitive”, says Dr Grover.

“That is why even the advanced countries have decided to team up, rather than go it alone. If we become a full member, we can also contribute and derive the same cost benefits. We will get full Intellectual Property Rights (IPR) to the technologies that are developed”. It is expected that India will be asked to contribute about 10 per cent of the cost over a period of time. The estimated initial cost is around Rs 20,000 crore up to 2016, (roughly $5 billion) when the first `plasma operation’ is expected. The plant will be based on a hydrogen plasma core operating at a staggering 100 million degree centigrade, and will produce about 500 MW of power. India will pay around Rs 200 crore per year, as part of its 10 per cent contribution.

It is not clear at this stage what our contribution will be on an estimated operating cost of another $5 billion over 20 years. How confident can one be of success? “As scientists and engineers, we undertake many R&D projects. We cannot say how many will turn out to be successful. But there is definitely promise here”, says Dr Grover. The Indo-US joint statement also adds, “the United States will consult with the other participants in the Generation IV International Forum with a view toward India’s inclusion”. Like ITER, this is an international consortium, led by the US. If the most modern of current reactors are generation III systems, the forum’s stated aim is to develop the next generation of “innovative nuclear reactors and fuel cycles that are likely to reach technical maturity by 2030”. 

Participating countries include Argentina, Brazil, Canada, France, Japan, Korea, South Africa, Switzerland and the United Kingdom. If the Indo-US joint statement fructifies, it will pave the way for India’s entry. “Discussions on Generation IV are at an informal level. It is too early to say how it will work out and what our contribution might be”, says Dr Grover. The Forum has so far identified six systems for research, covering gas-cooled fast reactors, lead fast reactors, molten salt reactors, sodium fast reactors, super-critical water-cooled reactors and very high-temperature reactors cooled with helium.

If India plays its cards well, it can position itself to derive enormous advantages from the Gen IV forum and the ITER project. Bids for constructing the ITER `Tokamak’ reactor will open in 2006, by which time India might have become a full partner. Overcoming the technological challenges is altogether a different matter. The promise of an energy panacea, however, should be a strong motivation.


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