On the trail of thorium
By Matthew Chalmers
If you’re wondering who that is second from right, holding a bunch of flowers while desperately trying to smile naturally in front of a camera, right in the hub of India’s nuclear power programme, it’s me. I was in the subcontinent after being sent by Physics World magazine to write about India’s audacious “three-stage” nuclear programme that seeks to exploit the country’s vast reserves of thorium as an alternative nuclear fuel to uranium. (You can read my final article “Enter the thorium tiger” in the October issue of the magazine, which can be downloaded free of charge via this link
The bouquet, along with a large leather wallet, was presented to me as a gift from directors of the Bhabha Atomic Research Centre (BARC) near Mumbai. My fellow flower holders – all from the British High Commission in Delhi – were there to build links between UK and Indian nuclear scientists, while I was present to unearth what I could about India’s nuclear plans. The flowers came from BARC’s extensive flowerbeds, which were laid at the request of the late physicist Homi Bhabha.
BARC, near Mumbai. Credit: BARC
There’s a certain romanticism to the way Bhabha, who established India’s nuclear programme 60 years ago, is revered among Indian nuclear physicists. He not only provided a vision of energy security that thrives 44 years after his untimely death in an air crash above the Alps, but used his connections to set in place an infrastructure that ensured his vision became reality.
Initially perplexed at why other countries weren’t exploiting thorium – a fuel that has many benefits over uranium – I asked one senior BARC physicist why the UK doesn’t have a nuclear roadmap like India’s. “Ah!,” he said, waving a finger at me, “it’s because you don’t have a Bhabha!”
Indian nuclear physicists take great pride in having developed most of their technology indigenously, owing to India’s being a nuclear-armed nation outside the non-proliferation treaty (NPT). But writing my article for Physics World . was not without its challenges.
Professional hierarchy is more apparent than in, say, a UK physics laboratory, and at times the atmosphere while I was at BARC was hugely formal, particularly when the new lab director was present. Plans to meet a few students and postdocs working at BARC were soon dashed, and recording equipment in India’s heavily guarded government labs is none too popular either.
Access to India’s nuclear programme would have been difficult were it not for the diplomatic context of my visit – and even then there were issues when it came to dealing with India’s top nuclear officials.
Changing geopolitical relations, particularly since 2008, when the US and India signed an agreement that led to India being brought into the nuclear fold, have led several countries to line up to co-operate with India on civil nuclear trade and technology. The UK is one of them.
During my trip the new UK prime minister was also visiting India, along with a trade delegation. Shortly afterwards, a bunch of joint research grants between physicists in the UK and India were funded – selected from a dozen fully costed proposals drawn up in just two days in the basement of a central London hotel back in March amid a flurry of sticky notes and chirpy facilitators from the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC). It was an impressive feat to witness, although not without a few bemused faces. Most of the nine Indian and 20 UK delegates had never met nor had much idea about each other’s research interests.
The Mumbai streets. Credit: M Chalmers
One thing that most surprised me in India is how few people on the street, so to speak, seem to know anything about India’s nuclear programme. Those who did know about thorium (whom I found while sipping cold beer in Chennai’s Madras Club, having visited India’s other big nuclear lab – the Indira Gandhi Centre for Atomic Research (IGCAR) on the other side of the country to Mumbai) all thought the programme was nowhere near on track, which is not what the physicists involved will tell you. Most people I got chatting to also assumed that I was interested in their views on weapons, rather than on civil nuclear power, with one or two asserting India’s right to develop them.
There is a degree of sensitivity to civil-nuclear collaboration between India and countries that are signatories of the NPT, which includes pretty much every other country. While having lunch at BARC with the lab’s new director, he made no mention of India’s weapons research as he listed the many basic science and other non-nuclear research taking place there.
Prototype Fast Breeder Reactor. Credit: IGCAR