As n-deal moves forward, nostalgic scientists recall baby steps

July 24th, 2008 - 10:20 am ICT by IANS  

By Venkatachari Jagannathan
Kalpakkam, July 24 (IANS) As India readies to seal the nuclear deal with the US further consolidating its nuclear energy programme, a group of scientists here looked back nostalgically to the time the country indigenously developed its first reactor - using skid rollers to move heavy items and jacks and railway sleepers for lifting the heavy generator. Celebrating the silver jubilee of the unit 1 of the Madras Atomic Power Station (MAPS) at Kalpakkam, 70 km from Chennai, Wednesday afternoon, the scientists shared their memories of the days when they worked under technological as well as monetary restrictions to launch the project.

Recalled former station director M.H.P.Rao, “We had to lift the generator weighing 186 tonnes. There were budgetary constraints for hiring a crane. So we bought 380,000 railway sleepers and pulled and pushed the generator inch by inch the generator up for 33 ft.”

The wooden sleepers were later sold at a profit of Rs.800,000 (about $20,000), he added with a smile.

The construction and commissioning of the pressurised heavy water reactors (PHWR) of MAPS unit 1 took 16 long years.

“The period was used to build the domestic nuclear industry,” said M.R. Srinivasan, former chairman and now member of the Atomic Energy Commission.

However, the day the unit was synchronised was marked by a fire accident. “The incident happened at the turbine generator. It was Rao who took the fire hydrant to douse the flames,” Srinivasan said.

The scientists found cost-effective and practical solution for the problems they faced. In the process, many things that were done at MAPS before and after commissioning were actually unprecedented in the nuclear world.

“We brought 800 tonnes of heavy water from Rajasthan in tanker lorries to make unit I critical. The lorries were moved at night from Rajasthan at a very slow speed,” said Rao who later became a director of Nuclear Power Corporation Limited.

Srinivasan added India had started producing heavy water way back in 1964. “We didn’t import heavy water from Norway for MAPS. The heavy water used in the Rajasthan Atomic Power Station was downgraded and was moved to Kalpakkam where it was again made to the reactor grade,” he added.

The other firsts that MAPS have to its credit include partial double containment reactor building, vapour suppression system, first submarine intake tunnel and first indoor switch yard.

Those years were a period of trials and turbulations not only for the atomic energy scientists at Kalpakkam but also for the entire Department of Atomic Energy (DAE) as they were on the tenterhooks for a long time till the MAPS units stabilized.

However, the lessons learnt in setting up the first unit were later put to use in other PHWR plants built later in India.

Later, another unit was added to the MAPS. The two units use natural uranium as fuel and heavy water as the moderator and primary coolant. The both have undergone major renovation and modernisation, safety upgradation and coolant channels replacement.

What followed the first indigenously developed reactor is, of course, history.

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