Tuesday 7 August 2007
Indians in Silicon Valley aren't famous just for the big bucks they made as hi-tech entrepreneurs - quite a few have made an impact as technology pioneers
Indians in the United States are down in valuations, but not in value added. Business India celebrated the success of Indian hi-tech entrepreneurs in the US in a special issue at the start of this year. Many of the Silicon Valley millionaires then mentioned fell sharply in net worth after the Nasdaq index crashed from 5,000 points in March last year to less than 2,000 points in August this year. But the downturn also separates the men from the boys. We introduce here three individuals who have pioneered technology and entrepreneurship in diverse fields such as fibre optics, tunable lasers, digital cinematography, optics, biotechnology, microprocessor design and broadband communications and networking.
Through the fibre glass
With his hearty laughter and easygoing nature, the ebullient Dr Narinder Singh Kapany reminds you of a neighbourhood innkeeper. But his appearance misleads. Kapany, at 74, has launched a start-up, K20ptronics, which makes tunable lasers and other components for optical networking. The firm hopes to commercialise products based on state-of-the-art Dense Wave Division Multiplexing technology, patented by Kapany. However, not many people know that Kapany also launched what was perhaps the first hitech Indian start-up in the US in 1960 - when Silicon Valley's poster boy, Sabeer Bhatia, was not even born.
Kapany's unassuming manner does not indicate that he had demonstrated, for the first time SO years ago, that light could be sent through glass fibre. His path-breaking project, as a PhD student at Imperial College in London, led to his being called the "father of fibre optics". "From my high-school days, the idea of bending light around the corner was rattling in my brain," he says. "When I was at Imperial College in 1951 to take an advanced course in technical optics, I discussed it with my professor, who added some ideas of his own and took it to the Royal Society, which gave me a scholarship to do a PhD."
Why the fuss about bending the path of light? The reason is that light normally travels in a straight line. But when light moving through air enters another medium, such as water or glass, part of it bends and is transmitted, while the rest is reflected. When the angle of incidence is more than a certain critical angle, light gets totally reflected at the interface. Thus, if light has entered a totally internally reflecting pipe, it will be transmitted along the pipe, even if the pipe is bent into various contortions. British scientist John Tyndall had shown in the 19th century that light can travel through a jet of water, even if it's curved. This effect is used in fountains, in which a coloured light source at a fountainhead gives the impression that different coloured water is springing from the fountain. However, nobody had succeeded in using glass fibre to transmit light and images. There was even the fear that even if it were possible to pass light through the medium, the signal might suffer a loss on the way and not come out at the other end of the fibre. But Kapany was bent on trying just that.
Born in 1927 in Moga, Punjab, Kapany was brought up in Dehradun where his father had settled after retiring from the Royal Air Force. Armed with a BSc in physics, Kapany joined the local ordnance factory. Here he gained experience in designing and making optical instruments. In 1951, Kapany got the chance to study optics at the University of London, and grabbed it.
Testing his ideas in a laboratory experiment, however, was not easy. He had to get glass fibre drawn. So he went to the then famous Pilkington Glass Company, where he learned how to draw glass fibre to make glass fabric such as fibreglass. The optical quality of the glass was not important to the firm at all. "I took some optical glass (optical glass is pure glass with no bubbles or any kind of impurity) and requested the company to draw some fibre from it. I also told them what I was going to use it for, and they humoured me," recalls Kapany. However, what Pilkington sent a few months later were spools of fibre, made of green glass meant for beer bottles, which was very fragile and almost opaque. "I spent months making bundles of fibre and trying to shine light at one end to see if I could see it at the other end, but no light was coming out. That was because it was not optical glass. So, I had to cut the bundle to short lengths and use strong light from a carbon arc source and finally I was able to demonstrate it in 1952-53," he recalls.
By 1955, Kapany completed his doctorate and was all set for a return to India. However, the Institute of Optics at the University of Rochester in the US drew him. He decided to go to the US for "one year", and this eventually stretched to nearly 50 years. After Rochester, he went to the Illinois Institute of Technology near Chicago to head the Optics Department. "I did a lot of exciting work there for four years, but did not want to live in Chicago, he says, "So, I came to California and started my first company in 1960 called Optics Technology."
Lasers were hot technology at that time. Charles Townes had just demonstrated a Ruby Laser and Ali Javan was building the first helium-neon laser in Bell Labs. Kapany demonstrated that Ruby Lasers could be used for eye surgery. "I made lasers for eye surgery and optical filters and other instrumentation. I took it public in 1967. They were crazy times like we had here in the Valley last year. We were very successful,” recalls Kapany.
In 1973, Kapany started another company called Kaptron, built it up and sold it to AMP. This made optical connectors for FDDI (fibre distributed data interface) "I stayed there 10 years as an AMP fellow and developed a number of new technologies and products for them. I left them a year-and-a-half ago and started the present company, K2Optronics. Last year we got two rounds of funding, totalling $42 million. We are making DWDM components, tunable lasers and so on. We specify what we need and buy the chips and produce very high quality lasers for Metropolitan and Access networks. We have some cutting-edge special designs for lasers, which is patented technology. We have a fairly aggressive programme,” says Kapany about his latest venture.
How does he view the multi-billion dollar industry his inventions have spawned? "In every place a number of friends come up and say accusingly, 'see what you have done,” he guffaws. Kapany has taught in Stanford, Berkeley and UC Santa Cruz, and has published over 100 research papers, besides holding over 125 patents and four books. Besides optics, Kapany is interested in promoting Sikh heritage and culture. His collection of Sikh art has done the rounds in several museums around the world. He is also a patron of the Sikh Foundation in the Silicon Valley, which he founded in 1967. He has generously donated to academia to create a chair in Sikh studies at the University of California at Santa Barbara and a chair for optoelectronics at UC Santa Cruz.
Besides playing with light, Kapany's hobby is sculpture, and he has had several exhibitions of his work. Kapany visits India almost every year and is a keen observer of the fibreoptics scene here.
One would think Bala Manian, who lost an eye in childhood in a ghastly accident while playing with a sharp compass from his school geometry box, is limited in his vision. But that would be only physically true. He is probably one of the most versatile entrepreneurs in the Silicon Valley. Digital cinematography, optical imaging, bioinfomatics and biomedical instrumentation are his playgrounds. In the last 20 years, he has created seven successful start-ups in as many different fields of technology. Manian who is a mechanical engineer by training, is the closest one gets to an 18th century French encyclopaedist in a Valley full of frenetic people with narrow vision and a QSQT - quarter-se-quarter tak - approach to life.
When Business India met him at his home in the Valley, he was preparing to visit India and speak to biologists and computer science experts here on the new opportunities in creating an information infrastructure for biological discovery. "Today, by the term bioinfomatics, is understood genome sequencing and protein sequencing. Actually it is much more than that. It is pattern recognition. But there are too many people who talk the talk and very few who walk the walk," says Manian, who cannot suffer shallow conversationalists. "I will see if I can interest some people in it. It needs a confluence of understanding, of data mining, pattern recognition, clustering algorithms and biology. The cost advantage of doing this in India is clear to everybody. But I have been away from India for 35 years and 1 call myself an NRI - Non Relevant Indian. For me to assume that just because I am of Indian origin, I know what needs to be done in India in the sphere of policy formulation, is presumptuous. As it is, there are too many people going there and pontificating. However, what needs to be done technologically is very clear to me."
"I want to illustrate that even though I am a mechanical engineer, I did the whole cell analysis. I did not have biology background, but I did not hesitate. People need to shed fear. Also, they need to focus on what they can do better, since there are so many things one could do. The window of time that is available to you in this life is small. Fads come and go, but when it comes to science, the only way to succeed is hard work. If I can make these three points, then my trip would have been worthwhile," he says.
Manian's understanding of novel technologies and their possible commercial exploitation is legendary. In 1978, when he first moved to Silicon Valley, Eugene Kleiner of Kleiner Perkins, the best-known venture capital firm in the Valley, asked him to be a consultant for the firm. When ICICI started the venture capital firm, TDICI, its chairman N. Vaghul, who is Manian's elder brother, asked him to advise TDICI on which ventures to invest in biotechnology.
Manian studied physics in Loyola College, Chennai, and graduated in mechanical engineering (instrumentation) from the Madras Institute of Technology in 1967. He wanted to set up a business, but one of his professors advised him to apply to the University of Rochester to study optics. "But Rochester was more interested in laser physics and physical optics than the engineering aspects. Hence, soon after getting my MS, I shifted to Purdue University for my PhD and became the first graduate student in engineering optics," he says. However, Rochester beckoned him after his PhD to set up engineering optics there and he spent the next four years in Rochester. Meanwhile, he got involved in industrial consulting for Spectra Physics, a Silicon Valleybased firm and developed the first portable laser barcode reader for supermarkets. Manian also did a lot of work for the US spy satellite community in Washington on digital imaging. Besides establishing Manian as a name to be reckoned with in optics, Rochester also helped him get his soul mate. He married Tasneem, a Pakistani pediatrician and both moved to the Silicon Valley in 1978.
At that time, the Star Wars films from Hollywood were gaining immense popularity and set a new dimension in the quality of special effects. Having heard of Manian's reputation in digital optics, George Lukas, director of the Star Wars series and founder of Industrial Light and Magic, approached him to develop new digital special effects technology. That led to Pixar. Manian developed the first three-colour input-output device to take live scenes, digitise them, put special effects, and put them back on film. These effects were used in Indiana Jones-The Last Crusade, The Return of the Jedi and The Adventures ot Young Sherlock Holmes. The Motion Picture Academy, which awards Oscars in Hollywood, honoured Manian with a special award for his technical contribution to digital cinematography during the 1999 Oscar ceremony.
Manian goes to the roots of a technology, sees its possible applications elsewhere, and does not see any borders in his way. This ability to cross boundaries took him into medical imaging. "In those days, CT scan and MRI images had enormous depth in terms of dynamic range. But doctors had to take photographs from CRT monitors, which had poor resolution," he says. "I took the technology that I had developed for Lucas' films and for the army for digital reconnaissance satellites and developed the first laser film recorder for medical imaging. I worked with Kodak on that. I took digital images and printed them directly on film without going through the CRT, so all intermediate degradation in image quality was avoided."
"At the time, I was approached by a new start-up called Adobe, to see if I could apply it in the printing industry. But then Cannon came up with a laser printer, so I saw no point in getting into it," he recalls, "So I focused on medical applications, In 1980 I started Digital Optics Corporation and that was acquired in 1984 by Matrix, which was later acquired by Bayer-Agfa, Gene Kleiner told me that time: 'This is not your first or last idea, so you should go ahead and sell the company: He opened up doors for me, I provided venture capitalists with free consulting. Within two years I found something else to do. I had two ideas in life sciences, and thus started two companies simultaneously. One was Molecular Dynamics, which developed the most successful product, called storage phosphor technology, which is used in radiography. It used a radioactively-labelled phosphor in radioimmunoassay, animal studies of drugs, and also in genetics as a marker. The other company was called Lumisys. It did the opposite of what I did in Digital Optics. I knew wideband communications was coming, so community hospitals, which do not have radiology experts should be able to digitise x-ray photographs and send them to experts through modems. Lumisys quickly captured the market for film digitisers. This is called telemedicine today. Lumisys went public in 1995 and Kodak acquired it in 2000. Molecular Dynamics, which had gone public in 1993, was acquired in 199R by Amersham-Pharmacia Biotech."
Bala started Biometric Imaging in 1993, which was subsequently acquired by Becton Dickinson. Biometric Imaging's technology can make thousands of measurements in a blood sample.
In 1999, Manian came across a technology from MIT and Berkeley (the original work was done at Bell Labs) relating to nanocrystals, which showed that when very small semiconductor crystals developed some very interesting optical properties - they emit coloured light when light is shone on them, just like dyes do. However, while dyes bleach in a short time, nanocrystals do not. This property makes them useful as markers in studying a biological process in situ. "We can send them inside a cell and see what is happening - did the gene get activated by what I am doing, is there a message there, am I able to detect RNA? Is it expressing cytokine, (a small molecule that plays a role in cell-to-cell communication)? If I put a cytokine, is it activating the cell? Now I can put thousands of them in a small bead, which is only two microns (micron is a thousandth of a millimetre) in size, and use it as a sort of barcode and then follow that individual bead. I can uniquely identify that head," says an excited Manian. And that marked the birth of a hot new start-up called Quantum Dots Corp.
Manian, the serial entrepreneur-cum-scientist, holds 35 patents and has about 30 research papers to his credit. "Unlike most other entrepreneurs you have met, I don't go and start companies. I find a solution to a problem then I use a company as a way to implement the idea. Even though I am the chairman of the company, I can go and sit with somebody in the lab and go to the component level in hardware or check the software code. I en joy all that. In a lot of ways my approach to entrepreneurship is different from most others," he says.
All his companies are a driving distance from his home. His main preoccupation now is how to apply the information that science has, to biological discovery. He says science is generating islands of information and likens the situation to a Tamil proverb that says five blind men in a room with an elephant will each come up with differing pictures of the beast, depending on which part of it they touch. "People who work on SNI', proteomics and clinical informatics are looking at different parts," he explains. "I believe the next decade is going to be, not one of new discoveries, but of putting it all together and seeking connections. In order to make big strides we have to shed the Pavlov mentality. We have a tendency to do what is being done in University of Pennsylvania or some other place. Somebody has to break out of this and leap frog either from the clinical side or from the basic biology side. There is a great opportunity to recognise multi-dimensional data and begin to see patterns in it and there is no better machine than the human mind for that. That is how IT and biology have to converge."
His wife Tasneem has stopped practicing medicine and is very active in a support network for victims of domestic violence. Manian is on the board of trustees of the University of Rochester. "I want to figure out how to give back to India in education, instead of sitting here and pontificating," he says. We hope Indian universities, CSIR Labs and the Department of Biotechnology are listening.
The Raza of semiconductors
If one needs an example of enlightened India-Pakistan cooperation in the hi-tech Silicon Valley, then one need look no further than Atiq Raza of Raza Foundries. Unlike Kapany and Manian, Raza is not a pioneer in technology but one of the first to have ventured into the semi-conductor business, taken on giants such as Intel and given Indian and Pakistani engineers a break in his ventures.
"I have been playing a role in the hi-tech industry much before virtually any Indian arrived on the scene," says Raza. "During that time there was a tendency among some Indians who were beginning to move up, to distance themselves from other Indians. They probably thought that it would appear parochial. For me, exposure to Indian professionals had shown that they are very good. So when Nexgen happened, there were enough Indians coming out of IITS and other colleges and from the industry here and they appeared to be the cream of the crop. In Nexgen we made no differentiation between somebody who came from the Indian subcontinent or outside. One of the earliest cases of an immigrant-friendly environment was in Nexgen, Rajvir Singh and Vinod Dham were all part of it. Between 25 and 30 per cent of the engineers were Indian. Many of them have gone up and become extremely successful and have remained very close to me."
"We also created TiE (The IndUS Entrepreneurs) organisation with Kanwal Rekhi, Suhas Patil and Prabhu Goel taking an active role. I was not that active, but I emphasised that there should be no dividing line between Indians and Pakistanis. Whenever a Pakistani came to me, I told them also that we should remain completely united with Indian organisations and that is the way I have operated for the last 22 years in the United States. Most of the people who have known me have seen my consistent stand," he says. Recently, when Arjun Gupta, of Telesoft Partners, a venture capitalist firm, wanted a Pakistani expatriate to partner him to fund a project in Stanford University on how to reduce military tension and nuclear risk between India and Pakistan, he called Raza and got instant co-operation. "I did not fully understand the project until later, but I had enough faith in Arjun's values and judgement and so I signed up," says Raza.
His own value system has its roots back in the subcontinent. His family hails from Allahabad but his father, who was a brilliant radio engineer, though not formally trained as one, had settled in Lahore for health reasons. Raza was born in Lahore and when after Partition the family returned to Allahabad, they saw their home had been commandeered for refugee rehabilitation. Instead of entering into a dispute to get their home back, the family migrated to Lahore for good. Raza studied physics and philosophy simultaneously at two colleges of Punjab University. His interest in philosophy was kindled by his maths teacher in Aitchison College, a many-splendoured personality, who knew Sanskrit and Persian and had read the Upanishads and the Mahabharata and the Ramayana in the original. Raza then went to the Imperial College in London to study electrical engineering.
Unlike most of his peers, he felt obliged to give something back to the country he was born in, and went back to Pakistan in 1972 where he joined the Telephone Industries of Pakistan, Raza worked there for six years, but he saw the social fabric being increasingly taken over by extremists. "The liberal in Raza made him spend his spare time in the slums of Lahore after office hours, trying to help people out. He used to be called "masterji", since he was teaching them how to fill forms or fight for some basic services. But he started seeing Pakistan spin out of control into the hands of fundamentalists and armed groups of all sorts, and migrated to the US with his wife and child in 1978. He joined the University of Oregon and then later Stoanford University, for a masters in electrical engineering.
Soon after his graduation, he joined Synergetics and then Trilogy and later VLSI Technologies. When he was ready to take over as the chief executive officer of the US operations of a European semi-conductor company, Rajvir Singh came to him and asked him to join Nexgen as vice-president, engineering. Nexgen was a pioneering Indian start-up in 1987 in computer hardware, founded by Thampy Thomas. However, its business plan of making clones of Intel 386 processors and making pcs around it was not succeeding. Raza, who grew to be chairman and CEO of the company, changed the business plan. They started focusing on microprocessor design. Nexgen went public and its technology was coveted by another chipmaker AMD, which was struggling against Intel. AMD acquired Nexgen for $615 million in 1995. Raza became the president and coo of hamd and was the prime driver behind its new generation of chips: K6, K7 or Athlon. Their success made Intel see competition for the first time. “The foundation that has been built in AMD is quite solid and will bother Intel for a long time. Andy Grove used to call AMD the 'Milli-Vanelli of the chip industry who were lip-synchers and not singers, but today AMD is very strong,” says Raza.
However, in 1999 Raza had enough of AMD. His long-time friend Vinod Dham had left AMD in 1998 and joined a start-up, Silicon Spice, as CEO. Silicon Spice (it was acquired last year by Broadcom for a stock swap worth $1.2 billion) was trying to make broadband chips. At that point, another start-up was coming into being in the same space. This was called Vxtel, and was funded by Arjun Gupta's Telesoft Partners. Raza too had invested some money in Vxtel. Arjun Gupta asked Raza to run the company, and Raza accepted. "Vinod is a good friend and a highly competitive guy," says Raza. "But I saw that he was burdened with legacy issues at Silicon Spice, whereas we had a clean slate, so I had a better chance of succeeding" explains Raza. Consequently, when Vxtel produced its chips, Intel acquired it in February this year for $550 million in cash. The deal has shown that even in a downturn when many start-ups have shut down, there is demand for high technology. "I had seen what happened in the case of Silicon Spice-Broadcom deal (the stock of Broadcom has slid down so much that the acquisition is valued at less than $200 million today). So when Intel offered us stock and many of my board members were ready to accept it gladly, I put my foot down and insisted on cash," recalls Raza.
Raza has always encouraged other hi-tech entrepreneurs. When Rajvir Singh was trying to raise a million dollars for his Redwood Ventures fund, Raza was the first to write a cheque for $100,000 while being dropped to the airport.
Today Raza wants to set up more start-ups than just become a venture capitalist. So, he has started an incubator called Raza Foundries. “lt has a holding company structure where you not only invest, but support start-ups. We are concentrating on broadband networking communication products. If you ask people in the venture capitalist community, they speak reasonably well of us. We do not incubate companies, but we invest in strong start-ups and then grow them. Cisco has invested $60 million in us, Broadcom $10 million, AMCC $10 million, PMC sierra $10 million, Electralogic $10 million, Siemens and Infineon $12 million. They want an introduction to the companies we invest in and strategic partnership. They would like to have early access to products, and may be strategic acquisitions. We are now treated on par with large corporations in the chip industry," explains Raza.
Going back to his pet theme of subcontinental cooperation, Raza says, “Clearly, we need statesmen and not politicians. Today there may be more statesmen in India than Pakistan. If we build these bridges, and the statesmen establish their vision, most of the differences will disappear. It is the most natural alliance and I was telling Pakistan's ambassador to UN that these 22 years I have not understood the division and I did not understand it when I was in Pakistan too. Every time I run into Pakistanis, I tell them that it is an artificial boundary and it can be at least reduced in its sharpness," says Raza. We say, may his tribe increase.
When the history of high technology is written, the boom and bust of the past five years will appear as a blip. But the contribution made by Indian technologists and entrepreneurs in inventing new technology and successfully commercialising it, will have several luminaries listed. The three we have profiled here are definitely part of that select group.
Business India, October 15-28,2001
More than a cure
Rheumatoid arthritis is increasingly being recognised as a crippling disease which affects nearly one crore Indians
Anthrax hogs the headlines and cardiovascular diseases and cancer hog the research dollars, but a crippling disease affecting 60 million people is blissfully neglected or assigned to cold bones and old age. That in short is the story of rheumatoid arthritis. That is why WHO has announced 12 October as World Arthritis Day and will further this decade as the Bone and Joint Decade.
In a series of conferences in Mumbai on 11 and 12 October organised by Aventis Pharma, several well-known clinical experts from the Indian League of Rheumatology Associations did their best to educate the public about this affliction. According to Prof. A.N. Malviya, former professor at AIIMS Delhi and a world-renowned rheumatologist, rheumatoid arthritis (RA) is a highly neglected disease. Even though in a survey done in Ballabgarh semi-urban area near Delhi with a sample set of 39, 000 people, his team found 0.75 per cent afflicted by RA, on a national scale that works out to a massive 75 lakh!
Pain and aching in and around the joints, particularly hands, feet and knees
Swelling of joints
Persistent fatigue and run-down feeling
Muscle weakness and decreased physical activity
Inability to sleep due to painful joints
The disease affects women primarily (female-male ratio is 3: 1) and can occur at all ages, though it is more common post-menopause. Since the 1980s it has also been recognised that besides deforming her beyond repair, RA is serious enough to reduce the life of a patient by 5-8 years.
The cause of RA has not been understood, but it is recognised as one auto-immune diseases, In plain English it means the body's immune system, which is supposed to differentiate between "self" and "non-self' (harmful foreign bodies like bacteria and viruses) gets confused and starts attacking "self" (its own cells). In RA the T- and B-cells (part of body's defences) start attacking the synovium or joint lining (see figure). The synovium gets inflamed and thickened, producing large volumes of sinovial fluid. This causes pain, stiffness, and swelling. When this process is chronic, severe proteins are released, which damage the nearby cartilage and bone, causing erosion. This leads to joint damage, instability, and deformity.
Belatedly its seriousness has come to light. In fact there are just a handful of doctors in India who practice rheumatology exclusively. There are several physicians-cum-rheumatologists and fairly large number of orthopaedics treating the disease. Malviya stresses that educating doctors about the disease is almost as important as educating patients. The most common treatment for RA over the years has been to give the patient painkillers and non-steroidal antiinflammatory drugs like paracetamol, ibuprofen, or the more modern Cox II types, which do not damage the intestines. Malviya prefers to call them "plain killers.” "The disease is surprisingly aggressive. It is not a protracted degenerative disease. If treated within six weeks it can almost surely be arrested. If treated within three months there are good chances, though some damage will have set in. But if delayed any further the damage becomes irreversible," he says. That is why painkillers which just reduce pain and give temporary relief give the patient the impression that everything is okay while irreversible damage is being done beneath the surface.
In the last few decades several drugs have been found to have a very good effect in arresting RA, though they were not initially discovered for that purpose, For example chloroquine, an anti-malarial drug, has been found to have very good effect on RA, in addition to being not expensive. Methotrexate, an anti-cancer drug, has been successfully used against RA and is the most popular treatment today. Malviya, who was one of the pioneers in developing methotrexate therapy, finds it the most effective in combination with other drugs. Sulfasalazine, a drug meant for a bowel disease, has also been found effective against RA.
What these drugs do is affect the rates at which cells divide by interfering in purine metabolism, a necessary step in DNA production - a much-needed raw material for cell division. Now when an autoimmune disease like RA has set in, the body produces too many warriors to fight itself. By reducing cell division, the growth of T- and B-cells is also arrested and hence the beneficiary effect for a RA patient. But the drugs have other side-effects and cannot differentiate between a T-cell and any other cell. Thus, all cell division gets arrested. In fact anti-cancer drugs act in this indiscriminate way and stop the growth of cancerous cells along with healthy cells, leading to severe side-effects in patients undergoing chemotherapy for cancer. One definite precaution to be taken in this therapy is that though the disease affects women more than men, they should not be pregnant since the growth of the foetus also involves intense cell division.
A drug targeted to arrest RA has recently been developed by Aventis Pharma. Leflunomide (trade name Arava) was launched in India on World Arthritis Day. This is a new-generation drug targeted at arresting lymphocyte division by largely interfering in pyrimidine metabolism. It has been found to have an excellent effect on patients in a very short time. However, the drug remains in the system for a long time and does not get expelled through excretion easily. Thus, women planning on conception should inform their doctor of the same so that he can give them additional drugs to flush leflunomide out from the system. which can take a few weeks. So far, leflunomide used to be smuggled into India from Thailand and costs about Rs150-200 per daily dose. However, Aventis is planning to introduce it at about Rs40.
There are also extremely effective biologicals (products of biotechnology) which cost from Rs60.000 a dose to Rs 4.5 lakh. A major concern in this segment is the 56 per cent customs duty that has to be paid and then all the local taxes. Since imports are in small quantities and the government does not really earn much money from this high duty. if these drugs are made duty-free then thousands of RA patients will get some relief from pain to their pockets as well!
Interestingly, as one of those wonders of nature, though RA patients cannot take any of the above-mentioned disease-modifying treatments during pregnancy, the body itself arrests RA and there is a temporary remission!
"The main problem today is educating the patients and the general population," says Dr K.M. Mahindranath, a renowned rheumatologist from Bangalore and president-elect of the Indian Rheumatology Association. "Since it mostly affects women, the initial symptoms of prolonged morning stiffness are taken as a sign of laziness by family members. Then, as the patient loses control over her fingers and starts dropping things she will be called clumsy and when she becomes sloppy and cannot even dress herself properly she stops going out and becomes a recluse. This in turn leads to depression, which worsens the problem. What is needed is proper counselling and encouragement to engage in appropriate physical therapy and other exercises. in addition to drugs." he adds. He welcomes Aventis's initiative In this regard through its newly launched "joint Effort" - where Aventis facilitates communication between the physician and patient using its own network of 200 medical representatives and 10 trained counsellors.
"We have exclusive marketing rights for Arava in Europe and North America, but owing to the IPR regime in India we do not enjoy any protection here. Therefore, it is to be expected that this drug, which in a short period of two years has reached sales of $250 million will be copied by some Indian companies and introduced in the Indian market. But there are two issues. Firstly, the drug has to be produced in extremely controlled conditions where there are no women workers and where no other drug is produced. If the authorities here insist on these manufacturing practices, I doubt anybody will qualify, considering that today only one factory in France supplies to the whole world and a new factory only to serve the small Indian market does not make economic sense. Secondly, RA therapy is more than just drugs. It means counseling, communication, and actually building a long-term relationship with the patient of which our Joint Effort will be a key component. I seriously doubt if any other company will invest in this." says Aventis CEO Ramesh Subramaniam.
But there are researchers who are trying to find out in detail how herbal drug therapies work using tools of modern medicine. C.N. Qazi, director of the Jammu Regional Research Laboratory of CSIR, and his predecessor S.S. Handa are two of this breed. Handa started work on boswellic acid extracted from the gum produced by the tree Boswellia sarata found in the forests of Madhya Pradesh. The beneficial effects of these guguls and gums for arthritis are cited in ayurveda. Handa studied the anti-inflammatory character of boswallic acids extensively over the last two decades. The standardised boswellian extract is being marketed by Gufic Laboratories under the brand name Salaki.
Qazi has picked up where Handa left off. He studied the other fractions in the extract and found those that are not just anti-inflammatory but actually immuno-modulatory in nature. The method of extraction, preparation, and use of these compounds have been patented by CSIR in Europe and the US, and animal trials too have been conducted with no toxic effect. Human trials are still to be done, but since herbal medicine does not require human trials, CSIR is negotiating with some companies to market these Immunomodulatory extracts, which have been effective in the arrest of arthritis. The research has generated a lot of interest internationally and this CSIR laboratory is getting a lot of snail mail and e-mail.
Fuel for Controversy
The nuclear energy industry finds itself in an impossible situation strapped as it is for both fuel and funds. It has survived against great odds and could do much more in terms of energy generation if things improved.
A delegation from the ministry of external affairs, which also included the chairman of the Atomic Energy Commission returned on 7 October 1993 from Washington after the latest round of discussions with their US counterparts. The members of the team didn't have much to celebrate on their return, for negotiations between India and US continue to be deadlocked over the issue of Tarapur fuel.
Meanwhile, on 24 October 1993, the treaty between India and US for nuclear cooperation, that involved the setting up of two Boiling Water Reactors and supply of low enriched uranium (2.4 per cent U235), expires. The 30-year-old treaty has seen many ups and downs in Indo-US relations in the field of nuclear energy, which started with co-operation but are now bogged down in contentious negotiations, if not outright confrontation.
Under the agreement, after calling for global tenders General Electric, the US built two Boiling Water Reactors, each capable of producing 210 mw of electricity. The two reactors went critical in February 1969 and commercial operations began on 28 October 1969.
Following the Pokharan blast in 1974, and the passing of Nuclear Non-proliferation Act by the US congress in 1978, Tarapur faced severe problem regarding spares as the US placed an embargo. This led to the Tarapur reactors getting downgraded from 210 mw to 160 mw.
The US applied the 1978 Act retroactively and stopped fuel supply from 1983, ten years before the contractual obligations ended. The reactors require 40 tonnes of fuel each. Ten tonnes of it need to be changed every 18 months. The spent fuel if chemically processed, this highly radioactive waste will yield Plutonium 239. This isotope of plutonium can be used to make nuclear weapons or to run a nuclear reactor. Hence, the spent fuel in nuclear industry attracts more attention than the actual fuel itself.
To prevent misuse of this plutonium for a weapons programme, a strict accounting procedure has been set up by the International Atomic Energy Agency. IAEA inspectors periodically visit the country and meticulously record the movement of every gram of uranium and plutonium from the fuel assembly stage to storing, loading in the reactor core and storage of spent fuel. In Tarapur reactor they even have two remote controlled cameras continuously video recording the fuel elements.
A tripartite agreement was made between India, US and IAEA that the latter will subject Tarapur reactor fuel to safeguards. The arrangement has worked so far with no friction between IAEA and India, In fact, Hans Blix, director general of IAEA said in Bombay recently, "There have been extremely good relations between Indio and IAEA. Even as the tripartite agreement expires, India and IAEA have entered into 0 bilateral safeguards agreement in anticipation of successful conclusion of a tripartite treaty.
The problem then is with the US. It tried to persuade India to sign the NPT, which would have placed all its nuclear establishments, including those built indigenously and supplied with indigenous fuel, under the "safeguards". India has staunchly refused to sign the treaty on the grounds that it discriminates between weapon states and others.
R. Chidambaram, chairman of the Atomic Energy Commission, takes pains to explain that India is not for proliferation 01 nuclear weapons. He says, "India does not agree with NPT in its present form which only seeks to prevent horizontal proliferation while doing nothing about vertical proliferation." If the US did not want to complete the contract, then India could have exercised its right to remove safeguards from the spent fuel in Tarapur and reprocessed it in 1983, enabling it to use the recovered plutonium whichever way it wanted.
The US averted such a confrontation by allowing France to supply the fuel for ten years. The uranium hexafluoride gas that used to come in cylinders from France was converted into uranium dioxide powder at the Nuclear Fuel Complex, Hyderabad. Here it was converted to pellets and loaded into fuel rods made of zirconium alloy. This was a major advance in India's fuel fabrication capability from the early days when the entire fuel used to come in the form of fabricated fuel rods from the US.
However, in 1992, France also signed the NPT, along with China and South Africa and several others, and brought further pressure on India to put all its installations under full scope safeguards, Since India did not agree to do so, France also did not want to continue the supply after the end of the contract in October 1993.
India has a strong legal case in going ahead with reprocessing the Tarapur fuel and extracting plutonium from it. It has built adequate facilities for the same in Tarapur. Since India has not yet developed large scale uranium enrichment facilities, it wants to run the Tarapur plant with a mixture of uranium and plutonium oxides called MOX fuel. Some bundles fabricated with this fuel have already been tested at the Cirus research reactor in Trombay. After trying out a couple of bundles in the core of the power reactor, India plans to use MOX bundles on a large scale in 1995.
The present stocks of low enriched uranium will last till then and, in fact, may be another year if managed prudently. India surprised the US team in Washington recently by offering to continue the bilateral safeguards with IAEA for another two months and later conclude an annual agreement regarding the same. "Since the plutonium extracted from Tarapur is put back into Tarapur under IAEA safeguards, there can be nothing more non-proliferative and peaceful than this," says Chidambaram.
Atomic energy sources indicate a softening of US stand on reprocessing and are hopeful of an amicable solution to the vexed issue. As a quid pro quo, Bill Clinton's administration seems to be interested in enlisting Indian support to a new proposal to agree to enforce a cut-off on the production of all weapon grade fissile materials like highly enriched uranium and plutonium. Chidambaram says, "We have no objection in principle to this since it does not affect our peaceful nuclear energy programme and, for the first time, sounds non- discriminatory between weapon states and non-weapon states. However, we have yet to see the detailed proposal."
The international conference to review NPT is coming up in 1995 and it is possible that with the current push being given by the Clinton administration towards voluntary moratoriums on tests and other confidence building measures, reduction of tension in West Asia, etc, there may be a wider consensus on how to achieve non-proliferation and an agenda for gradual disarmament. If such a thing does come into being, then India might have very little moral justification for not signing the NPT in its new avatar.
Indian strategy to be energy independent and the embargoes imposed on transfer of nuclear technology to India after Pokharan, led to considerable development of indigenous capabilities in instrumentation and adaptation of the Canadian Pressurised Heavy Water Reactor technology.
However, from a plant engineers' point of view, Boiling Water Reactors are much easier to operate, Though Tarapur itself was state-of-the-art in BWRs in the '60s, by now six new generations of BWRs have come out and none of the original generation are still working in the world except at Tarapur. The reason is that while BWR-I had a capacity of 210mw the present BWR-6 are advanced in every way besides producing 900 mw to 1,100 mw.
Due to the technology embargo India has totally missed these developments, It is the sheer ingenuity of Indian nuclear engineers that has led to upgradation of Tarapur to BWR-3 level in various respects, Besides, while MOX will get rid of the problem of storing highly toxic plutonium, the already downgraded Tarapur reactor will be further downgraded power wise since the loading cycle for MOX is much shorter (nine months instead of the existing 18 months), thereby leading to further loss of generation.
Interestingly, the rest of the BWR-I s were shut down not because of any inherent design problems or accidents but due to the fact that operating costs for a 100 mw plant of that generation are nearly the same as that for a 1,000 mw plant. They proved uneconomical. However, in an energy-starved India, 320 mw is 320 mw.
The bane of Tarapur, as with the rest of nuclear power programme, has not been technology, but the tariff structure. As K. Nanjundeswaran, executive director, corporate planning and co-ordination, of the Nuclear Power Corporation, exclaims. "If we are not given a rational tariff structure that will help us generate funds f(x plant modernisation and expansion, then it becomes meaningless to say that the government will not give us budgetary support and we have to expand based on internal resources."
B.K. Bhasin, chief superintendent at Tarapur, is proud that the once barren industrial landscape of Tarapur is now filled with over 1,500 medium and small scale industries involving an investment of over Rs.2,000 crore. At the same time, he rues the fact that the Maharashtra State Electricity Board, which pays 57 paise per unit to Tarapur, then sells it outside the plant gate at Rs. 1.75 to the adjoining industrial units. Says Bhasin, “The whole approach towards power product ion has been altruistic. It is not based on economics leave alone market economics. After all, when we started production we were forced to sell power to Gujarat and Maharashtra at the rate 01'5 paise per unit. In those days, at least there was budgetary support. But in today's atmosphere of lessening state intervention in all fields, which translates to no budgetary support to PSUs, how can we continue the same policy?"
S.K. Chatterjee, managing director of the NPC. claims that dues from the SEBs now stand at Rs.530 crore. Thermal power companies gets World Bank loans, but not nuclear power companies. "If we have to borrow from the market at the high interest rates prevailing and then, considering the world average of 7 to 8 years for the construction of a nuclear power plant, there is no way I can expand. Already a number of my projects are stuck for lack of funds," says Chatterjee.
He adds, "The Tarapur story does not end with reactors 1 and 2 or MOX. The next stage of reactors 3 and 4 will be the first 500 MW Pressurised Heavy Water Reactor that will use natural uranium as fuel. The reactor design group in Bhabha Atomic Research Centre has designed the new reactor and the main elements of the reactor have already been constructed by L& T and Walchandnagar and others. The land is being acquired next to reactors I and 2 and the infrastructure built for the new reactors is already in place. At such a moment, when one can reap the benefits of earlier investments in building the infrastructure from scratch, for a modern nuclear power station, the corporation is strapped for funds. It is very frustrating." Chatterjee, incidentally, shared the excitement in the Golden Age of nuclear energy in India in the '50s and '60s, with Bhabha and others.
"I need about 3,000 mw of generating capacity to start earning profits of the order of Rs. 250 Crore to Rs.300 crore on which I can borrow further and expand," says Chatterjee. "I need an investment rate of about Rs. 1,000 Crore a year to complete my projects. We have already placed orders and a number of items are ready under the advanced procurement schemes. But due to lack of money now I am stuck."
Having been spawned under the highly secretive Atomic Energy Act that prohibits even the Parliament from probing the Department of Atomic Energy too deeply, the atmosphere so far in the DAE has been very complacent. NPC, however is bringing in the first breeze of a corporate culture. People in the headquarters or plants and construction sites talk frankly without looking over their shoulders.
So what is the way out of this resource crunch? NPC is looking at many options. Strategic Consultants, a financial consultancy, is working out ways to raise funds. One possibility is to set up separate corporations in the joint sector to operate the Tarapur complex. It would be easier to raise money when there is already some generating capacity and, on top of it, one will get new capacity which will be paid for at new rates. New plants like Kakrapar are paid Rs.2.13 per unit of power.
Whatever be the strategy chosen, 25 years after India's nuclear adventure began, it is clear that with minimal support much more can be done. In recent years, India's nuclear scientists have not been treated like the unalloyed heroes they were in the' 50s and '60s. As Nehru perceptively remarked while inaugurating the Apsara reactor in 1957, "In Greece, there were the mysteries and the high priests, who apparently knew about these mysteries. They exercised a great amount of influence on the common people, who did not understand them. Now we have these mysteries which these high priests of science flourish before us, make us either full of wonder or fear."
The position of the high priests of nuclear science has been sullied worldwide after Chernobyl and Three Mile Island. Therefore, it is to be expected that they would not get the same adulation as they got before. However, looking at all sides, Indian nuclear scientists have performed creditably and could perform even better if they lose the bureaucratic outlook that has dogged them for the last 40 odd years.
Reaching a Critical Mass
For energy-starved India, nuclear power is proving to be an economic necessity that needs governmental support. Private sector too can get seriously interested in it if long-term debt instruments can be introduced for this sector.
The sun rises in the east for nuclear power. No, it is not a -parody of a Maoist hymn of Cultural Revolution vintage. Suddenly things are looking up for nuclear power. And it is mainly due to developments in Asia. How did an industry that was assailed as a "sunset industry" make this turnaround? No new reactors are being built in Germany, US and Nordic countries. But that is a superficial view, because hardly any power units have been added in these energy saturated economies recently and the discovery of cheap gas has led to marginal additions of a few gas-based projects.
But at the turn of the century, power hungry Asian economies are adding thousands of megawatts of nuclear power. South Korea, Japan and China have 15 reactors under construction that will add a handsome 13,000 MW. Another 22,000 MW are being planned for the future (see table Nuclear power programmes in Asia). The primary reason is, like India, these economies are also highly dependent on imported oil and gas. Naturally, they want to diversify their energy sources, so that they would not be caught on the wrong foot, as world fossil fuel reserves deplete in the 21st century. In fact, it has become abundantly clear now that each country has to prepare a long-term energy plan based on its energy reserves and aspirations. There can be no global blueprint.
Nuclear Power Corporation: High Wattage Performance
Particulars 1995-96 1996-97 1997-98 1998-99
Generation 7,983 9,071 9,618 10,189
in million units
Plant load factor 60% 67% 71% 73%
Income in Rs crore 925 1,233 1,285 1,400
Net profit in Rs crore 152 253 267 288
Due to its capital-intensive nature and relatively long project execution time adding heavy interest during construction, some have argued it to be uneconomical. These arguments gained some credence due to teething problems of the early reactors built in India and elsewhere. In India, mastering a new technology when all outside help was denied, took time. Developing a decent time frame for the manufacture and erection of complex equipment required new project management skills. Training the nascent Indian industry in learning high precision, zero defect manufacture had to be carried out painstakingly when there was no great economic incentive to do so.
These efforts have now paid off not only in developing a decent nuclear industry but developing high precision fabricating skills that have come as a boon to engineering companies like L&T, Godrej, Walchandnagar, BHEL, MTAR and others in these days of global competition. The civil construction involved in a nuclear station has also been mastered by companies like Hindusthan Construction and ECC. As newer safety measures are added to make reactors earthquake proof, flood proof, direct air crash proof, and worst case scenarios are added new sturdier designs are being made of containment domes involving pre-stressing. Some of these have taken time to fall into place. For example, the pre-stressed inner containment dome at Kaiga station of the Nuclear Power Corporation (NPC) under construction partially collapsed due to certain design errors. Failure analysis, design reviews took almost three years and the new design needed the use of high performance concrete (M-60) which had never been used in India before. The developmental work took away valuable money and time. But once it was done the domes at Kaiga and Rajasthan for four new reactors under construction have come up in breathtaking time. Two reactors are undergoing final tests before fuelling and going critical in July 1999. Two more will do the same in 2000. The operational engineers at NPC also had to get focused and learn to operate power stations at high capacity factors while taking care of safety inspections and procedures. Today they have shown that they can do it. The long dark night seems to be over for Indian nuclear power.
"My chief focus after I took over has been to constantly remind the operational team that in the final analysis we are a utility company and as such our performance will be judged by how much and how safely are we producing power. That is what has led to continuously rising capacity factors in all our plants. What the company needed was clarity of roles, stress on manpower training and stress on achieving targets .. Once that was brought in, all stations are performing excellently," says Y.S.R. Prasad, chairman and managing director of NPC. This approach has mattered a lot. What is going to convince the government to allocate funds to this sector is finally hard-boiled economics. After all the projections are done and strategic energy plans are discussed threadbare, one has to look at profits and return on investments.
NPC has consistently performed well in the last three years and might yield a net profit of over Rs325 crore on a slim base of 1,820 MW and that too from power that is sold for 82 paise per unit at Tarapur to Rs2.50 at Kakrapar. NPC has thereby become the envy of other power utility companies in public or private sector. (see table High Wattage Performance)
Today India's meagre oil resources are under tremendous pressure. Bombay High production has fallen in this decade and no new fields have been discovered. In fact the pressure to produce more oil in the 1980s led to flogging the wells regardless of prudent reservoir management. This led to alarming rise in gas to oil ratio and water to oil ratio. As better sense prevailed production came down from 21 million tonnes in 1986 to 14 million tonnes in 1992-93. Only the commissioning of Neelam fields led oil production to rise back to 18 million tonnes in 1996. It is clear, however, that even to get oil at this level the fields have to be nursed properly using better oil recovery methods.
Nuclear power programmes In Asia
(as of Dec 31, 1996)
Country In operation Under construction Planned Total
China 2.3 GW 3.2 GW 7.2 GW 12.7 GW
India 1.8 1.9 4.9 7.6
Indonesia 0 0 1.8 1.8
Japan 42.7 3.6 6 52.3
N.Korea 0 0 2 2
Pakistan 0.1 0.3 1.5 1.9
S.Korea 9.6 6.1 8.2 23.9
Taiwan 5.1 0 2.7 7.8
Total 61.6 14.8 34.3 109.9
(Source: "'Nuclear Energy in Asia's Power Sector' - The Atlantic Council, December 1997)
The situation with coal is blacker.
The quality of coal is getting worse. The ash content has reached 40 per cent in many mines which led a wit to remark that if the ash content crosses SO per cent Coal India may have to be renamed as Ash India. The higher ash content is leading to increasing cost of beneficiation (reducing ash content by washing the coal) and thus fuel cost. In a coal-based thermal power plant a major share of cost of power comes from the fuel. Thus thermal power is becoming more expensive. Even then ash content in coal used in thermal power stations is large enough to create serious environmental problems. lf one uses imported South African and Australian coal which has much higher calorific content, as many steel makers are doing, then there are other problems. Such coal has higher sulfur content and there is the additional cost of installing proper anti-pollution equipment, so that environmentally harmful nitrogen and sulfur oxides, that cause acid rain, are not poured into the atmosphere.
There is growing concern about greenhouse gases disturbing global weather. Some scientists are already postulating that it is not a distant prospect, but that the unusual weather patterns found recently are a direct result of global warming. In OECD countries there are serious moves to impose carbon tax of about $130 per tonne of carbon added to the atmosphere on polluting industries. lf such moves continue then even in developed economies coal-based power will become 50-100 per cent costlier while combined cycle gas-based power will become 25-50 per cent more expensive.
Nuclear power stations however are already sticking to international radiation emission norms and the costs of waste disposal are included in the project cost. Thus increasingly the balance is tilting in favour of nuclear energy. What was once considered as a future option in the 21st century is fast becoming an option here and now. In energy starved India's case, where the nation would have to start paying electricity bills in dollars to independent power producers like Enron, nuclear power stations built in India will not only provide jobs but will consume Indian fuel which will not be linked to the exchange rate. Thus, economic logic heavily favours more investment in nuclear power.
This realisation is sinking in government circles as well. In a report titled 'Generating Capacity Planning Studies in India' dated November 1998 the Central Electricity Authority has recommended an addition of about 5,000 MW each of nuclear power in the Ninth and Tenth Plan periods. An optimal capacity mix proposed in the report for thermal hydro and nuclear is63 per cent, 32 per cent and 5 per cent respectively.
The main problem nuclear power faces is high capital cost. There is the additional problem of no soft loans available from the World Bank as is true for thermal power. Debt raised from the market is not long term enough besides being expensive. "The borrowing with maturity period less than 10 years puts pressure on the liquidity position of the company as repayment obligations occur in the initial phases of the operation," says Prasad. "The only way out is to introduce long-term debt instruments," he adds.
A study done by the International Atomic Energy Agency, Vienna, shows that at a discount rate of 5 per cent (without considering carbon tax and other environmental taxes), nuclear can easily compete with thermal power whereas at a discount rate of 10 per cent thermal becomes more competitive. A more detailed study done by NPC, for 2x500 MW nuclear and thermal units (at a distance of over 1,200 km from pithead western and southern India, which would be commercially available in 2004-05 AD, assuming 1997-98 price level) nuclear power will be cheaper at 5 per cent discount and will level with thermal only at 6.7 per cent. This shows that higher capital cost is the main problem with nuclear power as it is known that fuel costs are anywhere between 12-17 per cent for nuclear while they are as high as 40-50 per cent for thermal. Moreover coal prices are likely to go up faster than nuclear fuel prices in the future.
Though Electricite de France and Modis had publicised their intention of entering the Indian nuclear power sector, no serious proposal seems to have reached the Department of Atomic Energy. This has also been confirmed by R. Chidambaram, chairman, Atomic Energy Commission. "We would like to investigate the possibility of joint ventures but problems will continue till long-term soft debt is not available to this important section of energy infrastructure," says Prasad. It is clear that such instruments cannot come into being from funds available to banks and financial institutions. Only when insurance companies and provident fund trusts are allowed to invest in such infrastructure projects can long-term cheap funds flow into nuclear power. Then NPC'S technology and operating experience, Atomic Energy Regulatory Board's supervision, private sector's better project management skills can all blend into a highly efficient nuclear power programme.
Major industrial disasters like Bhopal and Chernobyl in the 1980s swung public perception from the blind faith (of the 1950s and the 1960s) in scientists to bursts of irrationalism and anti-science. Peddling "alternate this" and" alternate that" became fashionable and later even big business.
Many well meaning souls forgot that the standard of living achieved by a fairly large section of people on this planet and aspired to by an even larger number of people especially in Asia and the developing world, requires large scale industrialisation and highly interdependent social production, which in turn needs abundant energy. At the end of 1990s, economic realities are sinking in and safety features in nuclear reactors too have greatly improved. It goes without saying that unlike Europe and North America's industrial revolutions, which were environmentally dirty, the newly industrialising Asia could leapfrog into more environmentally benign technologies. Nuclear power is proving to be one of them.
All that you never wanted to know about Nuclear Engineering
• Fission: Splitting heavy nucleus of say uranium using a slow neutron to "produce smaller daughter nuclei, plenty of energy and many more' neutrons.
• Chain reaction: If the fission of a single nucleus can produce one more neutron which can be used to split another nucleus and so on, then the reaction can be self-sustaining and is called a chain reaction ..
• Isotope: A chemically identical form of an element but with slightly different atomic mass. like U 233, U 235 and U238'
• Heavy water: Hydrogen has a heavier isotope called deuterium. Water formed by combining heavy hydrogen and oxygen instead of ordinary hydrogen is called heavy water.
• Moderator: A material such as ordinary water, heavy water or graphite that is used in a reactor to slow down fast neutrons thus enhancing the fission rate.
• Uranium: The heaviest element normally found in nature. It has three main isotopes: U 233 - a fissile material but not found in nature. It has to be artificially produced by bombarding thorium with neutrons. U 235 - a fissile material but natural uranium contains only 0.7 per ·cent of this isotope. U 238 - a non-fissile material, which constitutes 99.3 per cent of natural uranium. It can however be used to produce PU239 by bombarding with neutrons ..
• Plutonium: Not a naturally occurring element. One of its isotopes, PU239' is fissile while others are not. Plutonium can be produced by bombarding U 238 with neutrons.
• Thorium: A rare earth element found naturally in the beach sands of Kerala. It can be converted into fissile U 233 by bombarding with neutrons.
Heart of the matter
A nuclear power plant is similar to a coal-fired plant except for the way heat is produced. In a thermal plant coal or gas is burnt. In a nuclear plant, the fuel consists of uranium or plutonium whose tiny nuclei (radius 10 -12 cm) are split, using a subatomic particle called the neutron as the scalpel. This results in the release of a large amount of energy. However, there is a substantial difference in the efficiency of the two processes. In fact, one ton of uranium can produce as much energy as 2.5 million tonnes of coal.
Natural uranium consists of two types (isotopes) - of uranium U 238 (99.3 per cent) and U 235 (0.7 per cent). However, only U 235 is fissionable. But extracting U 235 or increasing its percentage (enriching) is a highly expensive process, even though a power reactor needs only 3-4 per cent enrichment while a bomb needs very high enrichment (80 per cent and above). India's uranium reserves are limited to about 78,000 tonnes. So the choice in front of Homi Bhabha and his associates in the 1950s was to look for a reactor that did not need enriched uranium as fuel
Canada came up with such a reactor known as Pressurised Heavy Water Reactor (PHWR), which uses natural uranium without enrichment while using heavy water as a moderator. Canada offered the technology at very attractive terms and even showed willingness to involve Indians to some degree in developing and stabilising the design. However, Canada built only one such reactor in Rajasthan and abandoned the other reactor half-way in pique after India exploded a nuclear device at Pokhran in 1974. Incited by the US, it cut off all further contact, aid and even information regarding nuclear matters.
Indian scientists had to, with great difficulty, develop capabilities to build and improve these PHWRS and then transfer the technology to a nascent industry. Indian engineering industry had no experience in large-scale precision fabrication. It could just about fabricate equipment for dairies, cement plants or small chemical plants. But today, the painstaking developmental work has paid off and companies like L&T, BHEl, Walchandnagar, Godrej, MTAR and others can willy-nilly produce not only the 220 MW reactors but the more modern 500 MW PHWRS as well.
PHWRS are the workhorse of NPC - an undertaking of the Department of Atomic Energy - corporatised in 1987. It is estimated that the present uranium reserves are sufficient to produce 10 GW per year (1 GW is 1,000 MW) for 30-odd years. At the same time, the beach sands in Kerala contain more than 360,000 tonnes of thorium. In appropriate conditions, thorium can be converted to another fissionable isotope of uranium (U 233).
So the current wisdom in nuclear planning consists of producing about 10 GW of power by using PHWRS. The spent fuel of PHWRS can be reprocessed to obtain another fissionable material- plutonium (Pu 239). The plutonium produced is less than uranium consumed. But if we mix plutonium, uranium and thorium and burn them in a Fast Breeder Reactor, then more plutonium is produced than consumed and thorium is converted into fissionable U 233 as well - hence the name "breeder reactor". This U 233 produced in a breeder reactor can be mixed with thorium and again burnt in a reactor to produce power. Thus, in a three-stage programme, India's nuclear resources can be optimally utilised.
India has mastered PHWR technology and has moved ahead to design a 500 MW reactor on its own. But development of Fast Breeder Reactor technology is still at R&D stage at Indira Gandhi Centre for Atomic Research, Kalpakkam. Meanwhile scientists at Bhabha Atomic Research Centre have also produced small amounts of U 233 by bombarding thorium and demonstrated the feasibility of the three-stage nuclear programme by building a small research reactor using U 233.
Interview: Nuclear power is ready to take off
"There is no single energy plan at a global level. Each country has to examine its particular conditions and devise one for itself. In India's case Nuclear Power has to be an important component. The learning curve is over. Our own R&D, Indian industry, trained manpower, etc have all reached a critical mass. The nuclear power programme is ready to take off", said Dr R.Chidambaram, chairman, Atomic Energy Commission, while talking to Shivanand Kanavi
How is the fund allocation for nuclear programme now?
The lack of funds during the Eighth Plan hurt the power programme. Now it is better. The funding has gone up from Rs1 70 crore during 1993-94 to Rs900 crore this year. This should continue during the Ninth Plan. Four 220 MW units are coming on stream this year and the next. Two 500 MW units are going to come up at Tarapur, and civil work has already started. We are hoping to get funding for another four units of 220 MW and four more of 500 MW have been planned but are yet to be sanctioned money.
What is holding up the Fast Breeder programme? Is it funds?
No, it is not funds. Technology development itself takes time. Now the Fast Breeder Test Reactor at Kalpakkam is functioning very well. A lot of R&D work has been done. The sodium coolant circuit is functioning well. Excellent burnout rates of 40,000-50,000 MW per tonne have been achieved. Now the 500 MW Prototype Fast Breeder Reactor's design is being reviewed by Atomic Energy Regulatory Board. Once we get the go-ahead we will start making the prototype. It should be ready by about 2001 .
If there are snags in the Fast Breeder Programme then is there any way of using our thorium reserves?
The Advanced Heavy Water Reactor (AHWR) designed by Anil Kakodkar and his team in BARe will use a mixture of oxides of uranium and plutonium in the central zone of the core, while a mixture of thorium and uranium 233 will be used in the outer areas. So, that is one way to start using thorium even before we master fast breeder technology and go over to thorium-uranium reactors. AHWR is a very interesting design. It has not only advanced safety features but also uses light water as coolant.
It is believed that India can make bomb grade highly enriched uranium. So why can't we make reactor grade low enriched uranium and develop a Pressurised Water Reactor (PWR) - which is much easier to operate?
No comments on the first part of your question. If there is enough need for low enriched uranium then we can do it. It is not technologically beyond us. The issue is economic. Once we get more experience with PWRS by working with the two 1,000 MW Russian reactors which we are buying from the Russians, then we can go for PWR design as well.
There is a feeling that if India signs the nuclear non-proliferation Treaty (NPT) then it will help the power sector. What is your view?
There is no question of India signing the NPT in its present form. If they are ready to change the NPT and let us sign it as a nuclear weapon power, then it is a different issue. We are ready for safeguards for any installation that has been built with external assistance. Other installations are off bounds. Just as the Chinese or any member of the nuclear club do. If these changes take place then of course there will be easier flow of technology, turnkey projects, fuel, etc. Even with meagre funding we have kept nuclear technology alive, since it is the technology of the future as far as energy is concerned.
Today we cannot access soft loans from the World Bank for funding nuclear power. Will that change if we sign NPT?
The World Bank is not funding nuclear projects anywhere. So to that extent it will not change by signing the NPT. But it is being increasingly realised that for developing countries and especially in Asia, nuclear power is an integral part of modernising the infrastructure. So even the World Bank might eventually change its stand.