‘It has been done by Indians and it is something which is not available for the asking, whatever money you want to pay.’
Prime Minister Manmohan Singh unveiled the country’s highly classified nuclear powered submarine, INS Arihant. But no details were made available, either about the submarine or about its heart, the nuclear reactor, which powers this indigenous effort. India became the sixth country after Russia, America, France, the U.K. and China to have its very own nuclear submarine, an essential requirement for India’s second-strike capability. In an exclusive interview to Pallava Bagla, Science Editor for NDTV and correspondent for Science, Chief of India’s Atomic Energy programme Anil Kakodkar reveals how the “baby” reactor was put together. The reactor has been working for several years and has been in the making for more than a decade. But due to the secrecy of the project, it was kept under wraps.
This nuclear submarine for which the reactor has been made by your team, how significant an achievement is that?
Well, we have a compact propulsion reactor which has been tested at Kalpakkam for the last three years and this is an exact prototype of what has been installed in INS Arihant which was launched soon. So it’s a major achievement of new reactor technology which incidentally will also be required for the larger power programme because this is based on pressurised water reactors (PWR). So this signifies both. We have a compact power plant for propulsion but we also have PWR technology which can be used for electricity production through indigenous route in future.
So why should Indians be proud of this?
Well, one has to be proud because it has been done here, it has been done by Indians and this is something which is not available for the asking, whatever money you want to pay. There is no way to acquire that unless you do it yourself and not many countries have such a capability. So it is certainly a matter to be proud of.
So how different is a reactor in a nuclear submarine as compared to, say, a reactor you see at Narora or Kakrapar or by way of scale?
There are several very distinguishing features and very important challenges. First, it’s a moving system and particularly it’s a ship so we have to have a reactor which would work in spite of the different kinds of rolling, pitching motions. It could also be subjected to attacks supposing there’s a depth charge near by. It should be able to withstand the kind of acceleration loads that will be seen on the components. So this is one important challenge. We do design reactors for withstanding earthquakes. This is one, it has to be able to withstand motions and forces which are of a much larger magnitude. Then, the compactness is another feature within the space that you can occupy for a given power. A submarine reactor is extremely small compared to the corresponding case in a power station. Third is in terms of the energy density — again it arises out of the compactness but to be able to realise that, you should be able to exchange a large amount of power in a small volume in a small surface area. There are also requirements of the rapid response. In a land based reactor, we can live with a somewhat slower response in terms of change of power in a given time. But this being a propulsion system, particularly for the kind the navy people will be required to work on, you require a reactor which can have a very fast response. So that means the nuclear fuel has to be of that kind, the reactor systems have to be of that kind. So there are several such challenges which have been successfully overcome, quite apart from the fact that this is a PWR technology and that itself has its own challenges.
But people say or have constantly said that India doesn’t have the expertise in enrichment. So does this criticality of the ‘PRP,’ as it is called, lay to rest the controversy that India does not have the full capability of enrichment?
Yes, we have an enrichment plant at Mysore, the Rare Materials Plant and that plant has sufficient capacity to meet the requirements of this programme. This reactor is now running for three years. So obviously, we had got the fuel earlier than that.
Was this completely made in India?
Designed, fabricated and executed in India?
Yes, that’s right, by Indian industries.
And by Indian scientists?
At Vizag, the Prime Minister went out of the way and thanked the Russians, and the Russian Ambassador was also present. What was the role of the Russians? India had leased a Russian nuclear submarine?
I would also like to thank our Russian colleagues. They have played a very important role as consultants, they have a lot of experience in this, so their consultancy has been of great help. I think we should acknowledge that.
Consultancy for what?
For various things, as you go along when you are doing things for the first time — with a consultant by your side, you can do it more confidently and these are difficult time-consuming challenges. So you have to do this without too much of iterative steps and consultancy helped in that.
So this is not a Russian design?
It is an Indian design.
Indian design, made in India, by Indians?
Yes, that’s right.
You have had the system running here in Kalpakkam for several years. Has it functioned smoothly?
Yes, it is working extremely well.
No outages, no issues?
Well this is run in a campaign mode because this is run in the same way as one would expect in the real situation. So it is running in a campaign mode because I think the important thing is to be able to ramp up and come down and it is really doing extremely well.
It is believed that it will also carry some things which the Bhabha Atomic Research Centre has developed [the nuclear bombs]. So will it really give India the second strike capability because we have a no-first-use policy?
Yes that is the purpose of such a platform.
And this platform will ensure that?
Are you confident of that?
Of course, I am confident. It has been designed with a lot of care.
I am told it is about ten times smaller than a normal power reactor, is that correct?
Well if you want to construct a power reactor of a similar power capacity, it would happen that way, yes.
So would it be fair to call it a baby reactor?
It is a small reactor compared to, say, for example a commercial power station, 1000 MW (electric) would generate more than 3000 MW of heat, which is about 30 times what we produce here. Of course, such reactors are huge in size and dimensions and all. But it is a small compact reactor. And that’s the challenge about it.
So, when can one expect to have criticality on the sea-based reactor in the INS Arihant?
This will be essentially decided by the Navy, as I said they have a fairly elaborate sequence of activities through these trials and whenever they are ready for going through the criticality, I am sure our people will facilitate that to happen quickly.
Nuclear reactors for submarines are used normally for increasing the endurance. What is the kind of endurance you are being able to provide to INS Arihant?
Well it will be, in fact, in terms of the actual use for a nuclear submarine. The endurance is dictated more by human endurance rather than the energy of the power pack endurance. Power pack endurance is usually much larger. So it’s the human endurance — it can remain submerged depending upon the human endurance.
And will this submarine leave radioactive trace behind it because you have some kind of shadow shielding?
No, none at all. Because that has been factored into the design and there will be absolutely no trace left behind.
So, once the vessel dives it can remain hidden from Vizag to Mumbai all through?
Yes, as long as it is submerged it will remain hidden and it can remain submerged for a long time.
Is the noise level comparable to other submarines of this class, since that is one way of detecting submarines?
Yes, I think so. You have seen the inside. Tell me if you felt some sound there?
Compared to a power reactor the sound was minimal.
Compared to machinery running in any other place, did you hear much sound? I think this is a very quiet system.