Saclay: where Indian nuclear scientists cut their teeth

AS one leaves the closed but chic confines of Paris and drives down the motorway, a squat clump of buildings set between fields recovering from the unusually severe winter comes into view. It was here at this modest looking, lightly guarded site that Indian nuclear scientists cut their teeth on the beneficial uses of atomic energy a full 55 years ago.

The laboratories at Saclay also contributed heavily to the first phase of India's nuclear programme. With the experience gained here and helped subsequently by the French, one of India's first three reactors, the lesser known Zerlina, was set up at what is now known as the Bhabha Atomic Research Centre.

As was the case with the better known Apsara and CIRUS reactors, Zerlina, which became critical in 1961, was to provide the experience to set up the next generation of reactors. In this case, the Dhruva.

The decision to opt for the technological experience offered by Zerlina was part of various strategies and approaches that have marked the Indian nuclear programme ever since. Saclay became one of the early foreign atomic energy establishments where the first generation of Indian scientists learnt their initial lessons in practicality. The others were Harwell (the U.K.), Chalk River (Canada) and Argonne, Oak Ridge (the U.S.).

Saclay also proved to be an important training ground. One of the scientists recruited by Homi Bhabha was the tall and fair V.K. Iya with a doctoral degree from Paris. Dr. Bhabha advised him to learn the production of radio isotopes at these laboratories. On return, the experience was to prove invaluable in the extraction of samples irradiated in the Apsara reactor.

The second stage of the French connection began in 1967 when Vikram Sarabhai visited Cadarache, down the railway track from Saclay to Flamanville, the site of the upcoming latest generation nuclear reactor. After the initial experience gained at Saclay, the next generation of Indian nuclear scientists was to make Cadrache their base to understand the nuts and bolts of setting up a fast breeder reactor.

Criticality was reached 18 years later in the presence of the then Atomic Energy Commission Chairman, Raja Ramanna, the long time taken because Indian scientists opted for major design modifications following an accident.

Today, Saclay continues to offer the world the same sunnier side of nuclear technology that was provided to India more than half a century ago. Its Osiris reactor, named after an Egyptian god, supplies a bulk of radio isotopes required for medical diagnosis after 70 per cent of the world's supplies disappeared due to the shut down of two reactors in Canada and the Netherlands.

With the Osiris reactor getting into the fatigue mode, the Indian connection at Saclay is due to be revived; only this time India will give and not just receive. Along with Finland and other countries, Indian scientists will join hands to set up a new reactor, JHR, which will start after the Osiris is put to sleep.

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Printable version | Oct 18, 2021 2:28:15 AM |

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