Energising India - Dr. Sekhar Basu

Energising India

India’s nuclear power programme was first initiated in the 1950s by Homi Bhabha, a nuclear physicist and the founding director of the Tata Institute of Fundamental Research. Bhabha pioneered the nation’s long-term energy independence, but last week, the Rotary Club of Bombay and Bombay Airport were honoured to meet the man continuing Bhabha’s legacy and cementing India’s place as a prominent energy leader in the contemporary world – Dr. Sekhar Basu. As the chairman of the Atomic Energy Commission, Dr. Basu’s role in energizing nuclear power across the nation has been one of innovation, skill, and knowledge.

Addressing the “galaxy of important, decent people,” situated in the room, Dr. Basu began humorously, noting how he often finds audience members dozing off during his lectures; at least this time, he could blame the wonderful lunch they had savoured beforehand. As the audience chuckled, the nuclear scientist presented photos of our universe, sun, and earth.

“What is common in these pictures?” Asked Dr. Basu. “What is common, is that all of these were created through nuclear reactions. You, me, the Taj hotel, this room… All exist due to nuclear reactions.” As he explained the cosmic vastness of all that is created through nuclear reactions, the audience began to recognise the primary importance of nuclear energy.

“Now, we all know the universe was created by the Big Bang, which was basically a nuclear reaction, but we are scared of radiation. Why?” He questioned, deeply understanding the sentiments of those listening. “You probably came to know of nuclear reactions and radiation through these two big bangs: Hiroshima and Nagasaki,” he aptly pointed out.

However, the distinction must be made, as he explained, between atomic bombs and nuclear energy. The common man receives some 2.4 units of radiation, the majority of which comes from the air he breathes. Even medical check-ups and travel by flight causes radiation, but at a much lower rate than pre-conceived notions would have us believe. “Even if you stay close to a power plant, you only receive 0.05 units of radiation,” confirmed Dr. Basu.

Noting the example of Kovalam beach in Kerala, the nuclear scientist brought the audience’s attention to an area with higher than average radiation levels due to increased thorium in the region’s sand. After studying the locals and the effects of radiation on their physical health for the past 50 years, researchers discovered that they have much less DNA damage and better DNA repair mechanisms than the typical individual. “Therefore, radiation in moderation is good for health,” stated Dr. Basu with a smile.

He then moved on to list the benefits of nuclear energy, including its sustainability, environmental friendliness, limitless continuity, and decreased wastage (unlike coal-based energy). Displaying a picture of a woman’s hand next to an orb smaller than her palm, Dr. Basu explained that the orb was the amount of waste generated by a household of four in the past 25 years through the usage of nuclear power. As the audience gasped in astonishment, he continued, “After 30 years, we have also been able to develop machines that can produce waste equal to the size of the pearl on her ring.” The rotarians present were once again blown away by the power of nuclear energy.

Then, Dr. Basu illustrated the many different institutions, facilities, and plants in place for atomic research and education across India before exhibiting the equipment scientists use in order to research and mine for materials. Most interestingly, he presented the differences between coal mining and uranium/thorium farming. Coal mining organisations generally extract a hundred percent of all the material found in the area, whereas farming for ores is much less environmentally devastating. “We take out only 0.03% of the material, we mine and process these materials, and then we give it back,” disclosed Dr. Babu. “There is no blasting or pollution in the local areas,” he said, “And before we leave, we plant trees all along the areas which we have worked on.”

Moving on, he highlighted the other activities that the Atomic Energy Commission is committed to, such as cancer research and medical services for cancer patients, food security, and waste treatment. The world-class hospitals they build, the innovative seeds and pulses they produce in order to avoid food shortages and malnutrition, and the groundbreaking methods of desalination that they develop, are all cutting-edge solutions to the country’s pervasive problems; all made possible through radiation and nuclear energy.

Next, Dr. Basu discussed the ways in which “India is participating in a big way” with regard to the global energy field. From CERN to LIGO, our nation engages in some of the most revolutionary discoveries and exciting experiments. With equipment that can predict and prevent international disasters in Ooty, inter-state gamma radiation monitoring transmitters in Ladakh, and 300-tonne antennas built to track ISRO’s interstellar units such as Mangalyaan and Chandrayaan, India’s nuclear energy program is “leading the country in many areas of nuclear science and technology,” as Dr. Basu reveals. “Many developed countries, including the U.S., want to collaborate with us.”

“One example of this is our self-reliant nuclear weapons program, which has been recognised internationally,” he said. The advent of nuclear weapons began in the United States, and quickly grew to Russia, China, Pakistan, the U.K., France, North Korea, and Israel. However, Dr. Basu asks, “why in India?”

“India is an isolated case; it doesn’t have any connection with anybody else, so you must call it self-reliant.,” stated Dr. Basu. Quoting nuclear scientist Dr. Hecker, he read, “I found that whereas sanctions slowed progress in nuclear energy, they made India self-sufficient and world leaders in fast reactor technologies,” a statement attributed to the then Los Alamos National Laboratory director when testifying in front of the U.S. Senate Committee in 2008.

Continuing, Dr. Basu read again, “While much of the world’s approach to India has been to limit its access to nuclear technology, it may well be that today we limit ourselves by not having access to India’s nuclear technology developments,” providing a global perspective of India’s nuclear energy prowess in the modern world as it stands today.

Finally, Dr. Basu shared a few pictures of the Commission’s stunning campuses, transformed from barren wastelands to lush, green spaces lined with trees and blossoming flowers. “Our campuses welcome multiple beautiful foreign visitors,” said the nuclear scientist, as the audience burst into laughter. Then, he displayed pictures of unique wild birds, and the laughter grew across the room. “As you can see, they don’t require visas to come into India, and they don’t require gate passes to enter our campuses.” These wild birds have been identified to have arrived from all around the world, and enthusiast groups record and track their migration and statistics on each campus’ site.

Ending the speech with his thoughts on whether India can become a knowledge economy, Dr. Basu highlighted an experience during one of his international trips, where he spent most of his time explaining home-grown science experiments and discoveries to students of various nationalities. Dr. Basu then confirmed his belief in our nation’s ability to grow and expand into a prosperous knowledge economy that values the benefits of research and education.

Before answering a few questions, he extended a warm welcome to the audience: “I would like to invite all Rotarians to our campus. Come see something that is not there anywhere else in Mumbai,” he declared, to loud, echoing applause.

Then, he was asked about the connection between space and nuclear energy. Why is it so that countries with successful space programs also have thriving nuclear energy programs? “It depends on the origin,” answered Dr. Basu. “Our space program is very small, and we focus on many more areas.”

Finally, “What is the balance of power vis-à-vis nuclear energy, power, and India-Pakistan-China relations?” Asked a curious Rotarian. “Okay… Normally, we don’t get into these kinds of discussions,” he retorted, as laughter filled the room once again. “But I can say that, unlike China and Pakistan, we are self-reliant… And we can take care of ourselves.”

As the Rotarians left the Taj hotel pondering the monumental cosmos of life and the first nuclear reaction that started it all, the knowledge that Dr. Basu had imparted radiated through the minds of each member. Of course, they could rest easy, knowing well enough that energised India awaited their arrival, simply a few years away.