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By Surendra Gadekar,

Indian Nuclear Programme. An Overview

Proceedings IV International Radioecological Conference "Utilization of Plutonium: Problems and Solutions"
Russia, Krasnoyarsk, June, 5-10, 2000

Surendra Gadekar, Institute for Total Revolution, Surat Gyjarat, India


First a brief look at India`s nuclear capabilities and the history of the Indian nuclear programme. Next a short discussion about the close connection between the military and the civilian aspects of the programme. Third, a list of all the other countries who have helped India achieve its present status. Finally I will talk a little bit about the work of antinuclear groups. I also have a set of slides and if time permits and if there is interest we can see them.


India was the first country in Asia to have a nuclear programme. The Indian Atomic Energy Commission was set up in 1948. In fact, the starting of atomic energy programme predates India`s independence in 1947 as well as the atomic bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

Soon after the setting up of the Atomic Energy Commission, a Rare Minerals Survey Unit was set up in 1949, which later became the Atomic Minerals Division. Indian Rare Earths Limited was established in August 1950 to treat Monazite sands found on the coast of Kerala in South India. In April 1953, construction of a thorium plant was started at Trombay near Bombay to treat the residues after recovery of rare earths to get Thorium. This plant was completed in 1955.

Since the activities of the commission had expanded greatly, Department of Atomic Energy was set up in August 1954 and a research centre later named Bhabha Atomic Research Centre was established at Trombay near Bombay in 1957. Before that India`s first research reactor, APSARA; a pool type enriched uranium fuel, light water moderated and cooled, was built in Trombay. Over time various research reactors using different fuels and moderators and coolants have been built in Trombay to serve different purposes.

One of the first steps in the field of atomic energy was to carry out an extensive geological survey of the country to locate and evaluate resources of nuclear materials. This survey revealed that, although the country had vast thorium resource, the uranium deposits, by comparison were low and of poor grade. Therefore the choice of the reactor system was dictated by the main consideration that it should be capable of utilising the limited uranium resource to the maximum extent possible. Furthermore, it was also recognised that no matter how good the reactor system was, the potential for power generation from uranium resource used in thermal reactors alone was not going to be very high. Thus the whole thrust of the Indian nuclear programme has been on the utilisation of thorium.

Based on this a three stage programme was formulated

  1. PHWRs (CANDUs) for power and plutonium production.
  2. Using plutonium in high breeding-ratio FBRs-
  3. Using thorium in advanced PHWRs.

Fifteen Year Plan

In 1985, India had six units running with a total capacity of 1360 MWe. Construction was also going on four other units. At that time a 15 year plan was formulated which proposed that India go in for massive new construction to bring the capacity to 10.000 MWe by 2000. This was to involve building eight more 235 Mwe units and ten 500 Mwe nits. The 235 Mwe units were expected to be commissioned by 1995 and the others at the rate of two units a year between then and the end of the century. The 500 Mwe units were to be designed and fabricated entirety in India, and it was said then in official publications that the design was almost complete.

This 15-year plan also included:

  • Setting up uranium mines and mills with a gross production of 1700 T/y to meet the lifetime purified U308 for all the reactors.
  • Four new heavy water plants besides those then under construction with an aggregate production capacity of 970t/y to meet the total requirement of about 13,000 T/y for the programme.
  • Expansion of uranium fuel-fabrication capacity to 1500 T/y, and zircaloy production and fabrication capacity to 250 T/y.
  • Setting up new reprocessing plants (after Kalpakkam) to increase capacity to 1000 T/y.

Construction of waste immobilisation and safe storage and surveillance plants for treating the high-level waste from reprocessing.

The idea was that the programme of 10,000 Mwe of PHWRs would yield about 3.2 Tonnes of Plutonium per year, which would enable 1000 Mwe of fast breeders to be built in the first decade of the 21st century.

What does India have?

India has capabilities in all facets of the nuclear cycle. It has uranium mines, fuel fabrication, reactors for both plutonium and power generation, heavy water plants, some amount of uranium enrichment mainly for submarine propagation, reprocessing, tritium extraction facility, an operating fast breeder prototype reactor, waste management, and bomb production and testing. It also has a companion space programme and buids its own supercomputers. It has not signed either the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty or the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty.

India has substantial (definitely greater than 35,000 and maybe up to 90,000 tonnes) reserves of uranium. It has three working mines in the state of Bihar with daily production of 1550 tonnes. The ore quality is poor (<0.06%) New discoveries of uranium have been made at Domiasiat in Meghalaya and in the Bhima river basin in the southern state of Karnataka which have been reported to be of better quality.

India has extensive deposits of thorium (exceed 360,000 Tonnes Th02 ). Used in a breeder reactor this would be equivalent to about 570,000 million tonnes of coal.

Research Reactors
















Light water

heavy water

heavy water

light water

Heavy water


Light water

heavy water

heavy water


light water

Heavy water

Power level

1 Mwth

40 Mwth




100 Mwth

Start Up







Power Reactors

There are 11 operating reactors at present with a total capacity of 2440 MW. Three units of 220 MW are under construction as are two units of 500 MW each. All these are Indian designed and built CANDU type reactors. Besides there have been negotiations with Russia for the supply of two VVER-1000

Fast Reactors

The loop-type Fast Breeder Test Reactor went critical in October 1985 and was expected to reach its full rated capacity (40 Mwt and 15 Mwe) by 1988. It however, had many troublesome problems and did not achieve the rated capacity for a number of years. It was designed and built in India, but with French help in the early days. It uses plutonium-uranium carbide fuel fabricated in BARC. Experience gained will be used to build a 500 Mwe pool-type liquid sodium prototype fast-breeder reactor.

Heavy Water Plants

There are eight operating heavy water plants: Nangal (14 T/y);. Baroda (67 T/y); Tuticorin (71 T/y); Talcher (62 T/y); Kota (100 T/y); Thal (110 T/y); Hazira (110 T/y) and Manuguru (185 T/y). All earlier plants except the one at Kota were built by foreign contractors and all experienced serious construction delays and operated well below full capacity. Three different processes are used. However, the early problems regarding poor performance of heavy water plants seem to have been overcome and there is now a great surplus of heavy water since the proposed nuclear expansion has not taken place as rapidly as envisaged.


The first reprocessing plant, with a capacity of 30t/y, was built between 1961 and 1964 at the BARC site at Trombay. It uses the Purex process and produces plutonium from the fuel discharged from the Cirus research reactor. It was decommissioned in 1974 and recommissioned in 1985 with its capacity expanded to 50 T/y.

Construction of the Power Reactor Fuel Reprocessing Plant at Tarapur was started in 1969 and the first trial run with spent fuel was completed in 1979. Since then there have been campaigns reprocessing shorter-cooled PHWR fuel. Initially it had a nominal capacity of 100 T/y but this was expanded in 1991 to 150 tonnes/year.

Construction of third plant, at Kalpakkam was completed in 1996. It has a nominal capacity of 100 tonnes/year.

A project proposal has been prepared for a large engineering scale facility for reprocessing irradiated thorium from the CIRUS and Dhruva research reactors in order to separate U-233.

Close connection between the civil and military sides of the Indian atom.

Because of the close connection between the military and the civilian side of the atom in India it is often impossible to get information from official sources even on subjects which have nothing to do with security. A lot of the budget of the department of Atomic Energy gets hidden in the military budget. There are a lot of hidden subsidies to the power generation programme such as in heavy water and fuel fabrication costs. Besides, any accomplishment in the military field leads to rewards. After the bomb tests of 1998, the budget for the civilian nuclear programme increased by a factor of 70%. A number of ostensibly purely civilian activities like extraction of tritium from tritiated heavy water as a health protection measure have military uses.

The Donors List

Who all have helped India in its nuclear programme.

  1. United Kingdom (design and training for the first research reactor.)
  2. Canada (CIRUS reactor, design and construction of CANDU power reactors, training and after 1988 with information about the tritium extraction facility.
  3. United States ( training of scientists, heavy water for the CIRUS reactor, turnkey building and enriched uranium fuel for the first commercial power reactors at Tarapur
  4. Soviet Union ( heavy water for Rawatbhata reactors, lease of a nuclear powered submarine)
  5. Russia (two VVER-1000 reactors)
  6. France (construction of heavy water plants and with fast breeder reactor, and enriched uranium fuel for Tarapur after US withdrawal)
  7. China (supply of enriched uranium fuel for Tarapur after French withdrawal)
  8. Smugglers from all over the world who have stepped in and acted as intermediaries to supply the Indian programme whenever it has needed some critical component which has been difficult to obtain because of embargoes.

The above analysis demonstrates that although non-proliferation has been a stated objective of the Nuclear Weapons States, these consideration have not come in the way of their helping India with its nuclear programme for one reason or the other.

What have the antinuclear groups done?

Since the early eighties there have been protests around proposed nuclear power plants. These have attracted fairly large number of people (15,000 at Kakrapar in Gujarat in 1986). There have also been large cycle rallies and foot marches to spread awareness amongst people on nuclear issues. The proposed Peringome nuclear power plant was cancelled due to public protest. There have also been a number of health surveys conducted by voluntary groups to assess the health impacts of nuclear plant operation on people living in the vicinity.

The only published scientific study of health consequences on the local population was done near the Rajasthan Atomic Power Station ( RAPS) located at Rawatbhata near Kota in central India. This study surveyed five villages (total population: 2860) within ten kilometres of the plant and compared them with four other villages (total population: 2544) more than fifty kilometres away. The data collection was done in 1991 and results of the study published in 1993. The following are the conclusions of the study:

  • An extraordinary rise in congenital deformities
  • Spontaneous abortions, still births and one day deaths of new born babies significantly higher
  • Significant increase in chronic diseases especially amongst the young, No differences in acute infections.
  • Solid tumours significantly higher
  • A difference of more than 11 years in the average age of people who had died in the previous two years.
  • More cancer patients and cancer deaths in villages near the plant.
  • Significantly lesser number of electrified household and pumping set connections near the plant.

This study has been published in detail in Anumukti Volume 6 Number 5 (April / May 1993). Portions from the study have also been published in International Perspectives in Public Health (Volume 10 1994); in People`s tribunal on Chernobyl, and also in Nuclear Energy and Public Safety (1996).

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