ITER project: India’s role in creating a miniature sun on Earth

August 25, 2020 7:30 AM

India is helping ‘Make the Sun on Earth’ at the ITER Fusion Energy Reactor, but being penny-wise and pound-foolish may hurt the country in the long run

It is being built in southern France and is named ‘The Way’, otherwise technically called the International Thermonuclear Experimental Reactor (ITER).It is being built in southern France and is named ‘The Way’, otherwise technically called the International Thermonuclear Experimental Reactor (ITER).

By Pallava Bagla

All life on Earth is sustained only because of the massive nuclear reactor which showers the Earth with its unlimited benevolence. Yes, the Sun is a natural fusion-energy cauldron, and life on Earth would be impossible if solar energy came to a halt.

Now, the world’s most technologically-advanced countries have gotten together to create a miniature sun on Earth. It is being built in southern France and is named ‘The Way’, otherwise technically called the International Thermonuclear Experimental Reactor (ITER).

There is ‘Made in India’ written all over this project that seeks to harness ‘Aditya on Prithvi’. But, alas India’s sheen may be dimming thanks to the Indian government’s short-sighted policies. If the full potential of this mega collaboration has to be tapped by India, then Dr Jitendra Singh, the minister of state in the PMO looking after atomic energy, and also the minister for the department of personnel and training, needs to very quickly change the rules so that India can maximise its gain from the ‘fusion energy university’ that is fast coming up at Southern France.

This reactor is likely to cost over €20 billion. The mega endeavour is to demonstrate the first steps to harvest fusion energy, which is to generate energy by fusing atoms. Traditional atomic energy works by splitting atoms and generates long-lasting radioactive waste. But, by fusing hydrogen and its sisters, the waste product is the benign helium gas. Climate change demands clean energy. But, ‘making the Sun’ is easier said than done.

Seven partner nations are now co-operatively making a mini Sun; these are: USA, Russia, South Korea, Japan, China, India and the EU. Since the massive reactor is being made at Cadarache in Europe, the EU is taking care of 45% of the cost of construction—the rest of the member nations are sharing 9.1% cost each. There are over a million different parts which will be sourced from over 45 countries, and it is expected that, by 2025, the ITER machine will be ready for its first experimental run.

India is contributing resources worth about Rs 20,000 crore or about $2.2 billion to this effort, and in return, while contributing to less than 10% of the cost, India will get access to 100% of the intellectual property related to ITER. Thus, in future, a fusion energy reactor can actually be made in India. But, there is trouble in paradise, thanks essentially to New Delhi’s short-sighted approach.

The trouble is on many fronts, including India’s financial commitments to the allocation of human resources by India at the French construction site. In addition, for some unknown reasons at the recent high profile global virtual event, India deputed a rather junior person to represent the country in comparison to heads of states by other nations. Let’s examine some of these challenges in greater detail.

To make the ITER reactor, India is contributing two kinds of resources, the first is ‘in-kind’ material that is manufactured by the Indian industry and supplied for the making of the reactor. This is a major contribution, and till date, India has not erred on this part. Most recently, the largest components of the ITER reactor, the Cryostat (the giant vacuum vessel), has been supplied by India. It was made in Gujarat by L&T and shipped to France; it weighs over 3,800 tonnes.

The other is the ‘in-cash’ contribution, it is here that India has majorly defaulted. Bernard Bigot, the director general of ITER, says, “Since 2017, India has not fulfilled its in-cash contribution”; as a consequence, other member states were ‘very unhappy’ with India. The outstanding amount is now to the tune of Rs 1,000 crore. Bigot says India supplies the parts it has been mandated, but, then, on-site local engineers have to install the equipment, and the in-cash contribution is used to defray the labour cost. For the last few years, the other participating nations have helped pay for this labour cost. Bigot says, “This year is very crucial, and India should pay its money as soon as possible.” Bigot adds, “I am very sorry to see India facing difficulty in arranging the in-cash component.” Bigot, normally a mild-mannered atomic diplomat, says, ‘if the [Indian] cash does not arrive, ITER will be in danger’.

The other more worrying problem in India’s involvement with ITER is the dismal allocation of human resources by India at the ITER site. As per the agreement, each participating country can provide up to 10% of staff. So, as per the quota, India can send about 100 of its engineers and scientists to work as staff at ITER.

According to ITER records, only 25 Indians are currently working there. To have full staff strength is important, as the young Indian engineers can learn the complexities of this million piece jigsaw puzzle that is being put together. While India will no doubt have full access to drawings and blueprints, but Indians who have worked on the site say the best learning comes by dirtying one’s own hands.

By not fulfilling its full roster, India has given the opportunity to countries like China to have excess staffing. The reasons for this understaffing are many, and several relate to myopic policies of the department of personnel and training (DOPT)—there is a general circular that government staff cannot be posted overseas for more than two years, and experts from autonomous institutes can’t be posted for terms exceeding five years. For a project that has a gestation of over two decades, such short tenures are counter-productive.

India’s bureaucracy needs to make an exception, and the ‘one size fits all’ regulation needs to go if India is to really learn the art and science of making the ITER machine.

There is a peculiar Indian provision that only personnel who are staff of the department of atomic energy can be deputed to ITER. While the atomic energy establishment in India has a whopping strength of over 75,000, experts say most Indian engineers lack soft skills, and so do not pass the muster.

Bigot says, “India needs to change its internal policies so that more Indians can be accommodated on this overseas assignment.” He adds that the skill-sets Indians bring to the table are much sought after. Bigot is of the belief that India should send more people as ‘it will be a win-win situation as they can learn’ alongside international colleagues. He says, “India needs to amend its policy since it is difficult to recruit people for just five years when the project has a much longer timeline.”

The other incident that surprised many followers of ITER happened on July 28, when ITER decided to have a big global event to mark the ‘start of assembly of ITER’. In this virtual event, heads of state of France and South Korea personally delivered the messages, but India fielded only its ambassador. It left many observers ‘flabbergasted’, especially because India is investing so much in this international project.

In his message, PM Modi said, “By seeking to simulate the Sun’s energy production on earth, it (ITER) is attempting a task of cosmic proportions. This shared endeavour for our common good is a perfect symbol of the age-old Indian belief—Vasudhaiva Kutumbakam—that the entire world is one family!” The message itself was much appreciated, but that only the ambassador was left to field for the country raised many eyebrows.

Meanwhile, hopes are high from ITER. Dr Anil Kakodkar, former chairman, Atomic Energy Commission, Mumbai, feels that ‘having done so much on ITER, we should actually prepare ourselves to set up the demo plant, the commercial avatar of the fusion reactor, on Indian soil’.

But, will the governments’ ‘penny wise pound foolish’ policies come in the way for fulfilling India’s dreams of harnessing fusion energy? Actually, this should be a flagship clean energy project for the Atmanirbhar Bharat Abhiyan.

Author follows the atomic energy space programme very closely and has visited the ITER project. Views are personal

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