Nuclear science study is new thrust area

Nuclear science study is new thrust area

New Delhi: The opening up of India’s nuclear energy sector, following the accord with the US, is prompting a shift to the subject by universities in anticipation of an upsurge in demand for scientists who specialize in the discipline.

Delhi University had started a masters-level course last year in nuclear science and engineering, and this year Guru Jambheshwar University, Hisar, has started its radio ecology centre. Both of these will offer specialized instruction in managing nuclear waste, the effects of radiation biology, and radiation research and safety.

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Universities outside the government framework have not designed specific courses for nuclear energy, largely because demand was limited. In the coming years, nuclear energy will break out of a strict government monopoly and gather pace with the help of private participation, including overseas companies.

“Nuclear energy was largely confined to research till the 1970s and 1980s. But competing fields such as information technology (IT) obstructed this supply," said Amit Roy, director of Inter-University Accelerator Centre, an autonomous research facility of the University Grants Commission (UGC). “With several international firms expected, there’s going to be higher demand for nuclear as well as radiation specialists."

In the 60-odd years since India started out on an ambitious programme to produce atomic energy, all matters nuclear have been controlled by the Union government. Research as well as training manpower for the country’s nuclear research facilities are largely carried out by 11 organizations funded by the government’s Department of Atomic Energy (DAE).

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In 2005, DAE also started the Homi Bhabha National Institute, to churn out 500 nuclear technology engineers every two years, to meet its manpower requirements.

“With the expected expansion of generation of nuclear electricity, the human resource development aspects need to be taken care of by the universities," said UGC chairman Sukhadeo Thorat on the sidelines of a conference on nuclear safety earlier this month. He added that universities other than the ones cited above had expressed interest in setting up nuclear energy-specific programmes.

UGC, the main source of funds for India’s 500-odd universities, has set aside Rs600 crore in the ongoing 11th Plan (ending 2012) to expand research facilities and raise the number of doctorates passing out of universities.“The nuclear science programmes will be part of this," Thorat said, without specifying the allocation.

While there’s a shortage of young talented nuclear scientists, new recruits to the discipline will largely come from smaller towns and villages, officials said.

“The youth residing in the metro cities like Delhi, Mumbai, Chennai, Bangalore and Kolkata are more inclined to go abroad to pursue higher studies or jobs," said DAE secretary Anil Kakodkar. “So it’s the smaller universities and non-IITs that will play a vital role in building the country’s nuclear manpower." IITs, or Indian Institutes of Technology, are the country’s premier engineering schools.

Energy-starved India has big hopes from its nuclear programme. The country is building a state-of-the-art 500MW fast breeder reactor, expected to be commissioned in the next two years, which uses spent fuel from uranium powered plants. DAE aims to generate 2,500MW from fast breeder reactors by 2020. It is also building an advanced heavy water reactor as part of the final stage of its three-stage nuclear programme. India is expected to add 1,500MW of nuclear power to the national grid in 2009 by commissioning at least three nuclear power units.

Currently, India has the capacity to generate 4,120MW of nuclear power, but due to the shortage of nuclear fuel most units are running at a little over half their capacity. Kakodkar said the situation will improve with India entering into civil nuclear cooperation pacts with several countries, including the US, France and Russia.

Some experts, however, say that the universities in India are currently ill-equipped to provide quality nuclear manpower for the country’s future nuclear needs.

V.S. Ramamurthy, former secretary, department of science and technology, said Delhi University’s plans to involve international faculty and industry experts in its course, would help India’s nuclear institutions cope with a potential brain drain.

“With the expansion of the nuclear industry, there’s a huge chance that India’s nuclear experts will be poached by foreign companies," he said. “So these universities could play a key role in offsetting that. It shouldn’t become like our IT industry."