Business India, December 6-19, 1993
The Nuclear Fallout
With the nuclear power programme facing a serious resource crunch, industries will have to explore new options for using their nuclear-related skills.
When we talk of nuclear power we talk about its economic viability, environmental hazards, fears of radiation leakage, waste disposal, or even problems regarding closing down the reactor after its useful life. But the other spin-offs to our economy - in terms of scientific-technical manpower, engineering skills and capacities, not to talk about the bottom lines and business turnovers - have not been studied in any detail.
These spin-offs have been varied. Since the 1960s, when India started generating electricity using nuclear power, a host of industries have sprung up in heavy engineering, fabrication, and construction. All these owe their entire development of skills, quality consciousness, confidence to tackle bigger and bigger problems (in size as well as in technological levels), to their participation in the indigenous nuclear power programme.
Anyone who does not know the abysmal condition of our laboratories and universities in the 1940s, and even our engineering industry in the 1960s and early 1970s, cannot easily appreciate the spin offs that have occurred due to the nuclear programme. M.S. Krishnamurthy, joint general manager, of the engineering giant, Larsen and Toubro, who has been associated with the nuclear program for over 25 years, says, "Without the push given by the nuclear power programme we would not be able to do what we are capable of doing today. In the pre-nuclear era, we used to make some equipment for dairies and small cement plants, that weighed a couple of tones. Today, we have moved into the third generation of heavier precision engineering at Hazira that can fabricate components weighing up to 450 tonnes."
This technological advantage works out in other areas as well. For P.J. Bhounsule, sales development manager, L&T (an IIT graduate who has worked on nuclear projects for nearly two decades), the engineering challenges they encountered while catering to their nuclear commitment were of the toughest variety. "One of the toughest assignments we faced was the welding of the two halves of the half-a-metre thick steel disk, that was the deck plate of the Dhruva reactor," says Bhounsule. "The weld had to be so perfect that even the tiny atoms of helium couldn't leak through. Simple heating of the two lips in the joint, led to unequal expansion along the diameter and circumference of the half disks, leading to gaps between the lips of the joint. We had not calculated the different heat sink characteristics. This led us to use computer simulation for the first time."
An analysis of the results revealed that the problem could be solved if the disks were thermally insulated and heat provided at twenty-five distributed points all over. "Finally, we machined channels into the lips so that they could lock into each other and after careful deep welding from both sides of the disk, we got the defect-free weld," claims Bhounsule proudly.
This precision and problem-solving capacity that they have acquired is what all the industries associated with nuclear technology praise. T.S. Sakethan, general manager, special products division, Walchandnagar Industries (WIL), proudly shows his hi-tech dust-free shop floor, ingeniously assembled right in the midst of the cranes and fork lifts. He points out a welder meticulously welding the tubes to a tube sheet in a heavy water heat exchanger. The Welds have to be totally defect free," he says. "Normal methods of non-destructive testing (NDT) like sonography, radiography, dye penetration, and magnetic particle patterns cannot be used here, so we do statistical quality analysis. The welder has to be trained in the technique for months together and pass all sorts of tests."
But even this is not enough. The welder's skill is constantly checked out, since there is little or no room for error. "Every day before he starts work, he has to weld a few samples, which are then physically sawed off and tested for defects," says Sakethan. "Only when the samples show zero defect is he allowed to touch the job that day." This may sound unnecessarily timeconsuming but with the risks of nuclear leaks taking precedence over all else, it's a necessary precaution.
One corollary to this kind of nit-pickety precision is that customers of nuclear manufacturers are positive that they will get quality that's of the best kind. P.J. Bhounsule of L&T says, "The philosophy of quality control had to be changed from post manufacture checks to planned quality assurance, systematic definition of manufacturing procedures and documentation. All these have helped us obtain authorisation to use various quality stamps of the American Society of Mechanical Engineers and the ISO 9001 certification. "
M.L. Mitra, director, environment and public awareness, Nuclear Power Corporation, who was deeply involved in the handholding operations in the early years, recalls, "We had to convince many in the industry that quality does not mean higher cost but lower project cost."
As the confidence in their technical abilities and quality grew, the industries were able to take on more challenging tasks. Currently, nuclear manufacture involves the standardised design of the 235 MW reactor, the consolidation of infrastructure and manufacture using the convoy system, cutting project time, the design and manufacture of 500 MW reactors for Tarapur III and IV and Rajasthan III and IV. The industries have also built components for the heavy water projects and the Fast Breeder Test Reactor. Now, the pool-type Prototype Fast Breeder Reactor to generate 500 MW, using liquid sodium, has been designed and the industry will participate in its fabrication as well.
But perhaps the best spin-offs to these nuclear-affiliated industries have been in terms of turnover. L&T alone has done Rs.312 crore of nuclear work. Bharat Heavy Electricals, which has gained the maximum benefit, has made over Rs.800 crore. Most of the business is pure profit in the industry only has to pay for labour costs, as the raw materials are provided by the DAE and the NPC.
Besides its contribution to corporate bottom-lines, what have been the spin-offs in terms of new business? "With our expertise, if not on a turnkey basis, at least as critical component manufacturers, we can get contracts from multinationals who want to set up industries in India," says T.V. Rudrappa, general manager, quality assurance, WIL.
R.D. Hariani, technical director, GR Engineering. concurs, "Association with the Nuclear Power Corporation has helped us indirectly in getting jobs in other sectors as the quality has been upgraded in an overall sense." Krishan Kumar, general manager of the public sector giant, Bharat Heavy Electricals, is equally upbeat regarding spin-offs, "BHEL has gained considerably technologically through its association with nuclear power. Now, we are in a position to execute the conventional side of the nuclear power plant on a turnkey basis." After the recent fire in the generator in Narora I the turbine generator that was based on GE design is also being redesigned for Indian conditions by BHEL and NPC.
With these design modifications Indian Nuclear-related industries have finally come into their own. They have moved from their total dependence on foreign designs, to making design changes, to finally conceptualising and manufacturing their own designs. K.R. Balakrishnan, general manager, control panels, GEC Alsthom India. Ltd, who have supplied' over Rs.15 crore worth of control protection equipment and switch gear to all the reactors, says unequivocally that association with NPC projects has helped them acquire experience in designing and manufacturing equipment suitable for an earthquake-prone environment.
K.K. Sinha, chairman and managing director, Mishra Dhatu Nigam (Midhani), a PSU set up to develop super alloys, is proud that hundreds of tonnes of very special steel called grade 403 (which is a medium carbon steel but whose composition is controlled within a very narrow range) were produced by Midhani. Similarly, another copper niobium special steel, called 17-4 PH grade, was also developed and produced by Midhani for the nuclear reactor components using electro slag refining and vacuum arc furnaces. Not many countries in the world have these capabilities, says Sinha proudly.
Where to, from here? With the resource crunch threatening India's own nuclear programme options, the logical next step would have been to export the technology. But the government has given very little thought to going into the global nuclear business, although Japan and South Korea are feverishly building nuclear power stations. Besides this, there may be a number of developing countries that will go in for the smaller 235 MW PHWR if the fuel supply can be arranged. Indian expertise in building research reactors had been sought world wide, but India did not pursue it.
The real test of our nuclear industry will come in delivering systems and components on schedule for international clients. And in the ultimate analysis, the industry will be able to use the skills it has acquired in other fields. For although the nuclear industry is facing a serious resource crunch, the resourceful among them will turn this adversity into opportunity.