Monday 23 July 2007

Fast Breeders, Indo-US Nuclear Deal and all that....

BUSINESS INDIA June 4, 2006 Energy
Nuclear husbandry
After 20 years of hard work, India has reached the cutting edge of fast breeder technology. There is also encouraging news about discovery of new deposits of uranium

Shivanand Kanavi

Fast breeders have entered journalistic and parliamentary lexicon in the last one-year or so. A parliamentarian, dazed by the sudden influx of nuclear physics in the central hall of the Parliament, did not want to be left behind in the sound byte game and said, “We must protect our fast breeders; after all, that is how we became one billion strong”! Be that as it may, the fast breeder technology, in its essence, is more than 50 years old. Most people do not know that the firstever kilowatt of power from a nuclear reactor, anywhere in the world, came in 1951 from a fast breeder reactor, E B R-I (experimental breeder reactor) at Idaho Falls, USA.

So, what are these new-fangled objects, the fast breeder reactors? If we care to struggle with a little bit of nuclear physics, we might profit from it. Here are a few simple incentives to cross the knowledge hump.

The prototype fast breeder reactor under construction at a furious pace in Kalpakkam is scheduled to go commercial in 2010. “It will produce 500 M W o f power and we are committed to sell this power at the rate of Rs3.20 per unit to the Tamil Nadu Electricity Board, four years hence,” says R. Prabhakar, technical director, B H A V I N I, a subsidiary of Nuclear Power Corporation, set up to harness fast breeder technology for power production. This is to be contrasted with the fact that the current tariff from Ratnagiri Gas and Power Company (resurrected Dabhol Power, built by Enron) is Rs7.50 per unit! No doubt, once arrangements are made to burn gas rather than the expensive naphtha, power from Dabhol, would be cheaper - but it won’t be Rs3.20 per unit in 2010!

According to S.C. Chetal, who heads the reactor engineering group at Indira Gandhi Centre for Atomic Research (IGCAR), the two fast breeder reactors of 500 M W each, which are expected to come on stream in Kalpakkam by 2014, are being configured to produce power at the rate of Rs2.00 per unit (in today’s constant rupee terms). “We are doing our best to demonstrate that fast breeders are not only necessary for energy security but are also an economically viable technology for power production”, adds Chetal.

You want one more dollop of nuclear enthusiasm, then take this! “India’s total power production today is 1,10,000 M W. The potential power from the fast breeder cycle is 5,50,000 M W. This is a conservative estimate, the real optimists rate it as 8,00,000 M W. And all this with India’s own existing low quality deposits of uranium and without importing a single tonne of uranium from Canada, Namibia, Niger, Australia or any other country, assuming, of course, that they want to sell it to us”, says Baldev Raj, a leading metallurgist, who leads fast breeder research in India as director, IGCAR.
All this is not pulling a fast one on behalf of fast breeders, but a product of simple physics and arithmetic. In the power reactors currently in use at Rawatbhatta, (Rajasthan), Kalpakkam (TN), Narora (UP), Kakrapar (Gujarat), Kaiga (Karnataka) and Tarapur (Maharashtra), only 0.7 per cent of the fuel can be burnt to produce electricity.

That is because natural uranium mostly contains U238 and only 0.7 per cent of U235. It is only U235 that can be split using a slow neutron beam, producing enormous amounts of heat, to boil water, generate steam and run a turbine like in any other power station. Whereas U238 is not fissile, however, some of U238 converts itself into plutonium (Pu239), if exposed to fast neutrons. This new element, Pu239, can be easily burnt to produce power or to make nuclear weapons.

India invested, way back in the 1960s, in B A R C, to develop the technology to reprocess spent fuel rods from power reactors and extract plutonium from it. “The arithmetic is simple. If we mix 25-30 per cent of plutonium with U238 and expose it to fast neutrons in a reactor, then plutonium will burn and give us about 20 times more power than the natural uranium reactors now in operation. Meanwhile, some of the U238 in the fuel would absorb some fast neutrons and get converted again into plutonium. Since roughly 1.1 kg of plutonium comes out of the spent fuel due to this conversion, for every 1 kg that was initially put in the fuel rod, such reactors are called breeder reactors. Since fast neutrons are used to trigger the chain reaction, such reactors are called fast breeder reactors,” explains Baldev Raj.

Additionally, if we cover the reactor core with a blanket of either U238 or thorium, then this blanket captures some of the fast neutrons coming out of the core, which would have escaped and been wasted. On reprocessing this irradiated blanket, we could recover either Pu239 or U233. Thus originated Bhabha’s nuclear road map for India; to first master the natural uranium reactors, produce power, reprocess the spent fuel and recover plutonium from it. Burn this plutonium in fast breeder reactors produce more power. Reprocess the spent fuel and the blanket of U238 and thorium, obtain more Pu239 and U233. Burn the new U233, along with a mixture of thorium, in another set of power reactors and so on, achieving nirvana of electrical power.

Limited resources used
As a scheme on paper, it was simply brilliant! It made use of the limited resources of Indian uranium did not get involved in the expensive uranium enrichment technology, as Iran is doing now. Instead, it used the expertise of nuclear chemists and chemical engineers to develop the plutonium recovery technology from spent fuel rods and invested in developing the fast breeder and the thorium technology.

However, two major hurdles confronted the plan. One, all those who were investigating the fast breeder technology, such as the US, the UK, Germany, France and Japan lost interest in it for various reasons. Firstly they had abundant supply of cheap uranium from Canada, Namibia, Niger and Australia; secondly, the US started actively discouraging it, since US feared that plutonium recovery technology would spread among a host of countries, when plutonium is the preferred bomb making material. Till recently, the US was successful in persuading other countries from developing fast breeder technology any further.

Russia and India are the only two countries, which have decided to continue on the path. Of course, with today’s nuclear renaissance, many countries want to revive their fast breeder programmes. Russia has a working fast breeder reactor B N600, and is engaged in now designing even more powerful fast breeder reactors. In India, the initial work on fast breeders started in early 1970s, at Kalpakkam, with a little help from France. However, after the peaceful nuclear explosion experiment, in 1974 (Pokhran-I), France withdrew all co-operation in nuclear technology and so did Canada, the US and the rest of the world.

One could utter ‘peaceful nuclear explosion’, an oxymoron if there was one, with a straight face, because no matter what the US, Canada, France, Russia, etc, say now, back in the 1960s and 1970s, the same word was very legit. According to data available up until 1988, 115 peaceful nuclear detonations were carried out, in what was once Soviet Union. Nuclear explosions were used for the creation of water reservoirs, canals, mines and gas reservoirs, among other things. They were also employed for extinguishing gas fires and for seismic research. The US started its ‘peaceful nuclear explosion programme’, way back in the 1950s, as part of Eisenhower’s ‘Atoms for Peace’ proposal. Named Project Plowshare, it was publicly announced on 6 June 1958. The name Plowshare had its origin in the Bible:

And they will have to beat their
swords into plowshares and their spears
into pruning shears. Nation will not lift
up sword against nation, neither will
they learn war anymore.
- Isaiah 2:4

Between 1957 and 1973, as many as 27 experiments were carried out, in the US, using a total of 35 nuclear devices. A formal treaty, ‘Peaceful Nuclear Explosion Treaty-1976’, was signed by Gerald Ford and Leonid Brezhnev, which came into force in 1990, whose text could be easily accessed from US government websites.

What was hailed as a peaceful initiative of nuclear weapon states was, however, decried as a rogue act, when India conducted its experiment in 1974. The result was a complete unilateral cessation of co-operation on civilian nuclear technology with India and, in fact, all high-tech cooperation with India in general.

So, is it fair to call our nuclear scientists Jurassic, autarkic, isolationist, xenophobic, nuclear hawks, etc, as some ‘instant experts’ do in their columns and TV sound bytes?

But in all these lost decades (three to be exact), the Indian nuclear scientists at Kalpakkam and elsewhere had to toil to produce everything themselves; they could not buy what a Japanese or French fast breeder technologist could buy easily from the open market. But they rose to the challenge, ignoring constant needling from ill-informed sections of the media that India’s nuclear programme was a white elephant. They converted adversity into an opportunity, thought out of the box and innovated. Thus, the Indian fast breeder test reactor, (FBTR) which became operational in 1985, became the first reactor in the world to use uranium and plutonium carbide fuel. In the process, they also learnt how to use liquid sodium as a coolant – an admittedly difficult technology. Moreover, a host of industrial vendors were handheld and primed to produce high-quality nuclear equipment, machined to high precision, within tough deadlines.

Today, after 20 years of experiments, they have not only confidently designed a 500 M W prototype fast breeder reactor, but unlike most prototypes, have actually put their reputation on the line and committed to produce commercial power at a reasonable rate for the grid. This reactor will use uranium and plutonium oxide fuel, which will give even more power than the earlier carbide fuel.

If the Bush-Manmohan Singh deal goes through, the US Congress and the nuclear suppliers group agrees to conduct nuclear commerce with India and looks at India ‘as a partner and not a target’, in the words of our foreign secretary, then the cost of power from the Indian fast breeder reactors and other power reactors will come down even further, due to lower international prices of uranium.

However, there is a feeling in some quarters of the US Congress that India is desperate to get imported uranium and this lever should be used to renegotiate the Bush-Manmohan Singh deal and introduce clauses, which will restrict any strategic space for India and cap its nuclear arsenal. This seems to be based on half knowledge and bluster rather than ground reality.

Today, India has mastered producing nuclear power at 220 M W, based on a Canadian design, and 540 M W, based on fully Indian design. In fact, Indian reactors are now being souped-up to produce 700 M W. Our fast breeder will go online in three years, taking us to the very cutting edge. It is to be noticed that our scientists achieved all this on pitiful government salaries, whereas I am sure that these brilliant engineers and scientists would have made millions of dollars in the greener pastures of Silicon Valley, as many others, whose success we toast, did!

When the hunt began
As for the uranium deficit, way back in 1948, the hunt for uranium and other nuclear minerals had begun. The task was handed over to D.N. Wadia, FRS, an outstanding geologist and fossil expert. Thus were discovered the first deposits of uranium in Jharkhand and vast deposits of thorium in the beach sands of Kerala.

There are currently several mines working in Jharkhand, producing adequate quantity of uranium. However, the cost of producing the ‘yellow cake’ (nuclear jargon for high-quality natural uranium) in India is considerably higher than in Australia or Canada, because of poor metal content. Indian ore from Jharkhand has less than 1 per cent uranium, while Australian and Canadian ore have about 20 per cent metallic content. But more deposits have been discovered in Meghalaya and Andhra Pradesh.

To augment its own efforts at finding new uranium deposits, Anil Kakodkar, head of India’s Atomic Energy Commission, announced in a conference on uranium mining (organized recently by Uranium Corporation of India and attended by a large number of international companies), that the department of atomic energy (D A E) would welcome private sector participation in uranium prospecting. He confirmed that such a move does not need any amendment to Atomic Energy Act.

Recently, akin to the arrival of monsoon to parched lands of the subcontinent, has come the news that, in certain parts of Rayalaseema in Andhra Pradesh, geologists have found areas with tremendous promise, as they have the same geological features as the uranium-rich areas of Australia and Canada. The atomic minerals division of D A E, a product of D.N. Wadia’s pioneering work, is excited.

If anybody in India or the US have an impression that India is desperate to make a nuclear deal with the US and the nuclear suppliers group and its arms can be hence twisted to accept any further changes to the Bush-Manmohan Singh agreement, then they are mistaken. Kakodkar is obviously not a desperate man, ready to conclude a deal at all costs.

Perhaps Condoleezza Rice had such factors in mind, when she addressed the US senate’s foreign relations committee, on 6 April. She warned against deal-breaking amendments, saying: “We better secure our future by bringing in India into the international nonproliferation system not by allowing India to remain isolated for the next 30 years, the way it has been for the past 30. We are clearly better off having India most of the way in, rather than completely out”.

Book Review: Sand to Silicon

Business Daily from THE HINDU group of publications, Monday, Feb 19, 2007 ePaper

Taking a trip into the past
D. Murali
The story of digital technology comes alive, capturing pioneering work done by Indians too.

What does S. Ramadorai see when he crystal-gazes? "I see the excited anticipation of the next big boom waiting to happen," he writes in the introduction to Sand to Silicon by Shivanand Kanavi, from Rupa ( .
"Very simply put, more and more things will get digital. This digitisation means that a host of different devices and services will talk the same language," forecasts Ramadorai.
The book is `an excursion into the past' to narrate `the amazing story of digital technology', especially to those who are curious to know what lies behind the boxes, be they PCs (personal computers) or modems. And to those who want to know `how microchips, computers, telecom, and the Internet came into being'.
Also, to the avid, who are looking for answers to questions such as: "Who were the key players and what were their key contributions? What were the underlying concepts in this complex set of technologies? What is the digital technology that is leading to the convergence of computers, communication, media, movies, music and education? Who have been the Indian scientists and technologists who played a significant role in this global saga... ?"
Do you know, for instance, that Jagdish Chandra Bose created a semiconductor microwave detector in the 1890s, when experimenting with electromagnetic waves? Bose called it `coherer'. Made of an iron-mercury compound, it was `the first solid-state device to be used,' says the book. Bose demonstrated his invention at the Royal Institution in London in 1897. "Guglielmo Marconi used a version of the coherer in his first wireless radio in 1897."
Wikipedia has an elaborate page on Bose where you'd find this snatch: "Bose went to London on a lecture tour in 1896 and met Marconi, who was conducting wireless experiments for the British post office. In an interview, Bose said he was not interested in commercial telegraphy and others can use his research work."
Neville Mott, who won the Nobel Prize in 1977 for his contributions to solid-state electronics, remarked that J.C. Bose was `at least 60 years ahead of his time' and that in fact, Bose had `anticipated the existence of P-type and N-type semiconductors'.
Fast forward to read about another Indian, Pallab Chatterjee. In the 1970s, when working in Texas Instruments, he played a major role in developing a solution to a problem that memory chipmakers were then faced with: Limited availability of surface. In Chatterjee's words, "The dilemma was, should we build skyscrapers or should we dig underground into the substrate and build basements and subways?"
What was the answer? `Trenching' technology to pack in more micro transistors per square centimetre. "This deep sub-micron technology resulted in the capacity of memory chips leapfrogging from kilobytes to megabytes. Texas Instruments was the first to introduce a 4 MB (megabyte) DRAM (dynamic random access memory), back in 1985." A big advance in miniaturisation, in those days, notes Kanavi.
Chatterjee was to collaborate with Krishna Saraswat of Stanford University to bring about `changes in manufacturing techniques that made the whole US chip industry competitive'. Saraswat is working these days on reducing the time taken by signals to travel between chips and even within chips, says Kanavi. "The `interconnects' between chips can become the limiting factor to chip speeds, even before problems are faced at the nano-physics level," reads a quote of Saraswat in the book.
Just a sampler of what can be the right read for an afternoon this weekend.

Book Review: Research by Design-Innovation and TCS

Book Review, Financial Express, 6 May 2007
'Research by Design: Innovation and TCS', ed. by Shivanand Kanavi,

Success Sagas:
A look at how TCS has transformed the interface landscape in India –
Pragati Verma

Take an offshoring success story. Add the excitement of bringing the fruits back home; get company insiders to narrate the four-decade long saga of the tech powerhouse, Tata Consultancy Services, or TCS. And you get Research by Design: Innovation and TCS. TCS is arguably the grand daddy of the great offshoring wave and clearly the biggest of them all. It has just propelled its revenue past the $4 billion milestone and created about 90,000 jobs and is now toying with a 10x10 vision of reaching a revenue of $10 billion by 2010. Virtually every Western giant is today embracing the offshoring business model that helped Indian IT majors like TCS shake up the rules in the tech world. And a new winning formula has emerged — employ large numbers in India or other low-cost destinations.

Research by Design might remind you of the famous Infosys-inspired The World is Flat or lesser known Bangalore Tiger: How Tech Upstart Wipro is Rewriting the Rules of Global Competition, but this compilation is more focussed on how TCS made it big. It tells a rather straightforward story and offers a glimpse into IT innovations at TCS, CMC and other Tata group tech companies.

Devoid of wisdom and superlatives to describe TCS’ footprints on globe, it does not dwell into how TCS competes with global giants like IBM and Accenture nor is it an attempt to explain the offshoring enigma that struck the world as jobs started moving to India. But it will not disappoint if you are interested in looking behind-the- scene developments at various TCS development centres; capture their multi-disciplinary R&D and understand how various arms of TCS have related it to business. As with most other offshoring case studies, the book is focussed on achievements and challenges and hurdles take a back seat.

TCS is one of the few Indian tech giants whose story is not limited to success in US and Europe. Its engineering solutions went a long way in transforming Indian banks, stock markets and government organisations and even transformed parts of interface with citizens. If you are interested in knowing what went into the making of a success story like TCS, you get reminisces of tech leaders like former deputy chairman, FC Kohli; current chief executive and managing director S Ramadorai; and CSIR director general, RA Mashelkar. A compilation of anecdotes, it provides a holistic view of the research and innovation that went into creating TCS.

Interview-Hindu Business Line

Business Daily from THE HINDU group of publications, Monday, Mar 05, 2007 ePaper

`R&D vital for IT too'
D. Murali

A chat with Shivanand Kanavi of Special Projects, TCS
Shivanand Kanavi is a theoretical physicist from IIT Kanpur and Northeastern University, Boston, and has carried out research at IIT Bombay as well. He has authored Sand to Silicon: The amazing story of digital technology, which was supported by the Tata Group as part of the centenary celebrations of Jamsetji Tata and JRD Tata.

The book tells the story of the global evolution of digital technology and for the first time chronicles seminal contributions of Indians in lasers, semiconductors, telecom, computing and the Internet.

Kanavi is currently with Tata Consultancy Services as Vice President-Special Projects. Excerpts from a recent interview with eWorld:

A brief description of your work in TCS, as Vice-President-Special Projects.
To use a cricketing term, TCS has been a company that lets its "bat do the talking". As a pioneering company, it innovated in several directions to achieve technology depth, to convert software services from artisan-like activity into a highly industrialised activity with automation, tools, standards, quality, etc, and to build a truly global services company.

However, as a publicly-listed company, it needs to communicate these achievements to its shareholders, clients and employees effectively. Moreover, in the frenetic growth of the company that we are seeing, it is as important to build the internal brand as the external one. There are several initiatives being taken by the company in this direction since 2000 and the Special Projects that I am involved in are part of that.

On the history of innovation and research in TCS. And IPs created thus far.
Though it is not exhaustive, the recent book we came up with, Research by Design: Innovation and TCS , on the occasion of the Silver Jubilee of our R&D centre in Pune, gives a good introduction. It covers a span of nearly 30 odd years, long before Innovation and Disruptive Technology and so on became fashionable buzz words. However, Intellectual Property, Patenting, etc, are new phenomena.

Even then, TCS has nearly a hundred patents, its researchers have published several hundred papers in highly respected peer reviewed journals, they have presented papers in hundreds of technical conferences, they have been involved in setting standards and quality bench marks in industry forums and in IEEE and so on. There are a large number of copyrighted software tools, products, frame works, etc, which allow TCS and its clients to increase their productivity greatly.

We can say TCS has been at the forefront of the global IT industry in creating Software Engineering tools, which generate thousands of lines of code of extremely high quality. All that software architects and developers have to do is provide the business logic.

Now next generation tools are being worked on, which will lead to systems that can easily change and evolve as the client's business evolves and so on. Similarly debugging old software written by some one else and adding new features to it, (in IT Industry parlance it is called Maintenance, though it is very different from maintenance of machinery in a manufacturing industry), is a very necessary service required by many clients. At the same time it is not considered "sexy" by young programmers.

TCS has come up with tools that do this by themselves, using very esoteric theoretical computer science. The list goes on.

Is it necessary for a software services company to spend resources on research? Why? Should such work be confined only to software/ IT?
It is imperative for any industry to invest in R&D. This is easily understood in the manufacturing sector. But that is not the case with services industry. Hence, the farsightedness of the TCS leadership in establishing R&D over 25 years ago when it was not heard of in the global IT industry except in IBM and a couple of others such as AT&T Bell Labs (where C and Unix were created).

Today, any product or service gets commoditised very quickly in the global industry. So if one wants to run a profitable and sustainable business, which delivers value to its customers and customers' customers, then one has to innovate continuously.

However, this cannot happen unless there is: a culture of innovation, proper balance in long term and short term planning, encouragement for out-of-the-box thinking, intellectual freedom and non-hierarchical atmosphere where everything can be challenged on purely intellectual grounds, and lastly allowing some space for kite flying and skunk projects.

I look at TCS from an outsider's eyes, of those of a journalist and my interactions with scores of people in the company in the last three years have convinced me that TCS leadership created these conditions consciously and that is why innovation has flourished in TCS. The challenge is to continue that in the present atmosphere of explosive growth and even taking it to the next level.

As for research in non-software areas, the work in TRDDC in process engineering is a shining example.

Today people talk of domain knowledge, verticalisation and so on, but TRDDC, from the very beginning, built IP in steel making, mineral processing, non-ferrous metallurgy, cement manufacture, process control and modelling, and so on.

Today some of the scientists there give keynote addresses at international conferences in these areas and any company in the world in the area of cement, metals and minerals would love to consult them.

Similarly, efforts invested more than 20 years ago in engineering design technology, have given TCS its current premium position in Engineering and Design Services, so that every auto maker (Formula-1 car makers included) and Aerospace companies want to develop a collaborative development relationship with it.

And lastly, our corporate social responsibility (CSR) should have the stamp of having used technology to come up with societal solutions. Sujal water filter, computer-based adult literacy and various other such projects of TCS are examples of that.

How do Indians rate as innovators compared to those elsewhere? What are the best practices that we can follow from other countries, with regard to innovation?

Indians have shown a "can do" attitude in engineering in almost all areas under difficult climatic and cultural conditions and in the most competitive environments. Be it reviving a steel mill in Kazakhstan, competing in Silicon Valley or disrupting global services industry and creating their own model. So the quality of talent in Indians does not need any more proof and that is why there is such a worldwide scramble for grabbing Indian talent. As for learning from the best practices to nourish and retain innovators, we need to do two things: we should create parallel ladders in companies so that good technical people rise in a technical ladder and good managers rise in a management ladder; So far we have focused on hiring bright engineers now we should also hire bright people from liberal arts background, who will then bring a different perspective to all that we are doing.

The Indian IT industry is blamed for not doing enough for the country. Your comment.

IT was not encouraged in the government and financial sector in India. These two normally comprise the biggest users of IT in any advanced country. The fear of job losses and lack of public awareness about benefits of IT acted as impediments. Many Indian companies hence looked at the export markets where margins were also higher. However the computerisation of Indian Railways passenger reservation system in the late 80s and early 90s, changed all that. That was a decisive moment. TCS and CMC have been exceptions, even under very difficult circumstances they continued to advocate the benefits of IT and wherever possible brought their learnings in global markets to the benefits of ordinary Indians. In fact there were a few analysts who were criticising TCS during its IPO for doing low margin work in India instead of chasing higher margins abroad like other companies, since about 11 per centof TCS' revenue comes from India. However TCS and CMC have a commitment to India. What is the use of wiring up the rest of the world for the 21st century, if your own country is still in the 19th century? It is a different issue that TCS must be doing something right, because despite all this still its margins are enviable!

About your next book...

It has taken 38 years for the first book to come out of TCS. I am sure you will see them more often than that now, since there are many aspects of its work that are worth writing about. I am also doing some skunk work on the side on some other projects: a history book on Bhakti movement and its impact from 10th century to the 19th. Another `work in progress' is on India's Nuclear Programme, still one more, which I do not know when I will start working on will be on the Philosophy of Quantum Mechanics. So wish me luck.

Shivanand Kanavi


I am trying to learn how to blog and put up some of my earlier articles published elsewhere and current jottings on the net. Would love to have your feedback.