V T Padmanabhan

2012 is the 70th year of the first criticality of Fermi’s pile at Chicago. The pile, designed by Enrico Fermi and Leo Szilard was the first nuclear reactor, which attained self-sustaining reaction at 1525 hrs of 2nd Dec 1942. The reactor was shut down 28 minutes later.

Arthur Compton a physicist of the Manhattan project sent a coded message to James Conant, Chairman of the US National Defense Research Committee. The conversation was in impromptu code:

Compton: The Italian navigator (Fermi) has landed in the New World.
Conant: How were the natives?
Compton: Very friendly.

This is probably the only commercial reactor to be commissioned in the diamond jubile year. Sixty years down the line and commissioning of more than 1000 piles – bigger and bigger –,25,000 people from Southern Tamil Nadu are congregating on the beaches of Gulf of Mannar, in a biggest Kumbh Mela type event in the recent history of Tamil Nadu. A fitting celebration for a technology, which has surely matured, aged and is ready and is poised to die and be buried. That it is is being burried in a land which according to one geologist is “wriggling like a worm” due to neo-tectonism is a bit disturbing. It is unsafe to bury a reactor with 100 tons of uranium fuel inside the core. Even if they load it, it can be removed and we hope the volcanoes will wait.

Will they load the fuel assembly and will be reactor be commissioned? May be. Will it add power to the national grid? That is an open question. The first VVER reactor to be commissioned during the 21st century at Temelin in Czech Republic was hot commissioned in 2001 and it started adding power to the grid four years later. The reactor at Bushehr in Iran commissioned in 2009 is yet to be grid connected. In an article published in the Frontline, a Russian writer had predicted that Kudankulam will be a nuclear university. Research reactors are not generally grid connected. In the not so distant future, scholars from all walks of life, including those of us who have different opinions and ideas about energy will converge on the coffee shops and on the sidelines of a dozen odd swimming pools in the reactor island and discuss issues related to alternative energy, the Sixth Great Extinction Event, dark matter, black holes and similar stuffs with the nuclear scientists, phenomenologists and theory physicists of the Nuclear Power Corporation.
A university dedicated for research on nuclear issues is not a waste of resources. Sixty years of fission technology and some 15,000 reactor years have loaded this planet with thousands of radioactive waste and hundreds of unresolved problems concerning their safe disposal. We must welcome the university.

There is an important similarity between the Fermi’s pile and NPCIL’s reactor at Kudankulam. The initial plan was to house the first pile in the Argonne National Laboratory. A labor strike prevented construction of the pile there, so Fermi and his associates set about building it in Chicago. In KKNPP’s case, thousands of people, mainly from the coastal villages of Tamil nadu and Kerala and professional geologists have been opposing the plant. By ignoring the popular wisdom, NPCIL has made sort of history at Kudankulam as this will be the first civilian project in the world to be opened in a military style operation with over 5,000 armed men in uniform standing to guard the campus. Against whom for what?