Opinion
A strategic milestone
Aug 13, 2013 12:08 AM | 11 comments

Technical accomplishments aside, the true significance of the reactor on board India’s first Indian nuclear submarine achieving criticality is strategic. INS Arihant marks the first step towards completing the third component of the triad of air, mobile land-based and sea-based deterrent forces envisaged in India’s nuclear doctrine. The advantage of nuclear submarines over conventional ones is their ability to remain under water for long without refuelling, and thus to travel long distances. It will, however, be a long haul from here on towards making this sea-based naval nuclear asset fully operational. Having validated the performance of the primary power pack, it has to be proven that the propulsion system can indeed be driven by nuclear power. The subsequent sea trials, which would involve complex speed, pitch and rolling manoeuvres, will test the ability of the reactor to withstand high acceleration loads and the fast response needed for rapid power ramp-up. These issues have posed serious nuclear fuel, material and engineering challenges, not hitherto encountered in land-based reactor systems. The Department of Atomic Energy and the Defence Research and Development Organisation deserve credit for successfully overcoming these. The full fleet, according to reports, will include seven such boats over a decade. This calls for enhanced submarine building and reactor fabrication capacity. More important perhaps would be preparing the operating personnel psychologically for long endurance inside an underwater cocoon.

Considering that most submarine accidents have involved nuclear submarines — most of them Russian — safety assumes great importance. Especially since there seems to have been substantial Russian assistance in the design of both the boat as well as the power pack. From a safety perspective, there is a larger issue that needs to be addressed. The entire strategic sector has remained out of purview of the Atomic Energy Regulatory Board and the safety overview system in place for strategic nuclear systems has never been discussed in public. The issue obviously gets more complicated for sea-based nuclear assets. Moreover, the DRDO and the Indian Navy, under whom the nuclear submarines will operate, have limited expertise in nuclear-related matters. In terms of technology, India has now clearly demonstrated that it has the requisite expertise to launch a parallel stream of enriched-uranium based Pressurised Water Reactors (PWRs). The land-based prototype 80 MWt PWR reactor at Kalpakkam is expected to serve as a platform for the proposed chain of 900 MWe PWR power reactors in the country, whose design is stated to have been completed. But that would call for a substantial increase in uranium enrichment capacity as well.

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  • The launching of the nuclear submarine INS Arihant is certainly a watershed in the defence oriented nuclear achievements of Indian scientists. The nuclear submarines have clear advantage of unlimited range and long time operations underwater. The safety of the nuclear systems mentioned in the article is a very valid point. Understandably it is out of the purview of the safety review of the civilian Atomic Energy Regulatory Board. The separate regulatory outfit that is already in place for the review of strategic nuclear applications in DAE is equally effective. Presumably that has reviewed the safety aspects of the submarine nuclear reactor. But this needs to be backed up by incorporation in the Atomic Energy Act similar to US Atomic Act. Currently our Act is silent about strategic applications. In the Indian context these are not that deeply outfitted and need to be done. Any defence nuclear accidents might have its repercussions on the civilian public also.
    From: Dr.M.R.Iyer
    Posted: Aug 15, 2013 at 13:11 IST
  • kudos, to the Arihant Team, It well said slow and steady wins the race, we need to be skeptical in our progress. No stone should be left un-turned, to ensure the safety of the people on board of Arihant and the flora and fauna of sea. Because a minute mistake can cause havoc. We all know how Hroshima and Nagashaki were charred down into ashes. Lets move from strength to strength.
    From: Prem
    Posted: Aug 14, 2013 at 1:05 IST
  • It's a great milestone for india and INS Vikarant & Arihant have added extra feathers to Indian Navy. Kudos to DRDO & DAE.
    From: amit
    Posted: Aug 13, 2013 at 23:52 IST
  • While it is commendable achievement we may want to keep in mind that this nuclear powered vessel is more of an experimental kind with lesser operational role as Arihant is reported to be quite noisy thereby giving away to the enemy or compromising its stealth appearance. Hopefully next serial production nuclear subs will be more quiet and stealthy to take full advantage of their nuclear powered propulsion system.
    From: Suvojit Dutta
    Posted: Aug 13, 2013 at 21:11 IST
  • The world powers did not have expertise when they first made the nuclear submarine , similar case for any new technology . Armed with sound science concept their scientist went ahead and built those complex systems. Some times they failed but they learnt from their mistakes. India also will have to do the same no one else will share these technologies with India. Jai ho and well done scientists
    From: wilson
    Posted: Aug 13, 2013 at 18:32 IST
  • This plan seems to be great, but what about the safe disposal of the nuclear core when it has depleated ? and do the inmates of the submarine have to wear radiation proof suits ?
    From: Raghavan
    Posted: Aug 13, 2013 at 15:57 IST
  • sECRET developments of nuclear submarines is the false face of Indian democracy.. when India dont have expertise in the field of nuclear submarines then why our government is becoming crazy in heeding towards it.. what about the marine life. if in case of opeartion failure where would the leaked nuclear material would go and what about the dangers posed for marine life.
    From: Sneha
    Posted: Aug 13, 2013 at 15:27 IST
  • India's resources of Natural Uranium (the only source for U235) is very limited. As many as possible neutrons as can be produced by fission of U235 in Nat U needs to be efficiently used for maximizing the conversion of Thorium (Th) to U233 and subsequent power generation in Th/U233 reactors. India developed and perfected PHWRs and FBRs are the best suited for this purpose. This is why Dr Bhabha selected PHWR/FBR route as the way forward for India. Enriched U, when used in land-based LWRs (that your Editorial mentions) are wasteful of neutrons, by their very construction and hence it will be inappropriate for India to build and operate LWR-based NPPs -- certainly not with indigenous fuel. LWRs with imported fuel is also not preferable in a strategic sense because our country after having invested huge amounts of money in the LWR projects, will for ever be dependent on the whims and fancies of foreign suppliers. LWRs have a role only in compact reactors that are necessary for propulsion.
    From: Udhishtir
    Posted: Aug 13, 2013 at 13:54 IST
  • Congress party in pursuit of next elections has shown some urgent achievements to Indian people, without thinking the strategic implications and starting a new arms race in the region. In addition to the author’s cautions instability of the peace in the region, threat to trade routes by India and somehow nuclear proliferation are major factors. China’s 80 percent trade goes through this route, blockade of that will effect China’s economy and to meet India’s advancing nuclear ambitions it will need more uranium which will start nuclear proliferation again and Obama’s policy of nuclear zero is over shadowed.
    From: Tony Arron
    Posted: Aug 13, 2013 at 13:42 IST
  • The successful commissioning of the nuclear reactor and the submarine are real accomplishments and the scientists and technicians (and all those) connected with these projects deserve congratulation and appreciation from the entire nation. Let the goal set for the decade come true.
    From: D. Darwin Albert Raj
    Posted: Aug 13, 2013 at 8:12 IST