It is not where you start but it is where you finish that matters, It is not where you start but how high you aim that matters. When life gives you lemons make lemonade is a proverbial phrase and a hard beginning maketh a good ending, all have been so true in the case of Mr R.Natarajan (75 T) an alumnus of Annamalai University and now The Director, Reprocessing Group and Project Director, Fast Reactor Fuel Cycle Facility, Indira Gandhi Centre for Atomic Research ( IGCAR), Kalpakkam, India.
Born in a middle class joint family in Chidambaram which is their native place the family found it very difficult to make two ends meet. RN was a very timid, nervous, introverted, had a huge amount of inferiority complex and always scared of talking to a group of people until when he was about 25 years old !!. He was the eldest of the 4 sons, saw the family in an impoverished state made it a point to study well and get the family into better pastures. His father started as a server in our Annamalai University engineering mess and later ran a small hotel in Chidambaram which incidentally happens to be their native place. He was a very bright student, a gold medallist from Pachaiappas high school in Chidambaram where he did his SSLC, a gold medallist from Annamalai University where he did his PUC, a gold medallist from Annamalai University where he did his chemical engineering (70 - 75 T) a second ranker amongst the chemical engineers in the BARC training school, Mumbai (Bhaba Atomic Research Centre) in 1975-1976 when he was a trainee. His uncle was a strict disciplinarian when they were in the joint family at Chidambaram and when once Ramachandran (75 T) asked RN to go to a night show in Lena theatre when they were in their first year his uncle said emphatically not to waste time on movies. Ever since that rebuke RN did not go to even a single movie until he went to BARC, Mumbai. Once he joined BARC he compensated by going to movies every week end !! One year after joining BARC he got married.
Joining BARC in 1975 at Mumbai he was one of the 150 - 200 students taken as a trainee and once after the training got over after 1 year he got posted in Indira Gandhi centre for Atomic Research (IGCAR), Kalpakkam, a premier atomic research centre of India under the Department of Atomic Energy (DAE). The centre is engaged in broad based multidisciplinary programme of Scientific research and advanced engineering directed towards development of Fast Breeder Reactor Technology. RN began his professional career at Kalpakkam as a Scientific officer in the Reprocessing group. His diligent and dedicated work made him get elevated into the various grades starting from Grade C when he joined as a Scientific officer SO - C in 1976 to SO/ D in 1979 to SO/ E in 1984 to SO/ F in 1989 to SO/ G in 1994 to SO/ H in 1999. After serving in the various grades as Scientific officer he got promoted as "Outstanding Scientist" in the year 2006 and got elevated as a "Distinguished Scientist" which he is today at the age of 60. His services have been extended by 2 years after his retirement for his valuable and progressive performance .
Initially RN was involved in the development of equipment and systems for fast reactor fuel reprocessing. The process flow sheet and the processes to address the challenges related to recovery and purification of plutonium and uranium in the fuel discharged from the reactor. He has setup the nonradioactive experimental setups for validating the designs. He played a key role in establishing the reprocessing facility for the recovery of the uranium-233 isotope for separation from irradiated thorium in 1987. The uranium-233 recovered was successfully separated in pure form and used as fuel in the reactor KAMINI in Kalpakkam. This facility is primarily being used for neutron radiography of FBTR (Fast Breeder Test Reactor) fuel after irradiation to inspect the fuel pin integrity. This facility is also used for qualifying the “pyro devices” which are deployed in the various stages of rockets by ISRO.
With the equipments and systems developed indigenously, he designed and commissioned the pilot plant facility CORAL for reprocessing the FBTR spent fuel in 1997. This facility is a first of its kind for handling high plutonium bearing mixed carbide fuel. This facility was commissioned in 2003. Since then, many sub assemblies of FBTR irradiated fuel has been reprocessed in this facility and has put India as one of the leading countries in this technology. This technology is completely indigenous and is vital for our strategic requirements also. The significant contribution he has made has put him as a key scientist in this field.
Concurrently he is responsible for setting up a plant for the industrial scale demonstration of the reprocessing technology. This plant is under construction and will be commissioned in 2014. Based on these experiences he has taken up the design of the commercial scale reprocessing plant for handling the irradiated fuel discharged from the PFBR, which is a 500 MW fast reactor, being setup in Kalpakkam. This reactor will be operational in 2014.
The importance of this land mark achievements stems from the fact that, with electricity playing an important role in our lives, one of the important sources in India, is through Nuclear energy. This energy originates from the splitting of uranium atoms in a nuclear reaction when Uranium atoms split into smaller particles in a controlled chain reaction that produces large amount of heat, the process is called fission and takes place inside a reactor. At the power plant the fission process is used to generate heat for producing steam, which is used by a turbine to generate electricity. There are many types of reactors - Boiling water reactor, Pressurized heavy water reactor, Pressurized water reactor, Prototype fast breeder reactor, European power reactor, Gas cooled reactor, Light water Graphite reactor, Fast neutron reactor. The reactor used at Kalpakkam is a Pressurized Heavy Water Reactor and the installed capacity is 2 X 220 MW. Thus these reactors are fuelled by nuclear fuels which are required in much smaller quantities than the fossil fuel counterparts, coal and oil. Typically a 1000 MW power station requires less than 40 - 100 Te of fuel per year compared to a coal powered station which require more than 25,00,000 Te of coal every year! One can imagine the quantities of carbon dioxide and flyash produced!
A nuclear fuel could be either a 'fissile' or 'fertile' material. A fissile material is a nuclide which undergoes fission with neutron and in the process yields more than one neutron. One of the emitted neutrons can lead to subsequent fission while the rest of the neutrons may be absorbed or leak out and leave the system. The process of sustaining the balance neutron population, called nuclear chain reaction, can be controlled to give thermal power which can be converted into electricity. All the above processes happen in a nuclear reactor. A fertile material is one which can be converted into fissile material with the absorption of neutron. Naturally occurring uranium has two isotopes: Uranium-235 (0.7%) and the rest is Uranium – 238 (99.3%); Out of these U-235 is fissile and Uranium – 238 is fertile; The natural uranium can be used as fuel in the reactor but you need a moderator to slow down the neutrons coming out of fission to sustain nuclear chain reactor. Some examples of moderator materials are heavy water, graphite etc., The heat from the reaction can be removed by a coolant such as water (which could be either ordinary water or heavy water) or liquid metal such as sodium. The concentration of fissile material in natural uranium can be increased by a process called “enrichment”. The enrichment leads to tapping of more energy before the fuel is discharged from the reactor: typically it could be 3 to 4 times. Enrichment is an advanced technology which only a few countries have.
When the fertile nuclide such uranium-238 is present in the reactor along with the fissile Uranium-235, it absorbs neutron to become uranium-239 which undergoes radioactive reformation to become ultimately plutonium-239, which is a fissile material. This material can be used as fuel in the reactor. It has high neutron yield per each fission, making it useful for converting more and more uranium-238 to plutonium. This process is called “breeding” that is, converting more fertile material into fissile material that is consumed in fission. Thorium is another fertile material occurring in nature, which can be converted to uranium, that is uranium-233, which is a fissile material.
Uranium ore is present in the states of Jarkhand, Andhra Pradesh, Karnataka, Meghalaya and Chattisgarh in India. Out of the total uranium resources in the world, India accounts for just 1.5% while Australia has the maximum of 31%, followed by Kazakisthan (12%) and Canada (9%). But, India is the leader in the world’s thorium resources in Kerala beach sands contributing to as much as 21%.
Since the uranium-238 isotope present in the natural uranium can be converted to plutonium, the nuclear energy potential of the limited Indian uranium resources can be substantially enhanced. For example, if with the existing Indian uranium resources the installed capacity of nuclear reactors is limited to 10,000 MW, by utilizing plutonium this can be enhanced to at least 550, 000 MW! The plutonium utilization is enhanced if it is used as fuel in advanced reactor designs such as “fast reactors”. Hence plutonium produced in the operating Indian nuclear reactors is planned to be used as fuel. The first of its type of 500 MW capacity is under construction in Kalpakkam. This reactor will be operational in 2014. With the plutonium recovered from the 'PHWR' reactors, more and more reactors would be constructed. To begin with immediately two more reactors of 500 MW capacity is planned in Kalpakkam. The construction would commence in this XII plan period. As uranium-238 is converted into plutonium in fast reactors, reprocessing the spent fuel and putting it back into the same reactor as fuel, fresh plutonium is not required for this reactor. This would enable construction of more fast reactors with the plutonium available. Hence fuel reprocessing technology is an inevitable and important constituent for the success of nuclear energy.
Mr R.Natarajan who is the Director of the Reprocessing group explained that reprocessing is the recovery of Uranium, plutonium or thorium from the irradiated nuclear fuel discharged from the reactor. It is basically a chemical process in which the fuel is dissolved along with the products of fission in nitric acid which subsequently is treated by solvent extraction to separate uranium, plutonium and thorium. The purified material is converted into fuel elements for reuse in the reactor. The chemical process has to be conducted behind thick shielding to protect the operator from radioactivity. The operation and maintenance may require remote gadgets. The recovery of fissile and fertile material from the fuel discharged from the nuclear reactor is called spent fuel reprocessing. For the success of the Indian nuclear power programme, reprocessing is an important link, to recover either plutonium from irradiated uranium or uranium-233 from irradiated thorium.
With more than three and half decades of association with the Department of Atomic Energy, he feels proud to have chosen this career he had an opportunity to move to the lucrative petroleum technology. He feels everyday is challenging with problems calling for technological resolution for which the fundamentals he acquired in the academics have come handy. He is extremely happy with the freedom for innovation, expression and implementation prevailing in the department which are vital for the success of any high technology pursuits.
He has worked closely with stalwarts like Dr Anil Kakodkar (former chairman, AEC), Dr. S. Banerjee (former chairman, AEC), Former directors of IGCAR, namely, N. Srinivasan, C.V Sundaram, Shri S.R.Paranjpe, Dr Placid Rodriguez, S.B.Bhoje, Dr Baldev Raj and S.C.Chetal. They all were responsible for shaping his career with challenging assignments. He is a key member of the committee in the formulation of “Way Forward” strategy for planning the nuclear power programme for the next decade and beyond.
He is a fellow of Indian National Academy of Engineers and a honorary fellow of Indian Institute of Chemical Engineers. He is a life member of the Indian Nuclear Society. He is serving as the president of the Kalpakkam chapter of Indian Institute of chemical engineers.
He has two patents and 79 publications in reputed journals.
He has won the prestigious NOCIL Award for Excellence in Design and Development of Process Plant and Equipment in the year 2005 for his contribution in the development of fast reactor fuel reprocessing. He is also the recipient of Indian Nuclear Society's INS award for the year 2006 for his contributions in Nuclear Fuel Cycle technologies.
When I asked him about his role model, he said that his uncle has been his role model whom he would try to emulate. RN's favorite subject is still Mathematics similar to that of his uncle who has left in indelible impression in his nephew. He considers Mr E.Sridharan (Delhi Metro) as his role model when it comes to execution of projects. He is amazed and inspired by Albert Einstein who did all his experiments mentally. He recollects the inspiration his teachers gave him: those in school especially mathematics who created interest in mathematics, Prof Baliah of Chemistry department of Annamali University who taught him chemistry in PUC and Profs A.N.Andiappan, S.Rangarajan, N.M.Natarajan, Alagarswamy, R.Dhanapal, who taught various chemical engineering subjects in the Annalmalai university. He says he is trying to emulate the humility and human values of G.R.Balasubramanian who was his boss for more than two decades.
He says half an hour of yoga everyday in the morning keeps him fit throughout the day while half an hour of walk in the evening, in the serene atmosphere of Kalpakkam colony with his wife, gives him a good night's sleep. He recharges with an hour of swim every sunday for the week's work. He adds that the vibrant interactions he has with intellectuals in the leading research centre such as IGCAR keeps his mind fresh and young. He reiterates that team work is vital for the success of any pursuit in the area of high technology and Annamalai'ns are good at that!!
His future plans after getting into the elite status of having become a senior citizen at 60, are to teach and guide research students. He is qualifying himself in that endeavor by working on a Ph D work (in solvent extraction). He also wants to learn Sanskrit, practice homeopathy to the needy and the poor. He is very happy to get the feedback of his patients who are cured and on the recovery path by his treatment. His other interests are reading fiction books learning and chanting vedic hymns. RN's wife is a homemaker and both his daughters and sons in law are software engineers and well settled. He is a practicing Homoeopathist and has served as prescriber in the homeopathic Clinic at Kalpakkam which is serving the needs of not only the residents of Kalpakkam but also the neighboring villagers. He has also served as its president for many years. He is a connoisseur of music with a bent of learning instruments. In fact he tried his hands in Mrithangam for sometime.
Extremely happy to have met a meticulous, disciplined, simple, hardworking and a successful professional who has the greatest love for life and AUETAA is very proud of having an other glowing alumnus from our Alma Mater.