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What links Moscow and Gandhinagar? Nuclear physics

By Biswajit Choudhury,

Moscow : Here’s a not-so-touted Russia-India connection: It’s to do with nuclear physics and with linking this Russian capital with Gandhinagar, the capital of the western Indian state of Gujarat.

Russia’s Kurchatov Institute National Research Centre is the site of the F-1 reactor that was Eurasia’s first to achieve a self-sustaining nuclear chain reaction in 1946. It is the country’s prime research facility on thermonuclear fusion and ion-plasma technologies, work on which in India is carried out only at the Institute for Plasma Research (IPR) in Gandhinagar.

Both state-funded institutes are linked through the multinational fusion energy initiative – International Thermo-nuclear Experimental Reactor (ITER) – being jointly constructed at Cadarache, France, by seven participating nations, including India and Russia. The idea is to demonstrate controlled energy production by the fusion of two isotopes of hydrogen – Deuterium and Tritium.

India is responsible for the development, manufacture, supply and assembly at site, of various mechanical, electrical, microwave and cryogenic systems and equipment for the project.

At the centre of the ITER experiment is the creation of a ‘tokamak’ device that deploys magnetic fields for containing plasma towards producing controlled thermonuclear fusion power. This is because no solid material could withstand the extremely high temperature of the plasma.

The tokamak is one of several types of magnetic confinement devices. The first such was developed here in the Kurchatov Institute, named after Igor Kurchatov (1903-1960), the founder of Soviet nuclear research and who is also called the “father of the Soviet atomic bomb”.

Tokamaks were invented in the 1950s by Soviet physicists Igor Tamm and Andrei Sakharov.

The process can be described as one of positively and negatively charged ions and negatively charged electrons being in a fusion plasma at very high temperatures. To maintain the fusion process, particles from the hot plasma must be confined in the central region, which the tokamak does using a magnetic field.

It is research in the 1940s in this complex of buildings with a functioning reactor capable of generating up to 24 kW that led to the Soviet Union successfully testing its first nuclear weapon, codenamed First Lightning, at the Semipalatinsk test range in 1949.

In 1950, Kurchatov contributed in the production of the Hydrogen bomb with Andrei Sakharov, who originated this development as Sakharov’s Third Idea.

This multi-disciplinary research centre, earlier visited by Indian engineers at the Russian-built Kudankulam Nuclear Power Project in Tamil Nadu, also works in the areas of nuclear power engineering, nuclear medicine, isotope separation technology, nano-biotechnology and nanomaterials and systems, among others.

It was the conversion of Kurchatov in the 1950s to an advocate of nuclear energy for peaceful purposes that was decisive in the development of the world’s first nuclear power plant in 1954 in Obninsk, as well as for the institute’s pioneering work in nuclear physics, especially in controlled thermonuclear synthesis and magnetic capturing of plasma.

(Biswajit Choudhury can be reached at [email protected])