Dhruva Research Reactor

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Last Updated: September 1, 2003
Other Name: R-5
Location: Trombay
Subordinate To: Department of Atomic Energy
Size: 100 MWT heavy water
Facility Status: Operational

The Dhruva reactor is India's largest research reactor and primary source of weapons-grade plutonium. Originally named the R-5, this Pressurized Heavy Water Reactor (PHWR) first went critical on 8 August 1985 after 10 years of construction. Designed as a larger version of the CIRUS reactor, Dhruva was an indigenous project built to provide an independent source of weapons-grade plutonium free from safeguards. The Dhruva project cost 950 million rupees. The reactor uses heavy water (deuterium) as a moderator and coolant. Aluminum clad fuel rods containing natural uranium are burned to obtain a maximum power output of 100MW. At the time of the reactor's construction, India still had limited amounts of indigenously produced heavy water. The initial heavy water load was likely acquired through clandestine imports from China, Norway, and the Soviet Union through a German intermediary, although Indian officials have denied these allegations. After obtaining criticality, BARC had technical problems with the operation of Dhruva. The reactor was shutdown due to vibration problems that caused 4 metric tons of heavy water to overflow from the reactor core. The vibrations were caused by the high pressure flow of heavy water through the aluminum clad fuel assemblies. After analysis of the vibration problems and modification of the fuel design, the Dhruva reactor resumed limited operation January 1987. On 17 January 1988, Dhruva finally attained its full power of 100MW. Today, Dhruva serves as the primary source of spent fuel, which is reprocessed to obtain weapons-grade plutonium. It is estimated that the Dhruva reactor is capable of producing about 20-25kg of plutonium annually.

Safety standards at BARC have come under question after the revelation in 1991 that Dhruva was operated for nearly a month with a malfunctioning emergency coolant system. Also in October 1989, a reactor technician was accidentally locked inside a shielded room at Dhruva. The technician saved his life only by repeatedly shutting off the coolant pump to the reactor, causing the reactor to repeatedly shut down. The technician was found by chance an hour after the incident.

Sources:
[1] Andrew Koch, "Selected Indian Nuclear Facilities," Center for Nonproliferation Studies (CNS), 1999, http://cns.miis.edu;
[2] Bhabha Atomic Research Center (BARC), www.barc.ernet.in;
[3] David Albright and Mark Hibbs, "India's Silent Bomb," Bulletin of Atomic Scientists, September 1992, www.thebulletin.org;
[4] "Dhruva back in Action," Nuclear Engineering International, Vol. 32, No. 390, January 1987, p. 8;
[5] "Dhruva to resume operations soon," Nuclear Engineering International, Vol. 31, No. 387, October 1986, p. 11;
[6] Dr. A. Gopalakrishnan, "Nuclear Power: issues of nuclear safety," Frontline Online Edition, Vol. 16, No. 6, 13-26 March 1999, www.flonnet.com;
[7] George Perkovich, India's Nuclear Bomb: The impact on Global Proliferation (Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 1999), pp. 201, 228, 250, 271;
[8] Leonard Spector, The Undeclared Bomb (Cambridge, MA: Ballinger Publishing, 1988) pp. 84, 87, 90, 102-103;
[9] Leonard Spector and Jacqueline Smith, Nuclear Ambitions: The spread of nuclear weapons 1989-1990 (Boulder, Colorado: Westview, 1990), pp. 66, 69, 71, 72;
[10] T.S. Gopi Rethinaraj, "In the Comfort of Secrecy," Bulletin of Atomic Scientists, Vol. 55, No. 6, November/December 1999, pp. 52-57;
[11] 2000 World Nuclear Industry Handbook (Wilmington, UK: Nuclear Engineering International, 2000), p. 198.

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