Father of India’s Nuclear Programme 

On 24th January 1966, the renowned nuclear physicist Homi Bhaba died in a plane crash. Widely regarded as the father of India’s nuclear program, he was a visionary who saw the future potential of nuclear energy and how it can immensely contribute to India’s industrial progress and development.

Bhabha was one of the very few men who could see tomorrow in the distant yesterday. He realised that India was faced with a paucity of conventional sources of power and energy that needed nuclear energy to fuel its future industrial growth.

Born to a wealthy Parsi family on 30th October 1909, Homi Jehangir Bhaba saw a predilection towards sciences from an early age. He studied Einstein’s General Theory of Relativity at the age of fifteen, one of the most profound, fundamental, and difficult-to-grasp theories in modern physics. 

He passed the Senior Cambridge Examination with honours at the age of 15 and, three years later, went to the University of Cambridge in 1927 to study mechanical engineering at Gonville and Caius College. Still, his deep interest in physics induced him to change streams and get his higher education in physics. He worked in the famous Cavendish Laboratory in Cambridge while working on his Phd in theoretical physics. 

He got his Ph.D. in 1935 for his thesis titled “On cosmic radiation and the creation and annihilation of positrons and electrons.” He was selected for the Isaac Newton Scholarship and published his first paper in 1933 on the role of electron showers in absorbing gamma radiation. 

When he returned to India, he joined the globally renowned Indian Institute of Science as a Reader of Physics, where he conducted research on cosmic rays. He was made a Fellow of the Royal Society in 1941, and in 1942, he became the first Indian to win the Adams Prize, one of the most prestigious prizes from the University of Cambridge awarded for distinguished research in mathematical sciences.

Bhaba urged JRD Tata to establish an institute of fundamental research, which eventually led to the constitution of the Tata Institute of Fundamental Research in 1945 through a grant from Sir Dorabji Tata Trust. 

The TIFR is an Indian research organisation operating under the supervision of India’s Atomic Energy Department. With TIFR, India’s nuclear research began in a formal manner. Homi Bhabha was the first Director of TIFR.

He was appointed the first Chairman of the Atomic Energy Commission in 1948 and is credited with setting up the Atomic Energy Establishment in Trombay. After Bhaba’s untimely and tragic death, the Atomic Energy Establishment was renamed the Bhaba Atomic Research Centre by the then Prime Minister, Indira Gandhi.

Bhabha developed a strategy of extracting power from India’s vast thorium reserves rather than its not-so-impressive uranium reserves. This thorium-focused strategy of deriving power was a revolutionary idea then and became formally adopted by the Indian government in 1958 as India’s three-stage nuclear power program. In 1954, he received Padma Bhushan, the third-highest civilian award in the Republic of India. 

He summarised his three-stage approach to nuclear power generation through the following words: “The total reserves of thorium in India amount to over 500,000 tons in the readily extractable form; given that known uranium reserves are less than one-tenth of this amount, it becomes imperative for India’s long-term atomic energy strategy to prioritize transitioning nuclear power generation from uranium to thorium as swiftly as feasible. Atomic power programs can only commence using first-generation atomic power stations reliant on natural uranium.. The plutonium generated by initial power stations can be utilised in a subsequent generation of power stations, engineered to generate electricity and transform thorium into U-233, or depleted uranium into additional plutonium through breeding gains. This second generation of power stations serves as an interim phase toward the breeder power stations of the third generation, all of which would produce more U-238 than they consume while generating power..” 

Bhaba’s vision and energy led to commissioning the one-megawatt “swimming pool” research reactor APSARA in August 1956. With that, India became the first Asian country after the Soviet Union to have a nuclear reactor. Bhaba was also instrumental in India obtaining CIRUS—the highest-output reactor in Asia at the time and India’s first plutonium source—and a plutonium reprocessing plant named Phoenix. In 1964, paired with CIRUS, Phoenix produced India’s first weapons-grade plutonium. The eminent scientist also served as President of the United Nations Conference on the Peaceful Uses of Atomic Energy held in Geneva, Switzerland, in 1955.

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