Centre allowed private public partnerships in the atomic energy sector on May 16

The Union government's move to allow privatisation in the atomic energy sector is a move whose time has come. With an increasing consumer demand for products from the atomic energy sector, state-run corporations, namely the Bhabha Atomic Research Centre, cannot alone cater.

Finance Minister Nirmala Sitharaman announced the decision to allow private public partnerships in the atomic energy sector during her address yesterday. At first, the announcement seemed shocking. Atomic energy is one of the strategic sectors of the country, and is kept cloaked in secrecy.

However, the sectors being opened up—nuclear isotopes for therapeutic purposes, and irradiation for food security and sterilisation—are already out in the private sector, although these are small units with limited capacity and scope. BARC had, in 2002, set up the Krushi Utpadan Sanrakshan Kendra (KRUSHAK) at Lasalgaon in Maharashtra, known for its onion and garlic production. KRUSHAK focuses on low-dose irradiation of crops to prevent them from pest attacks. Taking off from this venture, there are a few private enterprises who are focusing on food irradiation technology in the area, such as Agrosurg Irradiators.

Similarly, BARC set up a technology demonstration unit for high-dose irradiation in Vashi, Maharashtra, in 2000. The Board of Radiation and Isotope Technology has been operating this plant. One of the largest radiation processes done here is for export of food, especially mangoes. The US had stopped importing mangoes from India around 15 years ago because of food safety issues. Since the last four or five years, with the irradiation process available, India is again exporting mangoes to the US, especially the prized Alphonso.

Similarly, there are some small units in Gujarat that are working on sterilisation of medical equipment. For instance, one small unit focuses only on irradiating the rubber caps used as stoppers in bottles. Irradiating medical equipment like gauze, gloves and syringes gives them an additional level of sterilisation. Since gamma rays can penetrate the plastic packaging of these equipment, they further remove any contamination.

Radio isotopes are required for nuclear medicine, both as diagnostic aid and as therapeutics. Isotopes are used to study blockages in the circulatory system and metastases of cancers, for instance. In new-age targeted therapy, drug formulations are attached to these isotopes, so that they reach the desired site in the body with precision. Nuclear medicine, however, by one estimate, needs at least a ten-fold increase from its present capacity to reach every patient who needs these therapies in the country. The Board of Radiation and Isotope Technology (BRIT), which produces the isotopes required for nuclear medicine, will not be alone capable of meeting the rising demands, says former chairperson of the Atomic Energy Commission of India, Anil Kakodkar. “We need the private sector, here,'' he emphasises. Indeed, with limited supply, nuclear medicine gets unaffordable. Costs can come down when the supply end gets a boost, which private sector participation will ensure.

Kakodkar says that India already has a good pool of talent and expertise in nuclear capabilities, and they can be tapped to help the private sector play a bigger role in this area. The demand for radioactive products for safety and therapeutics is only going to increase. For instance, now that Personal Protection Equipment is in much demand, there could be the option of reusing the gear, once properly sterilised. A small irradiation kit could work as a laundry for cleaning out the gear. There will be many other, similar requirements in the near future. “The market already exists, it only needs to be configured properly by the authorities,'' Kakodkar says.

In fact, though the government has only announced privatisation of the atomic energy sector in a limited way at present, Kakodkar already has a vision of how the private sector can help bring about energy security in the country with nuclear energy. “A lot of profit-making public sector undertakings like the Nuclear Power Corporation of India can mobilise funds together and set up joint ventures with the private sector to set up nuclear power plants,'' he says, pointing out that this can be done within existing laws itself. “We must accelerate generation of nuclear power in the country,'' he says.

Of course, such units will be small capacity ones, he says. “A time will come when we will need larger units with capacities of 1,00,000 to 2,00,000 megawatts, and for that, the government will have to enact new laws for entry of the private sector.”