BANGALORE: India's Department of Atomic Energy (DAE) is looking for an agent who will help globally market heavy water, used to run nuclear reactors, that it is producing and is currently in surplus.
A tender floated by the DAE invites "global expression of interest from agencies of international repute for providing global sales representative service to the DAE for export of heavy water to various countries".
Heavy water is so called because the hydrogen atom in the water is replaced by its heavier cousin, deuterium. It looks and tastes very much like ordinary water but is used to run nuclear reactors that produce plutonium, a bomb material. Heavy water is used as a 'moderator' and 'coolant' in research reactors such as DAE's Dhruva reactor in Trombay, Mumbai, or in power reactors like the ones in Narora, Uttar Pradesh.
Currently, India makes heavy water in six plants operated by the Heavy Water Board (HWB), a unit of the DAE. Their total production is classified information.
Rajnish Prakash, chairman of the Heavy Water Board, declined to disclose the quantity of surplus heavy water available for sale or how much of it is produced in the country.
"These are strategic questions I cannot answer," Prakash told IANS.
In the 1980s, India was short of heavy water as was revealed in the 1988 report of the Comptroller and Auditor General of India that the total heavy water production from 1978 through 1986 was about 190 tonnes, far short of the 600 tonnes needed to run the country's four unsafeguarded reactors.
India was even accused of importing heavy water clandestinely from Norway and Russia to run its reactors - an allegation that was stoutly denied by the government.
A DAE official who did not want to be named admitted that India did face heavy water shortage in the 1980s but has now moved to become an exporter of this strategic material.
However, it is not the first time India will be exporting heavy water. "We have earlier exported to South Korea and China and a small quantity (4.4 tonnes) to the US," he said.
India, which commissioned its first heavy water plant at Nangal in Punjab in August 1962, is today one of the largest manufacturers of heavy water in the world with production facilities at Vadodara (Gujarat), Tuticorin (Tamil Nadu), Kota (Rajasthan), Thal (Maharashtra), Hazira (Gujarat) and Manuguru (Andhra Pradesh).
India's nuclear programme based on pressurised heavy water reactors (PHWR) requires a steady stream of heavy water at the time of commissioning a new reactor and for replenishing the loss of heavy water in operating reactors.
A rule of thumb is that for every megawatt of power from a PHWR, the initial coolant and moderator inventory requirements of heavy water is about one tonne.
DAE plans to build 12 new PHWR reactors of 700 MW each starting 2012 - which means India will require an inventory of at least 8,000 tonnes of heavy water.
"All our plants are operating well and we can fully meet our future requirements of heavy water," R.V. Gupta, director of operations at the HVB, told IANS. "Only the surplus is available for sale."