BARC was started in 1957, as the Atomic Energy Establishment, Trombay (AEET), and became India's primary nuclear research centre, taking over charge of most nuclear scientists that were at the Tata Institute of Fundamental Research. After Homi J. Bhabha's death in 1966, the centre was renamed as the Bhabha Atomic Research Centre.
The first reactors at BARC and its affiliated power generation centres were imported from the west. India's first power reactors, installed at the Tarapur Atomic Power Plant (TAPP) were from the United States.
The primary import of BARC is as a research centre. The BARC and the Indian government has consistently maintained that the reactors are used for this purpose only: Apsara (1956; named by the then Prime Minister of India, Jawaharlal Nehru when he likened the blue Cerenkov radiation to the beauty of the Apsaras (Indra's court dancers), CIRUS (1960; the "Canada-India Reactor" with assistance from Canada), the now-defunct ZERLINA (1961; Zero Energy Reactor for Lattice Investigations and Neutron Assay), Purnima I (1972), Purnima II (1984), Dhruva(1985), Purnima III (1990), and Kamini.
The plutonium used in India's 1974 nuclear test carried out in Pokhran in the Thar desert of Rajasthan (Peaceful Nuclear Explosion) came from CIRUS, the primary charter of which was peaceful nuclear research. The 1974 test (and the 1998 tests that followed) gave Indian scientists the technological know-how and confidence not only to develop nuclear fuel for future reactors to be used in power generation and research, but also the capacity to refine the same fuel into weapons-grade fuel to be used in the development of nuclear weapons.
More recently, India and the United States signed an agreement to enhance nuclear cooperation between the two countries, and for India to participate in an international consortium on fusion research, ITER (International Thermonuclear Experimental Reactor) so there are signs that the west wants to bring India in the Nuclear mainfold. India is the only country to be given such a status due to its impeccable record of Nuclear non proliferation.
The BARC also conducts research in biotechnology at the Gamma Gardens, and has developed numerous disease resistant and high-yielding crop varieties, particularly groundnuts. There is also a great deal of research in Liquid Metal Magnetohydrodynamics for power generation.
On June 4, 2005, with the goal of encouraging research in basic sciences, BARC started the Homi Bhabha National Institute. Research institutions affiliated to BARC include IGCAR (Indira Gandhi Centre for Atomic Research), RRCAT (Raja Ramanna Centre for Advanced Technology), and VECC (Variable Energy Cyclotron Centre).
Power projects that have benefited from BARC expertise but which fall under the NPCIL (Nuclear Power Corporation of India Limited) are KAPP (Kakrapar Atomic Power Project), RAPP (Rajasthan Atomic Power Project), and TAPP (Tarapur Atomic Power Project).