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India’s first indigenous Fast Breeder Reactor begins ‘core loading’, why it matters

Context- The second stage of India’s three-stage nuclear programme has advanced with the start of ‘core loading’ at the country’s first indigenous Fast Breeder Reactor (FBR) in Kalpakkam, Tamil Nadu. ‘Core loading’ involves placing nuclear fuel assemblies inside the reactor’s core, a process initiated on March 4, witnessed by Prime Minister Narendra Modi. The completion of this process will mark the first step towards ‘criticality’, the start of a self-sustaining nuclear fission reaction. This will eventually lead to power generation by the 500 megawatt electric (MWe) FBR.

India’s FBR programme

  • Efforts to construct a Fast Breeder Reactor (FBR) in India began two decades ago, with the aim of developing comprehensive nuclear capabilities. The Bharatiya Nabhikiya Vidyut Nigam Ltd (BHAVINI) was established in 2003 to build and operate the Prototype Fast Breeder Reactor (PFBR), India’s most advanced nuclear reactor.
  • The project, initially slated for completion in September 2010, faced delays due to technological challenges, pushing the target completion date to October 2022.
  • Once operational, India will become the second country, after Russia, to have a commercially operating FBR.
  • Other countries like China, Japan, France, and the United States have either smaller programs or have discontinued their programs due to safety concerns.

From ‘fertile’ to ‘fissile’

  • The Department of Atomic Energy’s (DAE) three-stage power programme aims to use India’s abundant thorium reserves, found in placer deposits across various states, to generate electricity.
  • The vision for this programme was provided by Dr Homi J Bhabha and Dr Vikram Sarabhai, who recognized the need for Fast Breeder Reactors (FBRs) that produce more nuclear fuel than they consume.
  • The three stages involve converting ‘fertile material’ into fissile material. For instance, U238, a dominant uranium isotope, is converted into fissile plutonium (Pu239) in a nuclear reactor.
  • Similarly, thorium-bearing monazite is converted into fissile material U233. India follows a “closed fuel cycle” approach, reprocessing spent fuel to separate useful isotopes. The ultimate goal is to use thorium in the third stage of the programme.
  • The FBR is a crucial milestone towards this goal, paving the way for full utilization of the country’s thorium.

Three stages and FBR

  • The first stage of India’s three-stage nuclear power programme involves setting up Pressurised Heavy Water Reactors (PHWRs) and associated fuel cycle facilities. PHWRs use natural uranium as fuel and heavy water as coolant and moderator.
  • The Nuclear Power Corporation of India Limited (NPCIL) operates 22 commercial nuclear power reactors with an installed capacity of 6,780 MWe. This stage is supplemented by the construction of imported Light Water Reactors (LWRs), with the first of two units, built with Russian collaboration, already generating power.
  • The second stage involves setting up Fast Breeder Reactors (FBRs), reprocessing plants, and plutonium fabrication plants to multiply the inventory of fissile material. This multiplication is necessary to establish a higher power base for using thorium in the third stage of the programme.
  • The third stage will be based on the ThU233 cycle. To produce U233, thorium is irradiated in PHWRs and FBRs, and an Advanced Heavy Water Reactor (AHWR) is proposed for this purpose.
  • The combination of power reactors from all three stages is expected to ensure long-term energy security for the country. However, commercial utilisation of thorium on a significant scale can only begin when abundant supplies of either U233 or Pu239 are available. The progress on the FBR has made the transition to the third phase visible.

Way forward hereafter

  • As the core loading begins, the Fast Breeder Reactor (FBR) will initially use Uranium-Plutonium Mixed Oxide (MOX) fuel. The U238 ‘blanket’ around the fuel core will undergo nuclear transmutation to produce more fuel, hence the term ‘Breeder’.
  • Nuclear transmutation involves the conversion of one chemical element or isotope into another. Th232, a non-fissile material, is also planned to be used as a blanket in this stage. Through transmutation, thorium will create fissile U233, which will be used as fuel in the third stage.
  • Despite the advanced technology, the Department of Atomic Energy (DAE) maintains that both the capital cost and per-unit electricity cost are comparable to other nuclear and conventional power plants.
  • The first of the three stages is already underway with the Pressurised Heavy Water Reactors (PHWR) programme. The India-US civil nuclear deal has allowed India to purchase uranium for its domestic reactors, accelerating its nuclear programme.
  • By 2032, the DAE aims to increase the share of nuclear power in the energy mix by producing 22,400 MWe from its nuclear power plants. It has approved the construction of 10 new PHWRs in ‘fleet mode’, where a plant is expected to be built within five years from the first pouring of concrete.

Conclusion- India’s three-stage nuclear power programme, envisioned by Dr Homi J Bhabha and Dr Vikram Sarabhai, is making significant strides towards energy security. The first stage, involving Pressurised Heavy Water Reactors (PHWRs), is well underway. The second stage, marked by the initiation of ‘core loading’ at the Fast Breeder Reactor (FBR) in Kalpakkam, is a crucial step towards multiplying the inventory of fissile material. The third stage, which will be based on the ThU233 cycle, aims to fully utilise India’s abundant thorium reserves.

Despite technological challenges and delays, the programme is progressing steadily, with the FBR marking a visible transition to the third phase. Once operational, the FBR will make India the second country, after Russia, to have a commercially operating FBR. This programme not only represents a significant scientific and technological achievement but also a promising pathway towards sustainable and secure energy for the country.

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