One of the most important technological enterprises India has undertaken since Independence is now treading its last mile towards completion and commissioning. Called the Prototype Fast Breeder Reactor (PFBR), it is expected to go critical in September 2014, around the very time India’s Mars Orbiter reaches orbit around the Red Planet.
When the PFBR goes critical, India will have entered the second phase of a three-stage nuclear programme, the visionary plan for which was laid as far back as 1958 by Homi Jehangir Bhabha, the ‘Father of the Indian nuclear programme’. It will also have become a world leader in an area of advanced nuclear technology, by sheer determination and persistence, through 60 years of having had to build our nuclear industry from scratch and in the face of sanctions and other difficulties. Many advanced countries — including the US, the UK, France, and, Japan — have tried fast breeder reactor technology, and have given up, at least for the time being– some citing economic reasons, others because they were not able to surmount technological complexities, or faced public misgivings.
Will we succeed where a number of others have failed? The world is watching with great interest.
Why is the PFBR so important? To understand that, we must understand the Bhabha plan and its importance. Very early in the Indian nuclear programme, Bhabha and his associates laid down a fundamental tenet: As far as possible, India should avoid importing nuclear fuel. Such imports would be subject to international politics and inspection regimes. In the years before the 1968 Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, we argued that India would give inspection rights to foreign suppliers for imported fuel but not for hardware (reactor) imports, and mostly got our way. Still, given that our nuclear industry would be important for both power and strategic purposes, we wanted as autonomous an operation as possible. The biggest hurdle was, though, that India does not have large reserves of uranium.
It was known, however, that we have thorium. In fact, a third of the world’s reserves. Bhabha decided that in the long run, India’s N-programme should run on thorium. But thorium cannot be converted into nuclear fuel in a straightforward manner. So, we had to devise a three-stage nuclear plan: In the first stage, India would build a series of heavy water reactors and fuel them with natural uranium. From the spent fuel, we would derive plutonium, a highly concentrated fuel which could be used for both weapons and future fast breeder reactors (FBR). In some years, we would move to stage 2 of the programme when enough plutonium would be available to fuel FBRs, so called because they produce (‘breed’) more plutonium than they consume as fuel. Thorium, after irradiation in FBRs would be converted to U-233, which can be used in the third stage reactors along with more thorium. Theoretically, once we begin to run many breeders, we are assured of a ‘perpetual’ supply of fuel for those reactors. A third stage reactor called the Advanced Heavy Water Reactor (AHWR) has been designed and will be taken up for construction in the near future. The Prototype FBR at Kalpakkam thus represents the beginning of the stage 2 of the nuclear programme. The plan may look simple, but it has been a big challenge these past decades to get to where we are.
For one, while our intention was to start the programme by building a number of pressurised heavy water reactors, with natural uranium as fuel, we initially bought some light water reactors, which the US and other advanced countries preferred, and they used enriched uranium. So, our own heavy water reactors got off to a start a little late, and although we did build several of them subsequently, we were always hampered by the fact that we didn’t have large uranium reserves and what we had, we could not mine and fabricate into fuel in sufficient quantities, in the times required by the reactors.
For another, international pressures started to tell on the Indian nuclear programme in the latter part of the 1960s and heightened after India refused to sign the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty in 1968 as a non-nuclear weapons power. Those pressures turned into harsh sanctions following India’s 1974 nuclear test. India was isolated from the global nuclear suppliers and we could not get either hardware or fuel, except from Russia. Those pressures did not relax until after the 2008 India-US nuclear deal.
India’s first experimental FBR, called Fast Breeder Test Reactor, was built in 1985. France was to supply fuel for it, but backed off under American pressure. It was then that our scientists took up the task of fabricating fuel for it, uranium-plutonium carbide. This small reactor has been the training ground for the PFBR.
By the time we began work on the design of the PFBR sometime in the 1990s, interest in fast reactors had waned globally. One by one, the advanced countries gave up – Britain in the early 1970s, the US later that decade, France and Japan more recently. Russia has been moving ahead, although slowly. India has stayed the course so far — building expertise and capability in the design of sodium systems, special instruments and sensors, reactor-grade materials, robotics and so on– and now we are close to the finishing line.
Now, as the era of uranium abundance recedes, even as the world is set for a nuclear revival, especially in Asia, there is once again growing interest in all kinds of fast reactors. China is working on them, as is Korea. In the US, the likes of Bill Gates are funding even more futuristic ideas. There is recognition worldwide that there are advantages to building a closed fuel cycle nuclear industry, as India has championed, rather than the once-through, open fuel cycle industry that the US and other countries have advanced.
The world gets more energy out of each pound of fuel, and will have far less, and far less dangerous, nuclear waste to deal with at the end of the fuel cycle.
Even as we set about realising this technology, we must not overdo the talk of world leadership. There are still plenty of challenges to take on in terms of new types of fuels, engineering, and optimisations. Rather, we must want others, too, to succeed in this technology, so that it develops globally, and everybody benefits from Homi Bhabha’s wisdom.
(Dr M.R. Srinivasan is a former chairman of the Department of Atomic Energy and the Atomic Energy Commission, and the founder?chairman of the Nuclear Power Corporation of India)