First FBR atomic unit behind schedule

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By : Sudheer Pal Singh
Last Updated: Sun, Oct 03, 2010 21:40 hrs

The commissioning of India’s first Fast Breeder Reactor (FBR) for commercial nuclear energy generation is set to be delayed by two years. The 500-Mw equivalent (MWe) reactor is being erected at Kalpakkam near Chennai in Tamil Nadu and was initially expected to be set up by end-2010.

When commissioned, it would mark India’s entry into the second phase of its "three-stage nuclear energy programme" and become the second largest commercial FBR in the world after Russia’s BN-600, operating since 1980.

"The reactor will be commissioned by the end of the current Plan in the financial year 2011-12. It has been delayed. The FBR is being built entirely domestically and is thus taking time," said a senior official from the Planning Commission.

India, as a part of its nuclear strategy, has embarked on a three-pronged approach. First, natural uranium will fuel Pressurised Heavy Water Reactors (PHWRs). The second stage involves using FBRs based on plutonium, which will be extracted from the spent fuel of the first stage. Finally, the country’s vast thorium reserves will be used to generate electricity.

A senior official from the Department of Atomic Energy (DAE) had confirmed the delay earlier this year. "There have been some delays in the commissioning of the Kalpakkam FBR. This is because much (of the) equipment is being made for the first time in India, as it is an indigenous reactor," he had said. An FBR is designed to breed fuel by producing more fissile material than it consumes. The Kalpakkam FBR would utilise 75 per cent of the natural uranium fed into it, as compared to the dismal 0.3 per cent utilisation of the radioactive fuel in conventional PHWRs, making it "near-renewable". This makes these economical and advantageous for countries such as India, which lack abundant uranium reserves.

Energy security hope
The prototype FBR, being developed at an estimated investment of Rs 3,492 crore, is a forerunner of India’s future fast breeder reactors and is expected to provide energy security to the country.

The reactor is being set up by the Bharatiya Nabhikiya Vidyut Nigam Ltd, the special purpose vehicle set up by the government in 2003 for constructing FBRs in the country under DAE’s aegis. It has been designed at the Indira Gandhi Centre for Atomic Research, DAE’s research body developing FBR technology in India.

A small-sized 13 MWe FBR Test Reactor is already successfully operating in the country since 1985. Apart from the Kalpakkam FBR, the government is planning to set up four additional FBRs in the country by 2020. The sites for two of these additional FBRs have already been identified at Kalpakkam.

The FBR technology, which forms the second stage of India’s nuclear energy programme, is expected to allow the country’s nuclear power generation capacity to grow to over 300,000 MWe in the long term without needing any additional uranium, as it uses the spent fuel from the already installed PHWRs.

India has a current installed nuclear power generation capacity of over 4,600 MWe contributed by the state-owned Nuclear Power Corporation of India Ltd (NPCIL) through its 15 PHWRs and two Boiling Water Reactors. NPCIL alone produces nuclear power in the country, as the Atomic Energy Act, 1962, prohibits private entry into nuclear power generation. The country plans to ramp its nuclear power generation capacity five-fold to a little over 20,000 MWe by 2020.