BUSINESS INDIA June 4, 2006 Energy
After 20 years of hard work, India has reached the cutting edge of fast breeder technology. There is also encouraging news about discovery of new deposits of uranium
Fast breeders have entered journalistic and parliamentary lexicon in the last one-year or so. A parliamentarian, dazed by the sudden influx of nuclear physics in the central hall of the Parliament, did not want to be left behind in the sound byte game and said, “We must protect our fast breeders; after all, that is how we became one billion strong”! Be that as it may, the fast breeder technology, in its essence, is more than 50 years old. Most people do not know that the firstever kilowatt of power from a nuclear reactor, anywhere in the world, came in 1951 from a fast breeder reactor, E B R-I (experimental breeder reactor) at Idaho Falls, USA.
So, what are these new-fangled objects, the fast breeder reactors? If we care to struggle with a little bit of nuclear physics, we might profit from it. Here are a few simple incentives to cross the knowledge hump.
The prototype fast breeder reactor under construction at a furious pace in Kalpakkam is scheduled to go commercial in 2010. “It will produce 500 M W o f power and we are committed to sell this power at the rate of Rs3.20 per unit to the Tamil Nadu Electricity Board, four years hence,” says R. Prabhakar, technical director, B H A V I N I, a subsidiary of Nuclear Power Corporation, set up to harness fast breeder technology for power production. This is to be contrasted with the fact that the current tariff from Ratnagiri Gas and Power Company (resurrected Dabhol Power, built by Enron) is Rs7.50 per unit! No doubt, once arrangements are made to burn gas rather than the expensive naphtha, power from Dabhol, would be cheaper - but it won’t be Rs3.20 per unit in 2010!
According to S.C. Chetal, who heads the reactor engineering group at Indira Gandhi Centre for Atomic Research (IGCAR), the two fast breeder reactors of 500 M W each, which are expected to come on stream in Kalpakkam by 2014, are being configured to produce power at the rate of Rs2.00 per unit (in today’s constant rupee terms). “We are doing our best to demonstrate that fast breeders are not only necessary for energy security but are also an economically viable technology for power production”, adds Chetal.
You want one more dollop of nuclear enthusiasm, then take this! “India’s total power production today is 1,10,000 M W. The potential power from the fast breeder cycle is 5,50,000 M W. This is a conservative estimate, the real optimists rate it as 8,00,000 M W. And all this with India’s own existing low quality deposits of uranium and without importing a single tonne of uranium from Canada, Namibia, Niger, Australia or any other country, assuming, of course, that they want to sell it to us”, says Baldev Raj, a leading metallurgist, who leads fast breeder research in India as director, IGCAR.
All this is not pulling a fast one on behalf of fast breeders, but a product of simple physics and arithmetic. In the power reactors currently in use at Rawatbhatta, (Rajasthan), Kalpakkam (TN), Narora (UP), Kakrapar (Gujarat), Kaiga (Karnataka) and Tarapur (Maharashtra), only 0.7 per cent of the fuel can be burnt to produce electricity.
That is because natural uranium mostly contains U238 and only 0.7 per cent of U235. It is only U235 that can be split using a slow neutron beam, producing enormous amounts of heat, to boil water, generate steam and run a turbine like in any other power station. Whereas U238 is not fissile, however, some of U238 converts itself into plutonium (Pu239), if exposed to fast neutrons. This new element, Pu239, can be easily burnt to produce power or to make nuclear weapons.
India invested, way back in the 1960s, in B A R C, to develop the technology to reprocess spent fuel rods from power reactors and extract plutonium from it. “The arithmetic is simple. If we mix 25-30 per cent of plutonium with U238 and expose it to fast neutrons in a reactor, then plutonium will burn and give us about 20 times more power than the natural uranium reactors now in operation. Meanwhile, some of the U238 in the fuel would absorb some fast neutrons and get converted again into plutonium. Since roughly 1.1 kg of plutonium comes out of the spent fuel due to this conversion, for every 1 kg that was initially put in the fuel rod, such reactors are called breeder reactors. Since fast neutrons are used to trigger the chain reaction, such reactors are called fast breeder reactors,” explains Baldev Raj.
Additionally, if we cover the reactor core with a blanket of either U238 or thorium, then this blanket captures some of the fast neutrons coming out of the core, which would have escaped and been wasted. On reprocessing this irradiated blanket, we could recover either Pu239 or U233. Thus originated Bhabha’s nuclear road map for India; to first master the natural uranium reactors, produce power, reprocess the spent fuel and recover plutonium from it. Burn this plutonium in fast breeder reactors produce more power. Reprocess the spent fuel and the blanket of U238 and thorium, obtain more Pu239 and U233. Burn the new U233, along with a mixture of thorium, in another set of power reactors and so on, achieving nirvana of electrical power.
Limited resources used
As a scheme on paper, it was simply brilliant! It made use of the limited resources of Indian uranium did not get involved in the expensive uranium enrichment technology, as Iran is doing now. Instead, it used the expertise of nuclear chemists and chemical engineers to develop the plutonium recovery technology from spent fuel rods and invested in developing the fast breeder and the thorium technology.
However, two major hurdles confronted the plan. One, all those who were investigating the fast breeder technology, such as the US, the UK, Germany, France and Japan lost interest in it for various reasons. Firstly they had abundant supply of cheap uranium from Canada, Namibia, Niger and Australia; secondly, the US started actively discouraging it, since US feared that plutonium recovery technology would spread among a host of countries, when plutonium is the preferred bomb making material. Till recently, the US was successful in persuading other countries from developing fast breeder technology any further.
Russia and India are the only two countries, which have decided to continue on the path. Of course, with today’s nuclear renaissance, many countries want to revive their fast breeder programmes. Russia has a working fast breeder reactor B N600, and is engaged in now designing even more powerful fast breeder reactors. In India, the initial work on fast breeders started in early 1970s, at Kalpakkam, with a little help from France. However, after the peaceful nuclear explosion experiment, in 1974 (Pokhran-I), France withdrew all co-operation in nuclear technology and so did Canada, the US and the rest of the world.
One could utter ‘peaceful nuclear explosion’, an oxymoron if there was one, with a straight face, because no matter what the US, Canada, France, Russia, etc, say now, back in the 1960s and 1970s, the same word was very legit. According to data available up until 1988, 115 peaceful nuclear detonations were carried out, in what was once Soviet Union. Nuclear explosions were used for the creation of water reservoirs, canals, mines and gas reservoirs, among other things. They were also employed for extinguishing gas fires and for seismic research. The US started its ‘peaceful nuclear explosion programme’, way back in the 1950s, as part of Eisenhower’s ‘Atoms for Peace’ proposal. Named Project Plowshare, it was publicly announced on 6 June 1958. The name Plowshare had its origin in the Bible:
And they will have to beat their
swords into plowshares and their spears
into pruning shears. Nation will not lift
up sword against nation, neither will
they learn war anymore.
- Isaiah 2:4
Between 1957 and 1973, as many as 27 experiments were carried out, in the US, using a total of 35 nuclear devices. A formal treaty, ‘Peaceful Nuclear Explosion Treaty-1976’, was signed by Gerald Ford and Leonid Brezhnev, which came into force in 1990, whose text could be easily accessed from US government websites.
What was hailed as a peaceful initiative of nuclear weapon states was, however, decried as a rogue act, when India conducted its experiment in 1974. The result was a complete unilateral cessation of co-operation on civilian nuclear technology with India and, in fact, all high-tech cooperation with India in general.
So, is it fair to call our nuclear scientists Jurassic, autarkic, isolationist, xenophobic, nuclear hawks, etc, as some ‘instant experts’ do in their columns and TV sound bytes?
But in all these lost decades (three to be exact), the Indian nuclear scientists at Kalpakkam and elsewhere had to toil to produce everything themselves; they could not buy what a Japanese or French fast breeder technologist could buy easily from the open market. But they rose to the challenge, ignoring constant needling from ill-informed sections of the media that India’s nuclear programme was a white elephant. They converted adversity into an opportunity, thought out of the box and innovated. Thus, the Indian fast breeder test reactor, (FBTR) which became operational in 1985, became the first reactor in the world to use uranium and plutonium carbide fuel. In the process, they also learnt how to use liquid sodium as a coolant – an admittedly difficult technology. Moreover, a host of industrial vendors were handheld and primed to produce high-quality nuclear equipment, machined to high precision, within tough deadlines.
Today, after 20 years of experiments, they have not only confidently designed a 500 M W prototype fast breeder reactor, but unlike most prototypes, have actually put their reputation on the line and committed to produce commercial power at a reasonable rate for the grid. This reactor will use uranium and plutonium oxide fuel, which will give even more power than the earlier carbide fuel.
If the Bush-Manmohan Singh deal goes through, the US Congress and the nuclear suppliers group agrees to conduct nuclear commerce with India and looks at India ‘as a partner and not a target’, in the words of our foreign secretary, then the cost of power from the Indian fast breeder reactors and other power reactors will come down even further, due to lower international prices of uranium.
However, there is a feeling in some quarters of the US Congress that India is desperate to get imported uranium and this lever should be used to renegotiate the Bush-Manmohan Singh deal and introduce clauses, which will restrict any strategic space for India and cap its nuclear arsenal. This seems to be based on half knowledge and bluster rather than ground reality.
Today, India has mastered producing nuclear power at 220 M W, based on a Canadian design, and 540 M W, based on fully Indian design. In fact, Indian reactors are now being souped-up to produce 700 M W. Our fast breeder will go online in three years, taking us to the very cutting edge. It is to be noticed that our scientists achieved all this on pitiful government salaries, whereas I am sure that these brilliant engineers and scientists would have made millions of dollars in the greener pastures of Silicon Valley, as many others, whose success we toast, did!
When the hunt began
As for the uranium deficit, way back in 1948, the hunt for uranium and other nuclear minerals had begun. The task was handed over to D.N. Wadia, FRS, an outstanding geologist and fossil expert. Thus were discovered the first deposits of uranium in Jharkhand and vast deposits of thorium in the beach sands of Kerala.
There are currently several mines working in Jharkhand, producing adequate quantity of uranium. However, the cost of producing the ‘yellow cake’ (nuclear jargon for high-quality natural uranium) in India is considerably higher than in Australia or Canada, because of poor metal content. Indian ore from Jharkhand has less than 1 per cent uranium, while Australian and Canadian ore have about 20 per cent metallic content. But more deposits have been discovered in Meghalaya and Andhra Pradesh.
To augment its own efforts at finding new uranium deposits, Anil Kakodkar, head of India’s Atomic Energy Commission, announced in a conference on uranium mining (organized recently by Uranium Corporation of India and attended by a large number of international companies), that the department of atomic energy (D A E) would welcome private sector participation in uranium prospecting. He confirmed that such a move does not need any amendment to Atomic Energy Act.
Recently, akin to the arrival of monsoon to parched lands of the subcontinent, has come the news that, in certain parts of Rayalaseema in Andhra Pradesh, geologists have found areas with tremendous promise, as they have the same geological features as the uranium-rich areas of Australia and Canada. The atomic minerals division of D A E, a product of D.N. Wadia’s pioneering work, is excited.
If anybody in India or the US have an impression that India is desperate to make a nuclear deal with the US and the nuclear suppliers group and its arms can be hence twisted to accept any further changes to the Bush-Manmohan Singh agreement, then they are mistaken. Kakodkar is obviously not a desperate man, ready to conclude a deal at all costs.
Perhaps Condoleezza Rice had such factors in mind, when she addressed the US senate’s foreign relations committee, on 6 April. She warned against deal-breaking amendments, saying: “We better secure our future by bringing in India into the international nonproliferation system not by allowing India to remain isolated for the next 30 years, the way it has been for the past 30. We are clearly better off having India most of the way in, rather than completely out”.