15 August 2015

Building The FBR

12 Aug, 2015

Jaideep A. Prabhu is a specialist in foreign and nuclear policy; he also pokes his nose in energy and defence related matters. 

Nuclear energy has the potential to change India’s future. And a few bold scientists are quietly building our first fast breeder reactor (FBR). This is the story of a how a chain reaction could be set off.

Tucked away in the tiny, nondescript village of Kalpakkam in Tamil Nadu is one of India’s little islands of excellence, Bharatiya Nabhikiya Vidyut Nigam (Bhavini). Established in October 2003, Bhavini is a nuclear power utility company wholly owned by the Government of India under the Department of Atomic Energy. Tasked with the construction and operation of advanced nuclear reactors such as the Fast Breeder Reactor (FBR), the company till date has no operational reactors and works on a modest budget. However, the first reactor, the Prototype FBR or PFBR, is scheduled to go critical this month. The average age of its technical workforce is 35 years.

As a utility company, Bhavini does not design or develop new reactors or even improvements to existing ones—that responsibility falls to the Indira Gandhi Centre for Atomic Research (IGCAR), which was known as the Reactor Research Centre (RRC) until 1985 when it was rechristened. IGCAR has ben operating a 13 MW Fast Breeder Test Reactor (FBTR), and the experience garnered from that has led to the design of the soon-to-be-critical 500 MW PFBR.

Though much of the nuclear conversation in India has recently veered towards nuclear liability and the import of the latest Generation III or III+ reactors from France and Russia, what makes the mandate of Bhavini so exciting is that it represents a second dawn of the nuclear age. Until now, Light Water Reactors have been the mainstay of global nuclear power generation, numbering 375 of 439 commercial power reactors in operation at the beginning of this year. India’s fleet of reactors is comprised mainly of Pressurised Heavy Water Reactors (PHWR) which are similar in principle to LWRs and are operated by the Nuclear Power Corporation of India (NPCIL). However, the fleet of FBRs Bhavini will eventually operate promises to dramatically improve on the performance of even the latest LWRs.

Without any exaggeration, Bhavini can be said to represent a second dawning of the nuclear age. The first dawn in July 1945 brought with it the horsemen of the apocalypse but this one holds the promise of redemption. Bhavini and its reactors will consume almost 80 times less fuel than a comparable LWR and generate substantially less nuclear waste; it will even breed more fuel in the process. Most importantly, the waste it generates will have radioactive half lives of around 400-700 years rather than the 24,000 years that LWR waste has. This will make handling and storage cheaper and safer. Fast reactors will optimally utilise Indian natural resources and insulate the country’s nuclear energy establishment from geopolitical games. Simply put, fast reactors can bring energy security within India’s grasp.

Chellapandi joined the Reactor Research Centre (later renamed IGCAR) in September 1978. In September this year, he will complete 37 years of service just as India’s first commercial fastbreeder reactor goes online. It is a fitting work anniversary token for a man who most deserves to be called the father of India’s fast reactor programme.

This article was published in the August 2015 issue of Swarajya.

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