Homi Bhabha’s dream is finally going to become true and India will be on its way to self-sufficiency in Energy Supply. A different type of nuclear reactor that generates more fuel as ‘waste product’ than it consumes, as it works. India has been running on an experimental facility called a Fast-Breeder Test Reactor (FBTR) facility, for the last 27 years. This small nuclear reactor was the forerunner for a much bigger one that India has now constructed at Kalpakkam called the Prototype Fast Breeder Reactor (PFBR). This will generate 500 MW of electricity commercially using the fast breeder route. Presently the world’s only commercially operating fast breeder reactor is situated in the Ural Mountains of Russia at the Beloyarsk Nuclear Power Plant, near the Russian city of Vekateringburg.
On the Southern Coast at Kalpakkam near Chennai, our nuclear scientists are in the final stages of commissioning a high-tech modern reactor more than 15 years in the making. This unique nuclear reactor is a kind of Kuber’s ‘akshaya patra’, with a never-ending supply of energy. The Department of Atomic Energy is getting ready to put on “steam” its ultra-modern indigenously designed and fully Indian fast-breeder reactor. Now the whole world is realizing that for sustainable nuclear energy supply the only way is to make fast-breeder reactors mainstream.
In the Fast breeder reactors the neutrons that help sustain the atomic chain reaction travel at a much higher velocity than neutrons that sustain the traditional reactors. The nomenclature Breeder has been added because these reactors generate more fuel than they consume a fact hard to believe as a layman. However a property of uranium as an element ensures this very thing. Uranium has different isotopes and a normal Nuclear Reactor utilizes the isotope U235. This isotope is present in a very very small quantity even in the most purified natural Uranium which is basically 99% U238 .In a fast breeder reactor the very fast neutrons interact with the natural uranium U-238 and increases its U235 content which into a extremely valuable resource. This is why fast breeders are akin to an ‘akshaya patra’.India’s fast breeder reactor is even more unique as Indian Scientists instead of using purified uranium238 are using special rods of thorium . These fuel rods on getting irradiated by fast neutrons generate U-233 which for sustainable chain reaction is even better than U235. Thus normal purified thorium which is basically inert turns into a valuable radioactive isotope and fuel for the nuclear reactors. The best part is that India which has a very limited quantity of natural uranium ores, just about sufficient for our nuclear weapons programme and our nuclear powered submarines and future nuclear powered aircraft carriers, has vast reserves of natural thorium.
Many countries dabbled with fast breeder reactors and just gave up. First to start and give up was the US. It gave up since American never realized its true potential and instead considered the re-processing of nuclear waste as a huge burden. Also USA has enough supplies of Uranium ore. Japan and France both had robust programmes with fast breeder technology but repeated failure to safely handle liquid sodium forced them to more or less give up on fast reactors. China is still more than a decade behind India in trying to master this complex process.
Russia on other hand invested heavily in developing the fast breeder technology but since it commissioned its first fast breeder reactor BN 600 in 1980 it suffered an economic meltdown with breaking up of Soviet Union. Only recently Russia could complete its upgraded fast breeder reactor BN 6OO to BN 800. It uses both uranium and plutonium as fuel and generates electricity that is supplied to the grid. Now they are trying to design a bigger 1200 MW fast breeder reactor. Vukiya Amano, Director General of International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), Vienna, says “fast reactors can help extract up to 70 per cent more energy than traditional reactors and are safer than traditional reactors while reducing long lived radioactive waste by several fold. Though early experimental reactors were notoriously unstable and hence difficult to run reliably over long periods and so remained commercially unviable.
Today the BN 800 reactor produces about BOGW of electricity and supplies it to the Ural region . While electricity that is produced is no different than any other electricity but the global community of atomic boffins are in ecstasy with this unique achievement. M Chudakov, now with the IAEA and well-known Russian fast breeder expert, calls “these reactors a bridge to the future as they can supply an almost unlimited supply of electricity”.
World’s eyes are now on Kalapakkam where another global nuclear milestone is likely to be crossed this year. Arun Kumar Bhaduri, Director of the Indira Gandhi Centre for Atomic Research(IGCAR), Kalpakkam says, “fast breeder reactors are far safer than the current generation of nuclear plants and that all efforts are being made to kick start within this year India’s first commercial fast breeder reactor at Kalpakkam.”
To top the World once again, India needs huge quantity of energy for economic growth. Unfortunately, the Indian land mass is not having enough uranium ores but on the other hand the country has the world’s second largest reserves of thorium. Finally the country under a well-planned strategy originally initiated by Bhabha has been mastering fast breeder reactors that can be an effective media for utilising the vast thorium reserves and meet all our energy needs long into the future. By the time India has its third commercial Fast Breeder Reactor, the present countries constituting the NSG (nuclear suppliers Group) formed to deny nuclear technology to India will be renamed as Notoriously Silly Gasbags.