Criticality of Prototype Fast Breeder Reactor pushed back further

The missing link to India’s quest for a closed nuclear fuel cycle, the home-grown prototype fast breeder reactor (PFBR), is now expected to gain criticality next year. This means a delay from the earlier deadline of the year 2018.

When the indigenously designed and locally constructed PFBR attains criticality it next year, it would make India the second country in the world after Russia to operate a Fast Breeder Reactor.

“Our indigenously developed prototype fast breeder reactor of 500 MWe is now undergoing sodium commissioning. We expect criticality next year,” Chairman Atomic Energy Commission and Secretary Department of Atomic Energy, Government of India Dr. Sekhar Basu told the 62nd General Conference of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) in Vienna, Austria. This means that the Sodium coolant has been poured into the secondary system of the reactor and after it becomes stable the fuel will be loaded and after that the reactor will be approaching criticality.

India started the FBR programme by constructing a 40 MWt/13.5 MWe loop-type fast breeder test reactor (FBTR) at Kalpakkam. FBTR is a sodium-cooled experimental reactor and was commissioned in 1985 with a unique plutonium-rich carbide fuel. This was followed by the design and development of 500 MWe capacity prototype fast breeder reactor (PFBR). The main objective of PFBR is “to demonstrate the techno-economic viability of sodium fast reactor for the commercial deployment in series”. The scheduled deadline for the PFBR to go critical was the year 2010 but since then it has been pushed back several times.

India aims to set up a total of six Fast Breeder Reactor units, of which the first two units will come up at Kalpakkam (Tamil Nadu). Sites for the Units 3-4 and Units 5-6 are in the process of being identified. All these six units are expected to become operational by 2039. Construction of the two units at Kalpakkam is planned to start by 2021 and expected to begin commercial operations by 2029 and add 600 MW to the southern grid.

India has been following a closed fuel cycle and FBR is a critical link to it. A closed fuel cycle means that the country is reprocessing and remaking the spent fuel from its nuclear power reactors. India has been following a three-stage nuclear electricity programme. The three stages are as follows – pressurised heavy-water reactors (PHWRs) using natural uranium as fuel; fast breeder reactors (FBRs) using plutonium and depleted uranium from the PHWRs; and reactors using the abundant thorium found in India.

Sodium coolant and pool type concept are chosen for the primary circuit of PFBR. The well proven mixed oxide fuel (Plutonium and Uranium) is used in PFBR. FBRs can extract more than 80 times the thermal energy from the same quantity of Uranium and generate electricity with higher thermal efficiency (40 per cent), the available uranium can be utilised very effectively.

Mainstreaming FBR is termed as the key to make nuclear energy sustainable as unlike other reactors a fast breeder reactor generate more fuel than they consume. They are called fast owing to the neutrons running at high velocities to sustain the atomic chain reactions than the traditional nuclear reactors.

The lone commercial fast breeder reactors plant of the world are at the Beloyarsk Nuclear Power Plant in the Ural Mountains of Russia. The BN-600 fast breeder reactor has been operational since 1980. In 2016, the Russia`s ROSATOM State Energy Atomic Corporation commissioned another fast breeder reactor – the BN-800. Countries such as the US and France have also experimented with fast breeder technology programmes. France had a commercial fast breeder (Superphenix reactor) from 1985 to 1998.