India to have six fast breeder reactors by 2039

The indigenously designed and locally constructed Prototype Fast Breeder Reactor (PFBR), an important link in India’s quest to gain complete control of fuel cycle, is nearing completion. Experts feel that once completed it would allow the capability to grow “geometrically” and would make India the second country, after Russia, in the world to operate a Fast Breeder Reactor.

In total six Fast Breeder Reactor units are planned to be set up out of which the first two units will come up at Kalpakkam (Tamil Nadu). Sites for the Units 3-4 and Units 5-6 are 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.

“The Prototype Fast Breeder Reactor is in pre-commissioning stage. The work on FBR is 99 per cent complete. FBRs will give us complete control of fuel cycle,” Atomic Energy Regulatory Board Chairman SA Bhardwaj told Nuclear Asia. India has been following a closed fuel cycle and FBR is a critical link to it. The prototype FBR was scheduled to go critical in 2010 but it has missed several deadlines since then, the latest one of October 2017. Now the date has been pushed to 2018.

“FBR is the lifeline of our programme and will allow to multiply capability geometrically,” Bhardwaj added. The FBR has been an example of public-private partnership and many private industrial players like Larsen & Toubro and Walchandnagar Industries Ltd have contributed to the project. The public sector firm Bharat Heavy Electricals Limited (BHEL) is a major contributor in the project.

“The Prototype FBR has a capacity of 500 MWe and the fuel cycle plants will be co-located to make fuel cycle closed,” Rajan Babu V, Director (Technical) of Bharatiya Nabhikiya Vidyut Nigam (BHAVINI) Ltd said. BHAVINI has been involved in constructing these FBRs. The Sodium coolant has been poured into the secondary system of the reactor and after six months fuel will be loaded. It will be after this that the reactor will be approaching criticality. “Cautions and firm steps are being taken towards sodium filling main vessel, fuel loading and first approach towards criticality,” Rajan Babu added.

The founders of Indian nuclear energy programme have harped on a closed fuel cycle that 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 chosen for PFBR. It will have a blanket with thorium and uranium to breed fissile U-233 and plutonium respectively. Initial FBRs will have mixed oxide fuel or carbide fuel but these will be followed by metallic fueled ones to enable shorter doubling time. The PFBR will take India’s ambitious plans to those thorium one step ahead.

“The future FBRs are expected to have greater economy and higher level of safety especially post Fukushima,” added Rajan Babu. The Design approach for future FBRs is towards reducing specific capital cost, higher power generated by slightly larger core, enhanced safety norms for handling Sodium void reactivity; and increased breeding ratio to possible level (aiming higher than in PFBR) and associated reduction in doubling time.

Mainstreaming FBR is termed as the key to make nuclear energy sustainable as defying energy laws a fast breeder reactor generate more fuel than they consume and hence the term breeder. They are called fast owing to the neutrons running at high velocities to sustain the atomic chain reactions that 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.