DAE working on Small Modular Reactors: KN Vyas


Department of Atomic Energy (DAE) is working on design of Small Modular Reactors, however, any commercialisation of technology will take place only when the construction of existing nuclear technology has been completed. Secretary DAE and Chairman of Atomic Energy Commission KN Vyas spoke to Nuclear Asia on various topics along with the hurdles in way of finalising the deal for Jaitapur nuclear power plant and strides made by the Indian nuclear research in various fields like health and agriculture.

Read the full interview here –

Question 1: Indian Government’s plan to build 10 indigenous PHWRs has been very ambitious. Is the plan going as per schedule? What has been the lessons learned with respect to undertaking such a project within the country?

Answer: Subsequent to COP-21, in order to meet India’s Intended Nationally Determined Contribution (INDC), renewable energy (in the form of solar or wind) alone may not be adequate. This may be due to the fact that higher proportion of relatively intermittent power supply sources may necessitate an additional reliable but de-carbonised power source. Subsequently, Government approved 10 indigenous PHWRs.

NPCIL has initiated Pre-project activities for new plants as well as initiated advance procurement of long delivery equipment. NPCIL plans to construct and commission the reactors in a fleet mode progressively by 2031.

For efficient implementation of the projects NPCIL, based on past experience, will make efforts

– to order large work packages and long delivery equipment in a timely manner;
– to ensure satisfactory reply to the queries by regulator, as part of licensing, are provided in time;
– to make available at site engineering details, incorporating guidelines from regulators and construction feedback.

Question 2: Indo-French deal for the construction of Jaitapur Nuclear Power Plant has been in limbo for a long time now. The negotiation with the French major EDF has been going on for a considerable time. What are the irritants and what has been suggested to overcome them?

Answer: It may be brought to the notice that Indo-French negotiations for Jaitapur have been carried out with three agencies viz. AREVA, FRAMATOME and EDF. As a final stage, Industrial Way Forward Agreement was signed between NPCIL and EDF in March 2018. Subsequently, in December 2018 EDF has submitted a Techno Commercial Offer, for which negotiations are being carried out, which involved scope of work by each of the agencies, discussion on CLND and establishing overall technical feasibility. Subsequent to satisfactory conclusion of the discussions, overall project proposal will get initiated.

Question 3: The target of nuclear energy generation has been scaled down to 20 GW by the end of the decade. What is holding back India’s capacity? Is it lack of infrastructure or inability of the nuclear industry to rise up to the occasion? Do you think the negative perception around nuclear energy is the reason behind it? How would you assuage apprehension of general public around it? Also, how do you think India would cope with the challenge of climate change without adequate nuclear energy capacity?

Answer: The present installed nuclear power capacity is 6780 MW. There are nine reactors with a capacity of 6700 MW under construction and twelve more with a capacity of 9000 MW have been accorded financial sanction by the Government. On their progressive completion, the nuclear power capacity is expected to progressively increase to 22480 MW by the year 2031.

There have been several challenges being encountered in the capacity addition programme. These include delays in land acquisition & related R&R, obtaining statutory clearances and difficulties faced by Indian industries in timely manufacturing and delivery of equipment / components. In respect of projects to be set up with foreign cooperation, the techno-commercial discussions to arrive at project proposals have been long drawn as they involve complex techno-commercial, legal and regulatory issues.

Additionally, DAE faces various challenges in implementing NPP projects, some of which are:

– Changes needed to be incorporated based on reviews carried out by regulator subsequent to accident at Fukushima.

– Scare caused by Fukushima accident and public, at large, going in overdrive and failing to understand the differences between Fukushima and Indian scenario in terms of the types of reactors, environmental conditions, etc.

– High expectations of project affected people in terms of compensation from new site being identified by NPCIL.

– High capital investment of any nuclear power project.

DAE believes that for meeting the challenge of global warming, renewables alone will not be able to meet the required de-carbonisation. Internationally, advanced countries may also not able to meet the goals set by them. In India, if we intend to increase our living standard, have increased level of industrialization and pursue the projects of national importance like lift irrigation or river linking, nuclear energy is a very reliable de-carbonised source of energy.

Question 4: Collaboration with Russia and Bangladesh for the Rooppur Nuclear Power Plant has proved to be fruitful for Indian Nuclear energy industry. Are there more such plans to collaborate with foreign partners in third countries?

Answer: In the opinion of DAE, tripartite agreement between Bangladesh, Russia and India for cooperation is helping all the three parties. As of now, no specific plans for collaboration with other countries are under consideration.

Question 5: The 500 MWe Prototype Fast Breeder Reactor (PFBR) has been missing its deadline to go critical. Has there been some hiccups with the project? Is the reactor expected to go critical anytime soon? Also, is the delay proving to be a dampener for India’s plan to achieve its three stage nuclear power programme?

Answer: PFBR is missing the deadline. The team at PFBR is putting in tremendous efforts for first-of-a-kind equipment, systems and plant for setting-to-work. As the systems are first-of-a-kind, regulator is also cautious in giving step by step clearances.

To some extent, having sodium cooled systems complicates the matter as minor corrections also require a very elaborate procedure for sodium draining, residual sodium clean up, before the system or equipment can be opened to atmosphere for any corrections. The complete process takes a very long time, so that sodium related safety is ensured.

Question 6: People have been questioning the rationale behind the Thorium based fuel cycle that the cost involved in developing it is way too much than its advantages. What is your answer to that?

Answer: DAE believes that thorium based fuel cycle is a solution for long term energy security not only for India, but also for many countries in the world and hence efforts need to be spent for having continued R&D for Thorium fuel cycle. The delay or the cost associated is not the reason to stop the work, which has a significant promise. The costs involved towards R&D are not significant at this stage. The R&D gives a significant confidence to Indian scientists for the Thorium fuel cycle which is recognized internationally for contribution in the related area.

Question 8: What are the new feats achieved by Indian nuclear agencies in applying nuclear technology in the field of health and agriculture?

Answer: DAE has institutes involved in R&D at Mumbai, Kalpakkam, Indore and Kolkata. As a part of societal applications, following major new activities have been completed:

– A process has been developed for extraction of Ruthenium-106 from spent nuclear fuel. The pure Ruthenium-106 has been coated to make an ophthalmic patch to be used for eye cancer. Subsequent to regulatory approval, the patches are given to hospitals for patient trials. This will result in a significant reduction in cost for treatment.

– On the similar lines, medical grade Yttrium-90 from high level radioactive waste has been separated and radiopharmaceuticals have been prepared for treatment, which are undergoing trials.

– Carrier-free Copper-64 has been made at APSARA-U reactor, which was made operational last year. Copper-64 trials for PET imaging have been successfully carried out.

– Three new crop varieties viz. rice, flaxseeds and mustard have been released to farmers for their use.

– Medical diagnostic instruments have been developed for detection of oral cancer as well as tuberculosis. Trials by doctors have found the instruments to be useful.

– Medical cyclotron at Kolkata has been used for preparation of first set of
Radio-pharmaceuticals batches for regulatory approval. It is hoped that successful completion of all the trials would augment the radiopharmaceutical supply in the eastern region.

Question 9: Countries like Russia and China have turned their focus on Small Modular Reactors (SMRs) and Floating Nuclear Power Plants to generate power to cut down capital cost and to provide power away from large grid systems. How does India look at such innovations and what are the innovations in the peaceful nuclear technology sector that India is working on?

Answer: DAE has design teams working on SMRs. However, before any serious consideration, DAE need to complete the task taken up for construction of already planned reactors first. Carrying out the design of new reactor systems and refinement in the already performed design is an ongoing process, which is always under focus to improve the designer’s capability. SMRs also need some technology development to fill-up gap areas. Process of technology development also needs to be completed before task related to SMRs can be taken up in a more serious manner.