India’s much delayed fast breeder reactor costs exceed budget, likely completion in October 2022

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The expenditure till date on India’s much delayed first pressurised fast breeder reactor (PFBR), being set up at the Madras Atomic Power Station at Kalpakkam in Tamil Nadu state, has already exceeded the budgeted estimate by over Rs 500 crore (around $69 million), according to the country’s Atomic Energy Minister Jitendra Singh.

Responding to a question in the Lower House of Parliament earlier this week, Singh said that against a budgeted estimate of Rs 5,315 crore ($730 million) for the indigeneously built prototype PFBR, named “Bhavini”, a sum of Rs 5,850 crore (over $800 million) has already been spent, since 2003 till the end of last year, on setting up the PFBR, the completion of construction of which has been delayed for long.

Regarding the date for completion of the PFBR project, Singh informed Parliament in a written reply that PFBR Bhavini, which will add 500 MW of electrical power to the national grid, is likely to be commissioned in October 2022, reiterating what he had told the Upper House during the previous session of the Indian Parliament last year.

In his written reply submitted in September 2020, the Minister had said that technical issues had resulted in a prolonged delay in commissioning of the PFBR. “In the last three years, while commissioning activities of the various systems, structures and equipment of the PFBR are progressing, a large number of technical challenges as well as design inadequacies (owing to the first-of-a-kind status of the PFBR) are being encountered at each stage, thereby resulting in delay in commissioning. These issues are being attended in close coordination with the designers and the experts within Department of Atomic Energy (DAE),” Singh said.

The PFBR is a key element of India’s nuclear power programme that was conceived in the late 1960s as a closed fuel cycle to be achieved in three stages. The spent fuel generated from one stage would be reprocessed and used in the next stage of the cycle to produce power. Thus, the closed fuel cycle was designed to “breed” fuel and to minimize generation of nuclear waste. This three-stage nuclear power production program in India had been conceived with the ultimate objective of utilising the country’s vast reserves of thorium-232. India has the world’s third largest reserves of thorium.

The first stage envisages the use of pressurised heavy water reactors (PHWRs) to produce energy from natural uranium. Besides energy, PHWRs also produce fissile plutonium (Pu)-239. The second stage involves using the indigenous fast breeder reactor technology fuelled by Pu-239 to produce energy, as well as more Pu-239. By the end of the second stage of the cycle, the reactor would have produced, or “bred” more fissile material than it would have consumed.

While India has successfully completed the first stage of its nuclear programme, the second stage is taking much longer than expected, causing significant time delay and cost overruns. The PFBR in Kalpakkam will use a mixed oxide of Pu-239 – derived from reprocessed spent fuel from the thermal PHWRs – and uranium-238 as fuel to generate energy. This nuclear reaction will also produce more Pu-239 by converting both U-238 in the fuel mix, as well as a blanket of depleted uranium surrounding the core, into plutonium. This plutonium will then be processed and used as nuclear fuel in a chain of commercial FBRs in the second stage of the nuclear programme.

The final stage of the cycle would involve the use of Pu-239 recovered from the second stage, in combination with thorium-232, to produce energy and uranium (U)-233 using “thermal breeders”. This production of U-233 from thorium-232 would complete the cycle, while the U-233 would then be used as fuel for the remaining part of the fuel cycle.

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