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Nuclear Power: Fifty Years of Bhabha Atomic Research Center (BARC), Shri R V Shahi, Former Secretary, Ministry Of Power

Nuclear Power: Fifty Years of Bhabha Atomic Research Center (BARC)

Monday, May 7, 2007


Only couple of days back (Friday, 4th May 2007) the UN report of Inter governmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), the apex UN body on environment, has been released and it has attracted media attention all over the country. The ill-effects of Global Warming have been predicted and severe consequences have been identified. The 24 page report emphasizes that emissions must start declining by 2015. I propose to discuss about this report in a separate article.

India's power development programme is at a stage that enhancement of capacity through fossil fuels, in a big way, is inevitable. However, the following few things would need to be kept in mind while accelerating the pace of capacity addition programme. While India's position has been that only developed countries, whose per capita CO2 emission is much higher, should undertake emission cuts, we cannot remain totally insulated from the global concerns and pressures.

  1. We must do everything possible to develop our hydro electric resources.

  2. The potentials for development of non-conventional energy generation must be utilized fully.

  3. Nuclear power generation could address, in a significant way, the problem of CO2 and therefore Global Warming concerns.

  4. Energy efficiency and Demand Side Management (DSM) should be given appropriate emphasis.

In this paper, we will focus on nuclear power. Bhabha Atomic Research Center has completed 50 years of its very effective and fruitful existence. BARC has demonstrated its capability to bring India not only in the forefront of the cutting edge Nuclear Technology, but also BARC and Nuclear Power Corporation have established that India's electricity generation programme based on nuclear fuel has come of age. These plants did have initial teething problems but they all got stabilized and achieved availability of 85-90% and Plant Load Factor of over 85%.

Considering the fact that we have been able to stabilize the nuclear power generation process, the fact that our regulatory institution, the Atomic Energy Regulatory Board, which takes care of safety and radiation related issues has effectively raised the level of confidence of all concerned and that this technology can go a long way in addressing the demand-supply mismatch in the Indian power sector, we need now to move our nuclear power generation programme to a different trajectory leading to its exponential growth.

National Electricity Policy approved by the Govt. of India and notified by Ministry of Power in February 2005 emphasizes the need for accelerating the capacity addition programme based on nuclear plants. It says in Para 5.2.19 "Nuclear Power is an established source of energy to meet base load demand. Nuclear power plants are being set up away from coal mines. Share of nuclear power in the overall capacity will need to be increased significantly. Economics of generation and resultant tariff will be, among others, important considerations. Public sector investments to create nuclear generation capacity will need to be stepped up. Private sector partnership would also be facilitated to see that not only targets are achieved but exceeded".

At present the nuclear capacity is about 3,000 MW which is approximately 2.5% of the total installed capacity. The Integrated Energy Policy prepared by the Experts Committee under the chairmanship of Member (Energy), Planning Commission, in which I happened to be a Member, has emphasized that India must enhance the proportion of nuclear power capacity. By the year 2032 (25 year from now) when the projected power capacity for the country is of the order of 8,00,000 MW, the capacity expected from the nuclear plants would be of the order of 60,000 MW. This would be a quantum jump in the proportion of nuclear capacity from 2.5% now to almost 7%.

The Working Group on Power for Eleventh Plan, under my chairmanship as Secretary (Power), has proposed, based on details given by Nuclear Power Corporation of India, a capacity addition of 3,160 MW to be added during XI Plan (2007-12). All projects are presently under construction. For the XII Plan, the Working Group has projected an addition of 12,800 MW. Thus in XI Plan, capacity gets doubled and again in XII Plan, it gets doubled.

India's nuclear generation programme started with the dedication of APSARA by the then Prime Minister Shri Jawahar Lal Nehru on Jan 20, 1957. This went critical at Trombay on August 4, 1956 when it ushered in the beginning of India's nuclear energy programme.

Homi Bhabha himself designed the reactor and it was built in a period of 15 months. BARC has developed subsequently other operating reactors after APSARA namely CIRUS and DHRUVA. CIRUS went into operation (achieved criticality) in July 1960. This 40 MW reactor uses natural uranium as fuel. Heavy Water is used as moderator and Light Water is used as coolant. Development of DHRUVA marked a real break through. This 100 MW reactor became operational in August 1985. The fourth research reactor is at the advanced stage and will be used for the 300 MW Advanced Heavy Water Reactor (AHWR). Bhabha had a perspective plan and had envisaged a three stage programme for nuclear power. The first stage is in commercial domain with 15 PHWRs that use natural uranium as fuel for generating electricity. The second stage would be construction of Fast Breeder Reactors. It has begun with the construction of the 500-MWe Prototype Fast Breeder Reactor at Kalpakkam. The FBRs will use plutonium-uranium mixed oxide as fuel. Four more FBRs with a capacity of 500 MWe will be built before 2020. The third stage would consist of reactors using thorium as fuel.

Thorium alone cannot be used in a reactor like the use of Uranium. Unlike natural uranium, thorium does not have any fissionable isotopes. Unlike thorium, uranium-233 does not occur in nature as a constituent of natural uranium. Thorium needs to be used in some other system (reactor) to convert it into fissile uranium-233, which can then undergo fission in situ to generate electricity. The AHWR will use a small amount of plutonium. Spent fuel is reprocessed to recover plutonium, which is the fuel for the Fast Breeder Reactor (FBR) Scale of operation of reprocessing is being expanded, because small quantities of plutonium reprocessed from Pressurized Heavy Water Reactors (PHWR) would not be enough for large power generation programme which will use large quantities of thorium. The breeder reactor will not only breed enough plutonium but would also be able to convert thorium into Uranium-233.

BARC and NPC have been pursuing the three-stage mandate primarily because of our resource position. India has so much of thorium but a modest reserve of uranium. So the three-stage programme is an inevitable option for India. By using thorium, we will be able to provide nuclear energy to the country for a long time.

Thorium utilization depends on the accumulation of uranium-233 essential stock. That is possible only if we have fast reactors, which provide not only the energy but the additional neutrons essential for converting thorium into uranium-233. With our current assured reserve of uranium, we can grow our PHWR programme, as per BARC, up to a level of 10,000 MWe of installed capacity. If we want to grow the installed capacity to about five times using indigenous resources, we must grow the programme by building Fast Breeder Reactors. After achieving such a high-installed capacity, we can sustain that power at that level for a long term using thorium.

Thus, Advanced Heavy Water Reactor which is one of the thrust areas of our nuclear programme and the Fast Breeder Reactors using Thorium could definitely give us the type of boost that we need in our nuclear generation capacity development programme. It is also expected that the understanding which has been reached between the Govt. of India and USA would prove to be a landmark initiative of the Govt. and could usher in global understanding on use of nuclear fuel for power generation. If through appropriate commercial arrangements India is in a position to access larger amount of nuclear fuel at appropriate cost the power development programme could lead to even larger proportion.

If the global concerns on climate change have to be addressed, - and they should be addressed- India would definitely expect better appreciations from the nuclear fuel countries on its needs to access nuclear fuel at reasonable rates. This then can substitute, to some extent, the large amount of additional coal based capacity which would otherwise have to be built.

A nuclear programme of more than 50,000 MW in next 25 years would obviously call for a multi-pronged approach which will include (a) enhanced manufacturing capacity for plant and machinery, (b) larger number of organizations getting into developing power projects, (c) appropriate financing strategy and (d) Joint Venture & public-private partnership.