Power: Fifty Years of Bhabha Atomic Research Center (BARC)
Monday, May 7, 2007
R. V. SHAHI
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
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.
We must do everything possible to develop our hydro electric resources.
The potentials for development of non-conventional energy generation must be
Nuclear power generation could address, in a significant way, the problem of
CO2 and therefore Global Warming concerns.
Energy efficiency and Demand Side Management (DSM) should be given
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
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
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
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.