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'Enrichment capacity enough to fuel nuke subs'

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Last Updated: November 26, 2011, 15:45 IST

'Enrichment capacity enough to fuel nuke subs'

India is ahead of even China in work on prototype fast breeder reactor, says Dr Srikumar Banerjee.

New Delhi: Dr Srikumar Banerjee, chairman of Atomic Energy Commission of India (AECI), spoke to Saurav Jha, author of The Upside Down Book of Nuclear Power, recently at the former's South Bloc office on a gamut of issues concerning the state of nuclear power development in India.

Saurav Jha:Is your current enrichment capability sufficient to fuel India’s emerging nuclear submarine fleet or will that be attained only with Chitradurga? If not then will Chitradurga be used only for civilian power reactors?

Dr Srikumar Banerjee: Our existing site is more than adequate for feeding the fleet. And this fleet is of course more than one.

As far as the new facility in Chitradurga is concerned, it will not be a safeguarded facility. We are keeping the option open of using it for multiple roles.

Chitradurga could of course be used to produce slightly enriched uranium (SEU) with about 1.1 per cent U-235 content to fuel our pressurized heavy water reactor (PHWR) units which would boost the fuel burn-up to as much as 20000 MWd/tonne.

Saurav Jha:That is almost half of what new generation light water reactor technology is achieving and quite impressive.

Dr Srikumar Banerjee: Yes.

Saurav Jha:Will Chitradurga also be used to create enriched uranium for powering DAE’s own indigenous 700 MWe Light Water Reactor(LWR) design which it plans to roll out by 2020?

Dr Srikumar Banerjee: Yes, that option is always there.

Saurav Jha:Has this indigenous design grown out of the work DAE has done for India’s nuclear submarine project?

Dr Srikumar Banerjee: Well a lot of work has been put into developing the 700 MWe LWR. In any case you would note that pressurised water reactor designs worldwide have essentially grown out of naval propulsion units.

Saurav Jha:Were you surprised by the recent amendment at the Nuclear Supplier’s Group that debars members from transferring enrichment and reprocessing (ENR) technologies to non-NPT members and thereby India?

Dr Srikumar Banerjee: We did have an inkling that ‘full civil nuclear cooperation’ wouldn’t really be forthcoming from all NSG members despite the atmospherics. Statements have been made from the major nuclear supplier countries that the recent NSG resolution will not affect their commitments made earlier. Take for instance, the Americans – It was never really that clear that their cooperation with us would genuinely extend to the ENR sphere. In the case of the French however, there had been statements indicating that it probably will. As far as the Russians are concerned there are some things that need to be ironed out, but they will be in all likelihood.

Now I must state categorically that reprocessing is fundamental to our closed fuel cycle philosophy which involves reprocessing of spent fuel and waste management. In the case of imported fuel, we have of course agreed to keep under safeguards and reprocess in separate dedicated facilities. We see no reason why we should be embargoed in sourcing equipment for those new safeguarded facilities. And that is the crux of the matter, it isn’t so much that we need access to ENR technologies – we have developed our own- it is that when we set up additional facilities to address safeguard requirements we shouldn’t be unnecessarily debarred from importing equipment and forced to rely only on domestic sources when we are addressing international norms, quite in keeping with our impeccable record on such matters.

Saurav Jha:So that brings us to our next question. Have our ENR technologies matured enough to be regarded as commercial grade?

Dr Srikumar Banerjee: Well in the case of reprocessing, certainly. We may yet not be setting up reprocessing plants as big as Rokkasho in Japan or Sellafield in UK but the new reprocessing facilities that are slated to come up in the next decade or so are going to be appreciably bigger than what we have now. Even the one that is nearing completion in Kalpakkam is a fairly large facility.

The planned integrated nuclear recycle plant for instance will be handling close to 500 tonne/year of heavy metal and will be sited at Tarapur which is in one of our existing sites. During the next plan period we will look at two more such facilities.

Talking about enrichment, we are quite happy with the progress we are making and with the new Chitradurga facility we are closing in on what you could refer to as industrial level capability. Again, this won’t be as big as the largest out there but it would be substantial.

Saurav Jha:Will the new BARC campus in Vishakapatnam be focused only on civilian research and will it also have enrichment facilities? Will it be larger than BARC, Trombay?

Dr Srikumar Banerjee: To answer the second part of your question – it will be engaged in enrichment research and not in commercial grade enrichment activities. Like Trombay, it will also be a mixed facility looking at both strategic and civilian research.

To be clear, we want all our facilities to have a certain intellectual orientation and that would mean that we will simply not be looking only at product development either for military or civilian purposes. As always the intention is to foster cutting edge innovation. And you can gauge that from some of the new areas that Vishakapatnam will focus on which goes beyond the straightjacket of ‘delivery of a certain number of products’.

Vishakapatnam will therefore take up research in new areas such as concentrated solar thermal power, cutting edge energy conversion techniques, energy storage, biological systems and hydrogen based technologies. The aim is to raise the technological and research capability across the entire spectrum of energy research in India.

All this will of course be accommodated in a larger campus than what we have Trombay. The new campus is spread out over a 3 X 3.5 km area which I think is fairly large.

Saurav Jha:What are some of the new research reactors planned at the new campus?

Dr Srikumar Banerjee: The need for a reactor dedicated to materials testing has been felt for sometime now. In the past we have used power reactors for experiments related to this field but it is now time that we set up a dedicated reactor for this purpose. As such the new campus will host a new multipurpose high flux reactor which besides material testing will also be used for radioisotope production. This reactor will see start of construction during the forthcoming plan period.

In 2017-18 timeframe a new research reactor like Dhruva (which is at Trombay) will also come up at the new campus.

Saurav Jha:Talking about new developmental reactors, what is the status of the AHWR and when will we actually see start of construction?

Dr Srikumar Banerjee: Well, we have had site selection difficulties with the AHWR. Design and development has actually been done. It’s just a matter of finding the right site. To give you an idea of the difficulties, even Vishakapatnam is seeing the creation of a new SEZ right next to where a possible site could have been …. At the moment it seems we’ll have to settle for one of our existing sites. The matter is still in process.

As far as actual start of construction – It’ll happen sometime in this decade.

Saurav Jha:Alright, despite the delays in starting the build the AHWR, would you still say that India is a global leader in thorium research?

Oh Absolutely. There is no doubt in my mind that we are indeed a leader in thorium research worldwide.

Saurav Jha:Coming to the second stage of our programme, what is the status of the Prototype Fast Breeder Reactor (PFBR) and when can we expect to see fuel loading?

Dr Srikumar Banerjee: You’ll be happy to know that work on the PFBR is progressing steadily. Physical progress is now at 82 per cent and I am confident that construction will be complete by mid-2012. But of course, commissioning a reactor is a very different game than building one. There are a number of tests that need to be run and experiments carried out. Nevertheless, I am confident that fuel loading will take place at the desired time post completion.

And I must point out, that the PFBR is one of its kind at the moment. I mean, apart from the Russians nobody at the moment operates a commercial grade Fast-breeder and nor is constructing one.

I would just like to add, that materials testing is an area where we can help the thermal power generation sector immensely. The new ultra-supercritical coal based plants need to operate at 750 degrees to achieve over 40 percent efficiency that they are designed for. This, of course, requires special steels and alloys all of which can be made better, via the kind of research being carried out at IGCAR.

Saurav Jha:This is actually an area where we are ahead of the Chinese, isn’t it?

Yes that is correct. They only recently commissioned a test reactor while we have had one for decades now.

Saurav Jha:In the area of nuclear waste disposal, have we already identified a geologic deposit? Will international collaboration be sought in this area?

Dr Srikumar Banerjee: At the moment we are setting up underground laboratories to study various facets of effectively burying waste such as percolation, diffusion etc. We have also begun aerial surveys for locating stable rock formations that could serve as geological deposits in the future.

International collaboration in this area is always a possibility and is actually easier to secure. We will of course be open to developing new technology in this area. The French for instance are saying that it may be possible to actually bury waste even in clay. So there are possibilities at this stage.

first published:November 26, 2011, 15:45 IST
last updated:November 26, 2011, 15:45 IST