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Friday, June 15, 2001

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Need for fast breeder reactors

By S. B. Bhoje

This has reference to the article entitled ``Fast breeder reactors - a dying breed'', by Mr. M. V. Ramana, (TheHindu, dated May 28). Similar misleading comments were made by Mr. Arjun Makhijani (TheHindu, April 25). Fast Breeder Reactors (FBR) essentially convert uranium-238 into plutonium- 239 and simultaneously produce power. Plutonium is a man-made fissile material, unlike uranium-235, which is the only fissile material available in nature and that too only 0.7 per cent in natural uranium. It is obvious that if the full potential of nuclear energy from uranium is to be realised, it is through the uranium- 238 to plutonum-239 conversion route in FBR. In a thermal reactor on once through fuel cycle typically only about 0.5 to 0.8 per cent of the natural uranium is utilised whereas in FBRs the utilisation is increased more than 100 times.

Fast reactors are able to provide a secure and long-term energy supply globally as given in the table. The precise time when FBRs would be required varies from country to country but they will certainly be needed for supplying the growing energy needs.

In India, coal and nuclear energy through breeders are the only bulk energy resources and we must exploit them in a safe and economic manner.

Some countries have given up FBR programmes due to political reasons. Western world has reached saturation in electrical energy demand, enjoys the advantages of stable population and availability of alternate cheaper energy resources like natural gas. The U.S. has recently ordered a re-look at the nuclear option in light of power crisis in some of its areas.

The article by Mr. Ramana states that the Superphenix reactor in France operated for less than one year during the first 10 years. This is a false statement. In its 11 years of existence, the reactor operated for four and half years, producing 7.9 billion kwh. It was shutdown for 2 years for technical reasons and for four and half years for administrative reasons (like public enquiries, authorisation). During September 1995 to December 1996, the reactor operated on power for 12 months. Fast test reactors, Joyo in Japan and BOR 60 in Russia, and power reactor BN 600 in Russia, are continuing to operate well and provide valuable operating experience.

The costs of nuclear electricity in many countries are competitive. For example, the recent data brought out by the Utility Data Institute of USA shows that generating costs for the U.S. nuclear plants (totalling 104) averaged 1.83 cents per kwh compared to 2.07 cents per kwh for coal-fired plants, 3.18 cents per kwh for oil, and 3.52 cents per kwh for natural gas (NucNet News No.5-A, 9 Jan 2001). Some of the fast reactors built in the past were aimed as technology demonstrators. Such isolated cases of high cost should not be generalised. The comparison of generating cost between European Fast Reactor (EFR) and PWR shows that the series EFR should be close to achieving competitiveness. Lessons learnt from the experience of FBRs have provided a wealth of information enabling their competitiveness. Fuel cycle cost is a strong function of burn up (energy extracted from fuel per unit weight). The fuel burn up in FBR is at present 1,50,000 MWd/t. In the case of PWR utilising low enriched uranium, increasing burn up is accomplished by enrichment calling for additional investment. Fuel cycle cost in FBR is 10 per cent of the generation cost in comparison to 20 per cent for PWR. Higher burn up helps in reducing waste, reprocessing and fabrication cost. Burn up potential to 3,00,000 MWd/t exists for FBR MOX fuel and thus providing scope for further reduction in fuel cycle cost and contribution to FBR competitiveness.

Considerable efforts have been made for the economic design of 500 MWe Prototype Fast Breeder Reactor (PFBR) and the cost has been brought down as compared to earlier design. The cost is comparable to PHWRs, which are providing economic power to the Indian grid. The Nuclear Power Corporation of India Limited, which operates the nuclear power stations, has demonstrated excellent plant performance, particularly during the last five years. The 14 nuclear units with a total capacity of 2720 MWe have been operating with average capacity factor of around 80 per cent.

The safety concerns (including radiotoxicity of plutonium and positive sodium void co-efficient) on FBRs are well understood and design measures are provided to meet the required safety standards. In reactors of the size of PFBR, it is to be noted that fuel temperature reactivity coefficient is negative and large (80 per cent of the total reactivity coefficient). In power reactivity coefficient, only 4 per cent contribution comes from positive reactivity coefficient of sodium and the rest is from fuel reactivity coefficient.

This means that any power excursion will be arrested in PFBR by negative reactivity coefficient from fuel. Even under the conditions of an incident, when sodium boils, the energy release is not very sensitive to sodium void coefficient but is sensitive to the reactivity changes that arise due to fuel. Sodium fires and sodium-water reaction have been well studied and protected against by multi-level safety features. We have successfully operated the Fast Breeder Test Reactor at Kalpakkam over a decade and this experience is factored into the design of PFBR.

It is incorrect on the part of the author to say that ``breeders are the reactors of the future and always will be. It is time to learn from history and abandon that pursuit''. Breeders belong to the present era, the technology is developed and its economic viability is possible. Russia, India, Japan, China and South Korea are pursuing FBR programmes.

Due to large demand for electrical power, nuclear power in China is planned to grow steadily to 50 GWe by 2020. Due to shortage of uranium, FBRs are necessary in China and it has started construction of an experimental 25 MWe FBR. Russia has announced construction of a new 800 MWe fast reactor while 660 MWe DFBR is in advanced design stage in Japan. Europe, in particular France, is keeping the option open for FBRs and predict its return soon.

It is clear that solar and wind cannot contribute in supply of industrial level electricity generation. The author himself says that solar energy is extremely expensive. Wind energy, is being used for last few centuries, but has not contributed even a few per cent of electricity in any country of the world. Such an advice is amusing. On the one hand we are advised not to build FBRs and on the other hand it is advised that we should build FBRs with high breeding fuel.

In view of India's large electric power requirements, available indigenous energy resources, the need to minimise the dependence on oil import, and to provide energy security, energy diversity and energy sustainability, the FBR appears as an inevitable option for economic and environmental friendly power. Towards this objective, commercial demonstration of fast reactor is being made through construction of PFBR.

(The writer is Director, Indira Gandhi Centre for Atomic Research, Kalpakkam.)

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