Ms. Dhanasree Jayaram, Project Associate, Manipal Advanced Research Group (MARG), Manipal University and Editorial Coordinator, Science, Technology & Security forum (STSforum) interviews him on India’s three-stage nuclear programme, energy security, and R&D. In the first part of the interview, Dr Kakodkar talks about the status of India’s three-stage nuclear programme, itschallenges, and the future.The second part deals with research and development pertaining to the realisation of India’s three stage program.
Please provide your perspective on India’s three-stage nuclear programme and its status
The three-stage programme is essentially designed to make best use of the thorium resources that we have on the Indian soil. Any nuclear programme has to begin with uranium because it is the only element which contains the fissile isotope in nature. You can make fissile isotopes out of other elements artificially. For example, you can make Pu-239 or U-233 but these are artificially created by-products, for which the programme has to begin with uranium in the earth. You could do that through fast reactors or thermal reactors. In both cases, in the context of the status of technology development and economics, it actually makes sense to begin with thermal reactors. You can start with natural uranium or low-intensity uranium where the costs are low. Once you start with uranium reactors, some plutonium is derived as a by-product in the form of the spent fuel coming out of the reactors. In fact the fissile material in the form of plutonium is actually less than that consumed in the form of uranium. Now you want to get to thorium, which is the ultimate objective. For this, you need to have large reactor platforms to convert the thorium to U-233 – which means you must be able to enhance the reactor’s capacity. This requires reactors that will produce more fissile material than they consume. So, in the second stage, you will need fast breeder reactors that will allow you to enhance the power generation capacity with the same material that you have, through the process of breeding. Once you have a sufficient inventory of fissile materials and you can set up large number of platforms, only then will it make sense to use thorium on a large scale. Besides, although thorium allows you to do self-sustained breeding – in the sense, you consume 1 unit, then you will produce 1 unit;but this is not like plutonium or uranium in fast reactors, where you consume 1 unit and you may produce say 1.2, 1.3 or sometimes 1.4 units – as these breed faster than thorium. If we start large-scale thorium programme with whatever fissile inventory we have, then the power generating capacity will remain at more or less the same level. But we want our nuclear power programme to grow, as our energy requirements are large and growing. And so, there is this importance to the timing of the thorium cycle, which should be done only after significant fast reactor capacity is attained.
What are the major challenges in bringing this programme to fruition?
In terms of programme implementation, there are certainly some delays, which cannot strictly be justified. However, at the same time this is not to imply that had thorium been there, it would be usable on a large scale tomorrow.In terms of actual implementation, this three-stage programme has been going on for some time. But even for the first stage, uranium availability became a constraint because uranium production has not kept pace with the requirement owing to difficulties in opening new mines and whatnot. Hence, although our thermal reactors have been performing well, their capacities have been dwindling due to a dearth inthe supply of uranium. Now just as the projects must come up in time, their utilisation must be near 100 percent, because only then will you look closer to your objective early. You may even have large projects that run up to low capacity and still not achieve your objective in time. Hence, capacity utilisation is also a problem and although we have mastered all the technology, the capacity factor and uranium constraint remain impediments.
Has the situation improved with our civil nuclear agreement in place?
Now that we have been successful in negotiating civil nuclear cooperation in a manner that has not compromised our strategic independence, the strategic programme can go forward without any constraints. At the same time now that we have access to uranium from outside which we are receiving, the capacity has indeed gone up. To complement this added advantage, we have started constructing pressurised heavy water reactors (PHWR). The government, I think, is planning to construct a dozen 700 MW PHWRs at one go. Another element of this civil nuclear cooperation was to get reactors from outside. Now that has unfortunately not gone as fast as it had been expected, primarily because of the international legal regime. Every country has its own processes, and of course, our Civil Nuclear Liability Act also caused a lot of delay. It caused delays in the programme being set up through international cooperation, but unfortunately, it has also caused delays in the domestic programme. And strictly speaking, there was no reason this Bill should have been introduced. However, now it has been clarified- just after this Act was promulgated, the Indian companies had refused to invest in the domestic segment. Now I think that following these clarifications, work has started.
Are we getting any foreign reactors?
About the international programme, the negotiations with the Russians over Kudankulam have gone well. Work has been done for reactors 3 and 4, and even 5 and 6 have been progressing well. They are also talking about another site for Russian reactors. Discussions with the Americans and the French have also progressed, but have not achieved desired results. Ostensibly, one of the conditions is economic viability; and whatever we negotiate, any arrangement should be beneficial to Indian consumers. For this, the French and the Americans will have to virtually do much larger manufacturing in India, and value addition in India should also be made much larger. It took some time for foreign players to reconcile with this particular aspect, though it is not entirely clear whether they have reconciled fully even now. Nevertheless, this is also contributing to the delay.
What is the future of nuclear energy from indigenous reactors in the country?
Taking everything into account, the domestic programme as I see it is well on the way and poised to make rapid progress. But some contribution is also expected from the international collaboration in thermal reactorstoo. As far as the fast breeder reactor is concerned, the 500 MW commercial fast breeder reactor is also complete; it is undergoing commissioning trials, and I think, in principle, they have approved more reactors. So we need to see some progress on that. On thorium, though the actual commercial deployment will take time, but as a part of technology development, the design of a 300 MW Advanced Heavy Water Reactor (AWHR), which derives a good part of its energy from thorium, has been made. The design is almost complete, and engineering also is fairly advanced; and I do hope that its construction also progresses rapidly – even though I cannot confirm when it would be completed. Despite things being slow, I think they are still definitely on track.
Disclaimer: The views expressed in this article are personal.