Nuclear deal

Published : Aug 15, 2008 00:00 IST

THE article Project in peril was very informative, with scholarly analysis and relevant data that are not easy to come by (Cover Story, August 1). We are all aware that scientists of the Department of Atomic Energy have been doing commendable work on fast breeder reactors. As envisaged by Bhabha, this would involve the early introduction of thorium in the technology and its appropriate and rapid development.

This approach was eminently sensible as the country has plenty of thorium and would not have to depend on foreign powers and open itself to political manipulations, especially by the United States. Indeed, Anil Kakodkar, Chairman, Atomic Energy Commission, is on record as saying in 2005 that external inputs will only be additionalities to this domestic nuclear programme. If additionalities mean what one would imagine, then our priority would have been the domestic programme.

All this sadly appears to have changed. Kakodkar himself has made an about-turn and has become a strong supporter of the 123 Agreement. One wonders about the political compulsions that brought about this change of mind because on the scientific front no important development has recently taken place.

Incidentally, uranium exploration was not adequately funded when Manmohan Singh was the Finance Minister. Current developments in India do not augur well for its future as a sovereign nation with an independent foreign policy.

A.P. Balachandran Professor of Physics Syracuse University New York

I WOULD like to congratulate Frontline for publishing analytical articles on the nuclear deal. These clearly highlight the threat to the indigenous three-stage nuclear programme if India enters into a nuclear-cooperation agreement with the U.S. under the aegis of the Hyde Act.

R. Rukmani Chennai

THIS is in the context of the article Project in peril. Most of the article contains words and pictures I have communicated in several fora in the past. I compliment Frontline for presenting these to its large and enlightened readership. I would, however, like to reiterate that there is absolutely no contradiction between my statements on thorium utilisation strategies right from the beginning all the way until now. These are based on detailed studies, and they remain valid. The three-stage nuclear power development programme based on domestic efforts remains a priority, and it will be implemented unhindered.

Unfortunately, the undercurrent of the article appears to be based on triviality and irrationality. One example is a discussion on what quantum of import under international cooperation could qualify for being called an additionality.

Another example is advocating early use of thorium, quoting a paper by Rodriguez when the figures given in the latter paper unambiguously indicate that premature use of thorium delays, by a few decades, the realisation of a given target nuclear power generation capacity. For a country that requires huge quantities of additional energy for its sustained economic growth, a proposition deliberately delaying the achievement of its energy target needs to be questioned.

To optimise the benefits of thorium utilisation, the timing of the introduction of thorium has to be judiciously planned. The right strategy, of course, is to start using thorium at a stage when its adverse impact, if any, on the growth profile is insignificant. A careful look at the figure showing the depiction of three stages with growth of installed capacity in different years would reveal that growth with the Plutonium-Uranium Fast Breeder Reactor takes us to slightly more than 200,000 MWe of installed FBR capacity. The portion at the top indicating growth with thorium does include further deployment of thorium in fast breeder reactors to the extent of almost 300,000 MWe additionally.

The point to realise is the fact that Indias electricity requirements are growing faster. The gap between electricity demand and supply that can be managed on the basis of indigenous resources is widening and would reach in excess of 400,000 MWe by 2050.

The question that one needs to address is how soon we can bridge this gap through the growth potential that is possible with fast reactors. Clearly, this necessitates an emphasis on the deployment of fast breeder reactors with the shortest possible doubling time. The timing of the introduction of thorium needs to be adjusted such that the demand-supply gap is bridged at the earliest and at the same time we derive full benefit of the vast energy potential of our thorium resources for centuries to come.

With 40,000 MWe power added through imports as an additionality, not only is this gap bridged by 2050 but the necessity of importing much larger fossil energy resources is also avoided. At the same time, this also enables advancing deployment of thorium by nearly one and a half decade, meeting the above stated objectives fully.

We need to develop all technologies in a timely manner. This is the rationale for the development of advanced heavy water reactor (AHWR), which is a technology demonstrator and a platform for demonstration of technologies not only in the thorium fuel cycle area but in the advanced reactor area also.

Incidentally, the article suffers from some factual inaccuracies. In the figure showing the impact of LWR 40 GWe import during 2012-2020, the power deficit is shown as 412 GWe in the text block; the correct figure is 7 GWe [the mistake was committed at the stage of creating the graphics].

In one of the sentences, it is stated that the nominal growth of energy beyond 2050 from Pu-U breeders without the introduction of thorium would suffice to meet the growth of energy demand beyond 2050. The fact is that in the high-growth scenario envisaged we would run out of domestic uranium to build any future fast breeder reactors in the year 2048 itself and then thorium would take over as the energy source.

Anil Kakodkar Chairman Atomic Energy Commission

THE article Project in peril is timely. I hope it will spur interest in the scientific community, as well as the general public, on the issues and stakes involved.

The article has quoted from my forthcoming paper to appear in the next issue of Atoms for Peace, an international journal published by Inderscience Publishers, U.K. It is a scientific article addressed to the international scientific community and I do not want to reiterate the arguments here. Nevertheless, for the benefit of the readers of Frontline I give below some salient points in the paper.

1. I have advocated a symbiotic combination of Pu-U breeders (which breed only Pu-239) with Pu-U breeders having a thorium radial blanket in the second part of the second stage (which breed both Pu-239 and U-233) and of U-233 thorium breeders (which will breed U-233) with heavy water or other thermal reactors that use thorium towards a self-sustaining U-Th cycle in the third stage. While such a strategy would no doubt reduce the growth potential, compared with building only Pu-U breeders, my argument was that with an appropriate mix and time lag, the delay in reaching an installed capacity of the order of 250 GWe could be only ~15 years.

2. I have discussed the advantages and disadvantages in the thorium cycle arising from nuclear properties of thorium and made some comments on the perceived disadvantages of the thorium cycle.

R. Ramachandran has referred to Kakodkars lecture at the Indian Academy of Sciences meeting in Bangalore on July 4. I was present at the meeting and in the figures that he showed, thorium utilisation commences only in 2050.

Subsequently, I have had an opportunity to read the text of the lecture available on the Department of Atomic Energy website.

In the text, Kakodkar suggests the introduction of thorium in the blankets of FBRs in the second stage itself, but opines that the right time for it will be the third decade after the changeover to metallic fuel. But in the figures accompanying the lecture, as well as in the presentation also available on the DAE website, thorium utilisation starts only in 2050. If the earlier plan of introducing metallic fuel in 2020 is still valid, then, the introduction of thorium is not in the third decade, but after three decades.

Now through this letter I give another argument, which is more strategic than technical, for my contention that thorium utilisation in the blankets of FBRs should start as early as possible.

Notwithstanding my reservations about the Hyde Act and the 123 Agreement, I have made the statement that international civil nuclear cooperation, if and when it materialises, is an opportunity for India to move from three decades of nuclear isolation to global leadership in three decades. This opportunity comes from three unique features of the Indian nuclear programme. One is our mastery and global leadership in fast breeder reactors and heavy water reactors.

The second is the unique chance for us to master and be leaders in thorium utilisation in the whole world. The third is the fact that we may be the only country that will be able to supply 220 MW PHWR and 500 MW FBR (if we keep the technologies still alive), and many small nations with small grid capacity will look for reactors of this size range.

When I was the Director of the Indira Gandhi Centre for Atomic Research (1992-2000), a frequent question put to me was: Why is India working on a technology that all the leading countries have given up or at least slowed down on. My reply was: The return of nuclear power is inevitable and this would include Breeders. If India persists with FBR technology and masters it, she will have a definite competitive advantage. For a change, we can be sellers of technology rather than buyers. That is a dream, was the comment by many.

Today that dream is a reality. See for example the testimony at the United States Senate Committee on Appropriations on April 30, 2008, by Seigfried S. Hecker, Former Director of Los Alamos National Laboratory:

I found that whereas sanctions slowed progress in nuclear energy, they made India self-sufficient and world leaders in fast reactor technologies. While much of the worlds approach to India has been to limit its access to nuclear technology, it may well be that today we limit ourselves by not having access to Indias nuclear technology developments. Such technical views should help to advise the diplomatic efforts with India.

Today FBR is part of the Generation IV programme which the U.S., 11 other countries and the European Union want to develop jointly and we are already there, recognised leaders.

Just like the return of the breeders was inevitable, thorium also will become important for the whole world when the large-scale use of nuclear reactors all over the world, to avoid use of coal and hydrocarbons, leads to the inevitable reduction in its resources and the increase in uranium prices. It is now my dream that with the early mastery and leadership in the utilisation of thorium, we can be leaders and sellers of technology when the rest of the world needs thorium. (Thorium in the whole world is estimated to be three to five times more abundant than uranium.)

Therefore, it is important that we seize the opportunity to be leaders in all aspects of thorium utilisation within the next three decades.

As I have mentioned in my Atoms for Peace paper, the debate among DAE scientists on thorium utilisation is almost as old as the DAE. I would like to close this letter with a quotation from a reply given by Kamala Balakrishnan and Anil Kakodkar in 1997 (Current Science, March 25, 1997) to the arguments by a retired DAE scientist against thorium:

What we should not lose sight of is the fact that we are endowed with a large thorium resource. In energy terms, this resource is several times larger than any other indigenously available energy resource that is suitable for bulk electricity production. Several studies showing superior performance of thorium in a number of reactor systems are available and there is no doubt on this score. What is really needed is to develop the specific technologies suitable for thorium exploitation. This is where India will have to take initiatives as no other country capable in nuclear technology has any urgency to do so, because they have access to large uranium resources.

It should also be clear that breeders (based on both fission and non-fission routes) are necessary for growth in nuclear power capacity in our country, regardless of whether we are talking of the use of uranium or thorium(in fact, we are talking of making use of both). There is no clash between breeder development and developments in the area of thorium utilisation. The sooner we do both the better off we would be, in view of our large electricity needs.

The only difference between that debate and the current debate is that in that instance, the retired scientist was against thorium and Balakrishnan and Kakodkar were championing the cause of thorium!

Placid Rodriguez CHENNAIHunger

THE update (Hunger can wait, July 4) was bewildering, to say the least. On the one hand, so many mouths go hungry and unfed and, on the other, there are godowns full of surplus grain that is left to rot. What measures are the government taking to curb this menace?

Gayatri Gahlaut ShimlaRobert Mugabe

WHEN Robert Mugabe, the grand old warrior from Zimbabwe, won 85 per cent votes in the second round of elections and won the presidentship for a record sixth term, the West was vexed (One-horse race, August 1). Mugabe, who spent much of his life behind bars in the 1960s and the 1970s as a political prisoner, fighting for his countrys independence, was never a favourite of the colonial powers. His land reforms alienated them completely. This hit white farmers directly, mainly the absentee landlords from the United Kingdom, some 6,000 of whom owned nearly 45 per cent of the countrys land.

Though Mugabe is still popular in his country and has been appreciated by such other African greats as Kenneth Kaunda and Abdoulaye Wade who rightly assert that it is Britain and the West and not Mugabe who is responsible for Zimbabwes current economic crisis, the West always derives vicarious pleasure by calling him born-again colonist and blood-sucker.

Nutan Thakur LucknowFeminism

SUSAN RAMS review of the new book by Kumari Jayawardena, whose original work in the field of third world feminism has been widely appreciated, was well presented (Hidden histories, August 1).

Kumari Jayawardenas seminal work, Feminism and Nationalism in the Third World, is considered a classic and her latest work extends it to newer frontiers.

Amitabh Thakur LucknowTextbook row

THE Social Science textbook for Standard VII students that generated the controversy is not particularly innocent (A lesson to learn, July 18). The childs world view is surely not political: no child is ever involved in the eruption of riots. Why insert caste, class and religious antagonisms in their textbooks? Why fill their minds with differences they are not aware of?

Hemavathi S. HyderabadStatus of English

THE opinion on English expressed by Bhaskar Ghose in his column is typical of the urban middle class in India (Language dilemma, August 1).

It is a failure of the Indian state that it does not provide quality education in the regional languages. Not enough resources are spent on translating into the local languages books necessary for elementary and higher education.

There is no reason why higher technical education cannot be imparted in national languages if translated books are made available and the regional languages are encouraged.

B. Srujana New Delhi
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