A mission at Kalpakkam

Print edition : December 23, 2001

The Indira Gandhi Centre for Atomic Research in Kalpakkam is all set to begin construction of the Prototype Fast Breeder Reactor, the forerunner of a series of fast breeder reactors to be set up in the country, to generate nuclear power.

YOU can sense the quiet confidence at the Indira Gandhi Centre for Atomic Research (IGCAR) at Kalpakkam, about 60 km from Chennai. The mood is upbeat among personnel at every level. For after about 15 years of sustained research and development in fast b reeder reactor technology, the construction of the Prototype Fast Breeder Reactor (PFBR), which will generate 500 MWe, is set to begin here. The design and development work is in the final phase, and construction will begin by the beginning of 2002. When the PFBR reaches criticality in 2009, it will be the forerunner of a series of FBRs to be set up in the country. The PFBR will use mixed oxide as fuel and liquid sodium as coolant.

S.B. Bhoje, Director, IGCAR, spoke of the reactor being "our own". He said: "It is of a unique size. Breeder reactors of 500 MWe capacity do not exist anywhere."

A view of the FBTR at Kalpakkam near Chennai.-K. PICHUMANI

The nuclear electricity programme was established in India with the breeder cycle in mind. The founder of the country's atomic energy programme, Dr. Homi Jehangir Bhabha, outlined a three-stage programme in 1955 itself. In the first stage, Pressurised He avy Water Reactors (PHWRs), using natural uranium as fuel, and heavy water as both coolant and moderator, would be set up to generate nuclear electricity. As Dr. Anil Kakodkar, Chairman, Atomic Energy Commission, says, the PHWR programme has already ente red "the commercial domain" with 12 PHWRs in operation in the country. Their capacity factor too has been high.

The second stage envisages the construction of FBRs, which will use plutonium reprocessed from the spent fuel of the PHWRs and their depleted uranium. In the third stage, the abundant thorium reserves in the country will be used to generate electricity. Bhoje said that owing to limited availability of uranium in our country, "FBRs are required urgently if nuclear energy is to make an important contribution to the nation's requirements".

Fast reactors use "fast" (high energy) neutrons to sustain the fission process, in contrast to water-cooled and gas-cooled reactors that use "thermal" (low energy) neutrons. Fast reactors are also commonly known as breeders because they breed more fuel t han they consume. Plutonium breeding allows fast reactors to extract 60 times as much energy from uranium as thermal reactors (such as the PHWRs) do. This makes them economical and advantageous for countries which lack abundant uranium reserves.

On October 30, 2000, when he laid down office as Director, IGCAR, Dr. Placid Rodriguez was optimistic about the future of the FBRs. He said people often asked him why India was persisting with the "difficult terrain" of FBR when the U.S., France, Russia and England had given them up. Dr. Rodriguez said: "My answer is this: the return of nuclear power is inevitable. All over the world this will start by 2020. By 2050, nuclear power will become the mainstay. When that happens, plutonium recycling and FBRs will follow. At that time, India will become a technology seller than buyer."

Rodriguez, who came to Kalpakkam in June 1974 from BARC, Trombay, and took over as Director on December 1, 1992, said the IGCAR did "world-class research and developed superb technology in many areas including metallurgy, non-destructive testing and reac tor engineering such as structural mechanics". He added, "We can say today that among all the centres doing R&D, design and development in the country, the IGCAR is not only among the best but it is mission-oriented. Our mission was setting up the FBTR a nd it is now the PFBR."

When Dr. Rodriguez took over as Director, the FBTR had never operated beyond 1 MWt. In January 1993, the FBTR's power output was raised to 4 MWt, and then to 10 MWt, and electricity flowed into the State grid.

The Kalpakkam complex has had the unique privilege of hosting reactors of all three stages of India's nuclear power programme as envisioned by Dr. Homi Bhabha, said Dr. Rodriguez. The two PHWRS that used natural uranium as fuel represented the first stag e, the FBTR the second and the Kamini reactor the third.

The Department of Atomic Energy (DAE) set up the Reactor Research Centre at Kalpakkam in 1971. The RRC was renamed the Indira Gandhi Centre for Atomic Research by Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi in December 1985. According to Bhoje, the mandate of the IGCAR was to develop science and technology to design, build and operate FBRs to provide electricity. "With the uranium available in our country, we can generate only 12,000 MWe from PHWRs. But with FBRs that use plutonium from PHWRs, we can generate 350,000 MWe, which is a massive amount. The second stage, therefore, will boost the energy security of the country."

N. BALAJI

N. BALAJI

K. PICHUMANI

From left: S.B. Bhoje, Director, IGCAR; Dr. Baldev Raj, Director, Materials, Chemical and Reprocessing Groups; R.D. Kale, Director, Technical Engineering and Management Services Group and Engineer Services Group.

In October 1985, the first step towards the realisation of the second stage of India's nuclear electricity programme was taken when the FBTR attained criticality. After overcoming all problems, the FBTR is today fully operational. It has run continuously for 50 days at 14 MWt, its rated capacity being 40 MWt/13MWe. One MWe is being fed into the Tamil Nadu grid.

Today, the IGCAR is one of the most modern facilities of its kind. Spread over hundreds of hectares, it has several groups working on the development of FBRs. They include the reactor group; the civil engineering group; the chemical group; the metallurgy and materials group; the engineering services group; the reprocessing group; the technical engineering and management group; and the safety research, health physics, information services, instrumentation and electronics group. Scores of laboratories, fu lly operational, have state-of-the-art equipment.

K. PICHUMANI

N. BALAJI

N. BALAJI

From left: Dr. S.M. Lee, Director, Safety Research; P.C. Koteswara Rao, Director, Civil Engineering Group; Dr. Placid Rodriguez, former Director, IGCAR.

With the FBTR running smoothly, attention has turned to the construction of the 500 MWe PFBR. R.D. Kale, Director, Technical Engineering and Management Services Group, and Engineering Services Group, said: "We are ready for the construction of the PFBR." The R&D work focussed on reactor engineering or engineering development of the reactor systems and their components; fuel chemistry, structural material development; manufacturing technology development and so on.

Kale said the PFBR, which will generate 33 times more energy than the FBTR, involved the manufacture of intricate components. The number of components used in the PFBR is three to four times that of the FBTR. "So we must go through the manufacturing tec hnology development," Kale said.

Dr. Baldev Raj, Director, Materials, Chemical and Reprocessing Group, said the IGCAR had world class facilities in fuel chemistry for the PFBR, the reprocessing of the spent fuel, sodium chemistry and so on. Bhoje said: "Reprocessing is a big challenge b ecause for the first time in the world such a large quantity of carbide is going to be reprocessed next year." While the FBTR used mixed carbide fuel of plutonium and uranium, the PFBR will use mixed oxide of plutonium and uranium, which is more proven a nd economical." Major technological challenges lay in the development of massive sodium pumps, steam generators, nuclear steam supply systems, and reprocessing technology.

IGCAR engineers designed the steam generator which is a very special component, and Bharat Heavy Electricals Limited (BHEL), Tiruchi, built this complex piece. The fabrication of a 23-metre long steam generator tube by the Nuclear Fuel Complex, Hyderabad , was a major achievement, Dr. Baldev Raj said. It is made of metal of high integrity and it should be carefully welded. The prototype sodium pump, another critical component, was built by Kirloskar Brothers Limited (KBL), Pune.

While liquid sodium circulates in the outer pipe in the steam generator, water at high pressure circulates in the tubes inside. The sodium coolant, driven through the reactor core by pumps, gets heated to a high temperature due to fission in the reactor. The secondary sodium transfers the heat to the secondary sodium in the intermediate heat exchanger. This heat is transferred to the water which becomes steam and drives the turbine, generating electricity.

Dr. Baldev Raj said: "The steam generator is the component where the heat transfer takes place. (Water should not come in contact with sodium. If it does, explosions will occur.) So we give importance to materials manufacturing technology."

Kale said the IGCAR's major partners in the development and construction of the PFBR were Larsen & Toubro; BHEL, Tiruchi and Hardwar; MTAR Technologies Private Limited, Hyderabad; Kirloskar Brothers Limited, Pune; Steel Authority of India Limited; Mishra Dhatu Nigam Limited; and the NFC. Other institutions participating in R & D are the Indian Institutes of Technology in Chennai, Mumbai and New Delhi; the Structural Engineering Research Centre (SERC), Chennai; the Fluid Control Research Institute, Palak kad; and a defence laboratory.

Dr. Baldev Raj said: "When we built the FBTR we imported many materials and the manufacturing was done both in India and abroad. For the PFBR, materials, electronics, sodium technology, fuel technology, sensors are all developed in our country."

IGCAR scientists and engineers are now busy designing the nuclear steam supply system, which will be completed by the middle of 2001.

A new Structural Mechanics Laboratory has been established where the effect of seismic conditions on various structures of the PFBR are being analysed. There is a shake-table to simulate earthquake conditions. Bhoje said: "First, we have to convince ours elves. These experiments have validated the design and structural integrity of the PFBR."

Kale said the investment on the PFBR construction would be about Rs.3,900 crores. With industry fully trained in the manufacture of various critical components, Bhoje was "quite confident that the reactor can be built in time."

Along with Japan, India is one of the few countries which has a major stake in the development of FBRs. To quote Dr. Hans Blix, former Director-General of the IAEA, who visited the IGCAR in December 1982, "Breeder technology is certainly one of the most advanced and difficult undertakings in nuclear power engineering. That India, relying most exclusively on its own resources, is able to embark on a breeder programme, bears witness to its great accomplishments in science and the resourcefulness of its en gineers."

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