Data Card

Towards nuclear self-reliance

Print edition : December 26, 2014

A nuclear fuel bundle being tested before it is loaded at the Tarapur Atomic Power Station. Photo: VIVEK BENDRE

The 50th year of the Indian nuclear fuel reprocessing programme underlines India’s mastery in all aspects of the nuclear cycle.

THE spent fuel reprocessing programme of the Department of Atomic Energy (DAE) completed 50 years on August 18. The programme began on that date in 1964 with the commissioning of the plutonium plant at the Bhabha Atomic Research Centre (BARC, then known as the Atomic Energy Establishment) in Trombay. The plant, the first in Asia, was inaugurated by Prime Minister Lal Bahadur Shastri in the presence of Homi J. Bhabha, the DAE Secretary and Chairman of the Atomic Energy Commission.

India’s reserves of natural uranium are limited, but thorium is available aplenty. Hence, the DAE has formulated an interlinked three-stage nuclear electricity generation programme. The first stage comprises Pressurised Heavy Water Reactors (PHWRs), 18 at present, which use natural uranium as fuel. The spent fuel from these reactors is reprocessed to isolate plutonium and depleted uranium, which form the fuel for the Fast Breeder Reactors in the second stage. A 500 MWe Prototype Fast Breeder Reactor (PFBR) is set to reach criticality at Kalpakkam, Tamil Nadu, before the end of March 2015. In the third stage, the reactors will use a mixture of thorium, plutonium and uranium-233 as fuel. The DAE will soon build a 300 MWe Advanced Heavy Water Reactor (AHWR), which will use thorium as fuel.Today, India has mastered every facet of the nuclear power generation programme, including reprocessing and waste management. The DAE’s Atomic Minerals Directorate (AMD) prospects for uranium all over the country. Uranium Corporation of India Limited, a public sector undertaking of the DAE, mines the uranium discovered by the AMD and processes it into yellow cake. The yellow cake is fabricated into fuel bundles at the Nuclear Fuel Complex (NFC) in Hyderabad, to power the PHWRs. The NFC also makes the enriched uranium fuel assemblies for the two imported/American Boiling Water Reactors (BWRs) at Tarapur, Maharashtra.

Nuclear Power Corporation of India Limited (NPCIL) designs, builds, commissions and operates the PHWRs. The spent fuel obtained from these reactors is reprocessed to obtain plutonium at the reprocessing facilities at BARC (Trombay), Tarapur and Kalpakkam.The Advanced Fuel Fabrication Facility (AFFF) at Tarapur makes plutonium-based fuels for the BWRs, the PHWRs (for irradiation studies) and the PFBRs (for power generation).

The BARC has developed and mastered the difficult technology of making mixed oxide (MOX) fuel, containing oxides of uranium and plutonium. The AFFF, one of the few such facilities in the world, is an industrial scale MOX fuel fabrication plant and was designed and built for making alternative fuel for the two BWRs at Tarapur after the United States denied enriched uranium to them.

Waste management

India has also developed world-class expertise in radioactive waste management. The DAE has established waste management facilities at Tarapur and Kalpakkam to treat the waste coming from reprocessing plants, reactors and fuel fabrication plants. The radioactive wastes, solid, liquid and gas, are disposed of in rock-lined trenches or reinforced cement concrete tanks, depending on their category. The high-level waste is vitrified into glass and stored underground in stainless steel canisters at the Solid Storage and Surveillance Facility at Tarapur. These canisters will be later stored in geological repositories such as abandoned mines.