Of achievements and challenges

Published : Jan 28, 2005 00:00 IST



Interview with Anil Kakodkar, Chairman, AEC.

On October 23, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh inaugurated the construction of the 500 MWe Prototype Fast Breeder Reactor at Kalpakkam in Tamil Nadu. It marked the start of the second stage of the country's nuclear electricity programme, which involves the building of a series of breeder reactors to ensure India's energy security. The same day, the Prime Minister took part in the commemoration function of the Department of Atomic Energy's (DAE) golden jubilee celebrations at the Indira Gandhi Centre for Atomic Research (IGCAR) at Kalpakkam.

In a recent interview to T.S. Subramanian, the Chairman, Atomic Energy Commission and Secretary, DAE, Anil Kakodkar listed not only the achievements of the DAE in the last 50 years but the challenges it faced. Excerpts:

What are the achievements and failures of the DAE in the last 50 years?

In the last 50 years, one important thing is that we have a large, capable human resource pool of scientists and technologists. This is a formidable force, which can deliver the goods. This, I think, is a very important achievement.

The second important achievement is that our programme on the basis of self-reliance has demonstrated that we can take our R&D [research and development] efforts, carried out in our laboratories, to a commercial scale of excellence in the market place. So there is the confidence that this can be done.

The third achievement is that the first stage of India's nuclear power programme, currently consisting of 12 Pressurised Heavy Water Reactors (PHWRs), is completely in the industrial domain. It will grow on its own steam.

Lastly, as a result of the consolidation of the entire work done in the last 50 years, we now have a clearly defined road map for future R&D, and its commercialisation.

In terms of "failures" - I will not call them failures, but we did see several challenges. For example, embargoes have been a major challenge. Embargoes have not deterred us from making progress; in fact, they have made our self-reliance that much more robust. Obviously, the dimensions of our programme would have been bigger if we had been able to do things at a much faster pace.

Without the embargoes?

Yes, without the embargoes. On the whole, I will say that we have now succeeded in this very frontline technology in all its dimensions. We have different technologies for various applications.

Can you give examples?

Nuclear energy applications in agriculture, health, food security, and so on. While we have done this, we have also contributed towards nuclear weapons ability in the country. India today is a country with nuclear weapons to ensure its long-term security. At the same time, we have domestic capability to guarantee long-term energy security in a manner that will help in preserving the environment and avoiding the adverse impact of climate change.

How important are the fast breeder reactors in ensuring India's energy security?

Fast breeder reactors are more important to India than other countries that have capabilities in nuclear power technology. This is because of the nuclear resource profile we have in the country. Our uranium reserves, as per the present state of exploration, will be able to support 10,000 MWe generating capacity, which is not large. But it is the starting point for setting up fast reactors. When the same uranium, which will support 10,000 MWe generating capacity in the PHWRs, comes out as spent fuel and we process that spent fuel into plutonium and residual uranium, and use it in the fast reactors, we will be able to go to an electricity generation capacity that will be as large as 5,00,000 MWe. This is due to the breeding potential of the fast reactors, using the plutonium-uranium cycle. That is the importance of the fast breeder reactors under Indian conditions, compared to other countries.

The world is watching with interest our entry into the breeder reactor programme. Countries such as France, the United States and the United Kingdom have not persisted with their breeder reactor programme. France has closed its Superphoenix fast breeder reactor. There are allegations that the Japanese have falsified their data with regard to their breeder reactor programme. Japan's Monju breeder reactor is now shut down. Are we entering an area from where others have backed out?

That is not true. There is a programme called Generation Four Initiative Forum, GIF for short. This is led by the U.S. in which 10 other countries are participating. They have nuclear power reactor configurations that are important for the future. They have identified a total of six configurations, six reactors. Out of that, three or four are fast reactors. So the importance of fast reactors in future energy requirements is recognised worldwide. In fact, in Russia, an 800 MWe fast reactor is under construction. The ground reality now is that uranium is available at a much cheaper price internationally. In this situation of plenty of uranium availability, there is no urgency for these countries to move on to fast breeder reactor technology. This, however, is not the case with us.

How many breeder reactors will we build in the near future? The IGCAR is designing a 1,000 MWe fast breeder reactor.

It is like this. We are making a beginning with the first 500 MWe and we will complete it by 2010. After that, we will build more such units. We have planned four in the programme up to 2020. The development of the fast breeder technology will go on at the IGCAR. In this development, we will proceed in two directions.

One will be based on metallic fuel?

I will come to that. One direction is to go for higher capacity reactors, maybe developing 1,000 MWe reactors. The other direction is to use the reactor design and its associated fuel cycle, which will have a shorter doubling time because we get into a higher and higher generating capacity through the breeding process. The faster the breeding, the quicker will be the rise in the fast breeder reactor's capacity. So we should pursue both the directions: one is the higher reactor unit size, and the other, the fuel cycle, which has a shorter doubling time. In this we have drawn the entire road map, including R&D activities, the development that should be done and, the new energy systems to be built.

The Prime Minister promised full support to the third stage of the country's nuclear electricity programme, which will use thorium as fuel. The 300 MWe Advanced Heavy Water Reactor (AHWR), which will use thorium as fuel, is your pet project. Its construction was to begin before the end of last April. Why is the delay?

The fast breeder reactors constitute the second stage of our programme. While we have scarcity in terms of uranium, our thorium resources are abundant. [The third stage of our programme using] thorium-uranium 233 fuel can run in a sustained mode for a long time. So we have made this our third stage after we have sufficient capacity through breeder reactors. For if you irradiate thorium at a higher capacity level, then you will have a very long programme at a higher capacity level. We are also working on the development [of reactors] that will allow growth with the thorium fuel cycle. Besides, we have programmes on other applications of thorium, such as the high temperature energy generation. All this constitutes the third stage of our nuclear power programme, that is, demonstrating large-scale electricity generation using thorium.

A second part of this programme is to demonstrate our ability to build systems where thorium-based electricity generation can grow. The third part is to build advanced energy systems where we can get energy from fission at high temperature. This will be done by primarily using thorium. We have prepared plans for this as well. We have published this as a DAE document called "Shaping the Third Stage of Our Nuclear Power Programme". This will be essentially an R&D and technology development programme. There is a lot of work to be done on this. As we commercialise the second stage, we have to complete the entire R&D, and technology, and be ready with it when it is time for commercialisation of the third stage. We are very happy with the support promised by the Prime Minister.

The AHWR will be one of the first elements in the third stage. Its design is complete. We have prepared the project report. We have completed a peer review by knowledgeable people other than those who designed it. A fairly large amount of R&D work has been completed. There is more R&D work to be done. It is true that we should have started the AHWR construction this year. But we felt that since the reactor will be ultimately implemented in the public domain, it is important that its design is also reviewed by the Atomic Energy Regulatory Board [which keeps a tab on safety in nuclear power facilities in the country]. So we have now created an arrangement wherein for such developments [reactors], which will ultimately go out of the BARC for use by society or industry, the safety aspects should be entrusted with the AERB. We are in the process of making that arrangement now.

Is that the reason for the delay?

This took a little time. We will go through the AERB review. We have deliberately withheld [the construction] because we have safety in our mind. The AHWR has an innovative concept. It should be looked at by all the safety people. I cannot predict the time [when its construction will start]. I am sure the safety review will be completed soon enough for us to decide on further steps.

We have launched R&D activity on accelerator driven systems, which will enable the growth of higher capacity thorium reactors. We have made a beginning with the third part of the third stage with a compact high temperature reactor (CHTR). We are at this moment going through material development, which will allow us to construct such reactors. The idea is that if we are able to generate fission energy, say at 1,000C, you can make splitting of water by thermo-chemical means an economic reality.

What is its use?

Once you get hydrogen, you get a fluid fuel substitute. Hydrogen is the energy of the future. Electricity is a carrier of energy. Hydrogen is also a carrier of energy. You can get convenient end-applications from it. You can run motors using hydrogen. You can run engines and heating systems. You can run fuel cells using hydrogen, which in turn can generate electricity. If you are able to do this, then nuclear energy becomes much closer to primary energy. It can support all energy requirements.

We have, therefore, developed a long-term vision. All this is reflected in our documents.

The Prime Minister has asserted that India would not be the source of proliferation of sensitive technologies and development in the neighbourhood. Do you see a toughening of India's stance on proliferation issues?

If you look at India's track record, it has always behaved in a very responsible fashion. At the same time, we carry out our indigenous efforts in a self-reliant manner for developing technologies and their implementation in the national interest. This is of course a legitimate right. India is one-sixth of humanity. One sees that when such barriers are imposed, they put some kind of resistance to the pace at which we can grow. Then one has to question the justification for such a process. It is our policy to act in a manner that this nuclear technology is managed in a responsible way. We have come to this level, based on our own self-reliant effort. On the other side, [in] a regime, which they have put in place, clandestine activities still go on. What we are talking about is a regime that facilitates development, and addresses the development of a large country like India. What he [the Prime Minister] said was rather than arresting proliferation by irresponsible people, today's framework seems to be creating barriers for our development. We want a system that addresses the true proliferation concerns and still solves the problems we face in our development. For we are talking about a large fraction of humanity.

Will the dialogue, the Next Steps in Strategic Partnership (NSSP), between India and the U.S., be of any use to India in importing nuclear power components or nuclear electricity plants? In a recent article former AEC Chairman M.R. Srinivasan said the NSSP was only a cosmetic exercise and that it was inconsequential to India. Will it help us to develop our nuclear power technology?

I don't think so.Will we get anything from the NSSP?

The question is whether we should remain engaged in such discussions. These are small steps towards.... The way I see this is as follows: High-tech trade is in the interests of both India and the U.S. We have human resource in high-tech capability. If there is any kind of apprehension that dealing with India in high-tech trade could lead to benefits in strategic areas, the NSSP will help to remove such doubts and make people recognise that the Indian capability is truly indigenous. That is the only message that the NSSP will send as far as the Indian nuclear programme is concerned. In the long run, if it helps the growth of international trade in nuclear power technology, we will be happy.

M.R. Srinivasan has also said that if the U.S. is unable to cooperate with India in a meaningful way in nuclear power technology, it should allow at least Russia to help us. Will the Russians give us two more reactors at Kudankulam in Tamil Nadu? There is a talk that the cartel of the Nuclear Suppliers' Group (NSG) is standing in the way. The NSG insists that unless India signs the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, Russia cannot supply two more reactors to India to be built at Kudankulam.

Yes, we are certainly of the opinion that international trade with India in nuclear power technology is not only in the Indian interests but global interests also because our markets are large, and that a larger share of nuclear power is there. This will minimise the adverse impact on the global climate. What is necessary is that these regimes should recognise this new reality. At the same time, we are champions of pushing the domestic nuclear electricity programme on the basis of our self-reliance. The domestic programme will go on... . If any additional capacity can be set up, it is welcome... . If it comes from outside, it is welcome. But it has to be on the basis of a just regime as far as India is concerned.

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