A case for breeder reactors

Published : Nov 19, 2004 00:00 IST

A QUESTION frequently asked by opponents of nuclear electricity is: "Why should India build breeder reactors when countries such as the United States, United Kingdom and Germany have closed down their breeder reactor programmes, and France and Japan are struggling to run their breeder reactors?" In support of their scepticism they point to the Japanese falsifying data on their breeder reactors, leaks plaguing the Japanese Monju breeder reactor, and the French not operating their SuperPhenix breeder reactor.

The U.S., the U.K. and Germany have closed down their breeder reactor programmes because they have plenty of uranium to power their light water reactors, their population growth is stable and the price of uranium is stable. In addition, the demand for electricity in these countries is not growing, and they have enough coal, hydel and oil reserves.

The situation is exactly the reverse in India. The population is booming (it has crossed the 100-crore mark), its industrial base is expanding, its coal is of poor quality and its hydel resources are unsubstantial and it has virtually made no big oil discoveries in the past 25 years. Besides, with its limited resources of uranium, it can build Pressurised Heavy Water Reactors (PHWRs) of a capacity of only 12,000 MWe. But with a series of breeder reactors that would use plutonium reprocessed from the PHWRs and their depleted uranium, India can generate between three lakhs and five lakhs MWe by 2050.

Anil Kakodkar, Chairman, Atomic Energy Commission, said the advanced countries had excess of energy resources, their requirement for energy was not growing much and their population was stable. Yet, development of breeder reactors was under way in many countries, including the U.S. Russia was now engaged in building the BN-800 breeder reactor.

A ten-country organisation called the Generation Four Initiative Forum has identified six different reactors as the fourth generation reactors of the world for the future. Of these, three or four were breeder reactors of different types. "So fast breeder reactors are decidedly important for the future", the AEC Chairman said. "The question is they have time. But we don't have time. They are taking it up as a 30- to 40-year programme. But we have to take it up right now," Kakodkar asserted.

Baldev Raj, Director, Indira Gandhi Centre for Atomic Research (IGCAR), Kalpakkam, argued that there would be successes and failures in any technology. He said the critics should explain what was wrong with the fast breeder reactors at the basic level. Some leaks might have occurred in Monju, and the Japanese could have falsified the data. "But does it mean that the technology is wrong? So do you shut down that technology? If one car meets with an accident because of brake failure, will you say that we should not use cars at all?"

Baldev Raj pointed out that Russia was already operating successfully a BN-600 reactor, which has a high capacity of 600 MWe. This reactor was being run continuously beyond 80 per cent of its capacity and the electricity generated from it was being sold at the most competitive price. Russia is now building the BN-800 reactor (with a capacity of 800 MWe) with the same technology as that of BN-600. The BN-800 would go critical at the same time as the PFBR at Kalpakkam - 2010.

Baldev Raj said he was ready for an open debate on what critics say were the negative aspects of the breeder technology. "Various countries may have closed or slowed down their fast breeder reactor programmes, based on their own perceptions and needs. They don't need breeders now. They will reconsider their decision after ten years but they are continuing their R and D on breeders. Even the Americans have identified the fast breeder reactors as the future reactors," he added. When the oil price shoots to $100 a barrel, many countries would scramble for breeder reactors, he said.

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