Mumbai: The Bhabha Atomic Research Centre, or Barc, formed 51 years ago as the Atomic Energy Establishment, Trombay, oversees 17 nuclear reactors in operation and eight in various stages of construction. But India still needs large quantities of uranium, the fuel that powers the reactors, to harness nuclear energy, and its ability to access them rests on the civilian nuclear deal with the US that’s shrouded in uncertainty.
India’s unique three-stage nuclear cycle is designed to squeeze out every possible watt of energy from the scarce fuel, and to eventually reduce uranium dependence by using thorium, found abundantly in the coastal regions. The first-stage pressurized heavy water reactors burn uranium. In the second-stage fast-breeder reactors, the fuel is plutonium, derived from reprocessing spent fuel from the first stage. The third-stage reactors will burn uranium-233, derived from thorium. As Barc doggedly works to provide fuel and other technologies, its director, Srikumar Banerjee, discusses some related issues in an interview with Mint. Edited excerpts:
Fuel concerns: Bhabha Atomic Research Centre director Srikumar Banerjee says it makes good business sense to invest in energy production.
Now that the nuclear deal is floundering, do you think paucity of uranium will once again stalk India’s nuclear energy programme?
Let’s not talk of the nuclear deal. The Nuclear Power Corp. of India Ltd has reached such maturity that we can add 2,000MW of additional capacity every year and without any budgetary support. This of course is subject to fuel (uranium) availability. If we somehow open some source of getting fuel from outside, then not only the existing pressurized heavy water reactors can be brought to 90% capacity utilization, but more such reactors can be built.
Won’t this also aid your second-stage programme, which is just getting started?
Yes, with uranium we can continuously grow our plutonium inventory, which is wealth for us; it can help us build more fast-breeder reactors. Let’s take the example of France, which after the oil crisis of 1970s decided to go for nuclear power in a big way and today about 80% of its energy comes from nuclear sources. Recently a French delegation was here and we learnt that France is again thinking of nuclear energy to tide over the current oil crisis. If they install another 10,000MW capacity, the electricity produced can be used for water electrolysis, to break water into hydrogen and oxygen. Hydrogen thus gotten will be sufficient for its entire automobile requirement. For them, solving the energy problem is a matter of installing just six more reactors.
Moreover, using imported uranium so far they have accumulated a huge quantity of spent fuel which they are using in present-generation pressurized water reactor.
Very soon, but later than us, they will start fast-breeder reactors in a commercial sense that will ensure energy security for more than a century. This is the kind of long-term plans countries make. If India doesn’t have uranium shortage, then our growth can also be very impressive.
How do you see uranium adding to your installed capacity in future?
Today our limitation is reasonably assured supply of uranium. From what we have in the country, we can sustain 10,000MW capacity (in pressurized heavy water reactors) and we have committed that. We are building eight new 700MW reactors and if the new mines open up, as we’ve planned, then by 2020 we will add 5,600MW to the existing 4,120MW. But imagine if we can quickly come up to an installed capacity of 50,000MW, then we can sustain that level with thorium. However, if we introduce thorium only at 10,000MW then we remain at that level, fast growth cannot happen with thorium.
How do you think such scale-up can happen—by getting external reactors?
Yes, China has announced (it is) installing 40,000MW capacities by 2020 and is ordering reactors, just as we are doing in thermal energy by giving turnkey contracts.
Is there scope for the private sector to enter nuclear energy?
It will eventually happen. I don’t see any fundamental problem or serious contradiction in this but there are some long-range issues like safety, radioactive waste storage, assured supply of fuel, which have to be suitably handled. It is doable and our regulatory authorities are working on this. Even the industry would want clarity on all these issues.
Is the industry interested?
The industry is definitely interested. In India we pay a very heavy sum for energy, more than anywhere else. So it makes good business sense to invest in energy production.
But if uranium is at the heart of nuclear energy, what are you doing to augment the domestic supply?
We have enhanced our fuel exploration programme because so far we have only got fuel from Jharkhand. Besides augmenting the mining and milling capacity in Jharkhand, we are opening a new mine in Tummalapalli in Andhra Pradesh, for which we had to develop a new “alkali bleaching process”. We’ll have to do deep-seated exploration for which, again, we are developing probes for electromagnetic time domain process of exploration, which can identify minerals from even 1km deep beds. We think there are potential reserves in Rajasthan, Meghalaya, and Andhra Pradesh-Karnataka regions. The problem is today you cannot even buy mineral exploration equipment; everything needs to be developed in-house and that takes time.
Besides this, we are working towards development of metallic fuel—different from mixed oxide fuel to be used in Prototype Fast Breeder Reactor (to be commissioned in 2010)—that will reduce the “doubling time”. This is the time in which a fast reactor produces plutonium to not only feed itself but sufficient enough to start new fast reactors. Today, the doubling time is very long, about 20-25 years, but with the new fuel we could reduce it to about 12 years.
With so many new reactors coming up, isn’t storage of radioactive waste a serious concern for Barc, particularly because India is a populous country and cannot afford large containments for dumping?
Absolutely, but our closed cycle programme ensures that we burn most of it in the second stage and our radioactive waste is small. Even then, storing them in contained facilities is not the permanent solution because the lifetime of such material is very long—10,000 years. So we have to think of ways of reducing this time to say about 200 to 300 years. We are working in that direction.