Indian nuclear programme aims to use available thorium resources

Indian nuclear programme aims to use available thorium resourcesSince thorium cannot be used directly in the reactor, we need to first develop enough of plutonium through first and second stage reactors and then come to the third stage when our own thorium will be used, writes Dr Sharad P. Kale, Head Technology Transfer and Collaboration Division, Bhabha Atomic Research CentreNuclear energy at crossroadsWorld nuclear energy is at crossroads and India is no exception, probably we are in the eye of antinuclear storm mainly because of ill-defined public perception. The opposition to nuclear energy is largely due to lack of information, misconceptions and politics. Dissemination of science across the diverse sectors in society needs to be taken up earnestly to address these problems. Various issues related to this burning problem are discussed in this article. When Rontgen discovered X-rays and Curie couple unveiled the properties of radium, a whole new invisible world of energy was thrown open for the mankind. However it took more than forty years to understand the secret of nuclear energy. Max Plank, Einstein, Oppenheimer, Chadwick and several other passionate physicists and chemists were working to go to the core of nuclear energy. The driving force for research in this field perceptibly changed during Second World War due to wild ambitions of German rulers. There was urgent need for development of nuclear weapons mainly to serve as deterrent for Germany.The Western scientists were convinced that if they could lay hand on these weapons before Germany, it would be at a great advantage. However when Germany started losing war and it became clear that they would never develop these nukes, Dr Joseph Rotblat who was a medical physicist, started a debate that research on nuclear weapons might be diverted for nuclear energy, however his was a lone voice.  Japan had suffered massive destruction and the world had suffered because one of the best sources of energy on this earth was born with a permanent stigma around it. During that era, Dr Bhabha was another scientist who had actively insisted for peaceful applications of nuclear energy. Nuclear weaponsJulius Oppenheimer and Enrico Fermi were the two key persons in development of nuclear weapons that destroyed Hiroshima and Nagasaki in 1945. When he was witnessing the test explosion at Trinity site in 1945, he thought of a verse from the Bhagavad Gita (Chapter XI, 12th Shloka) which roughly translated meant “If hundreds of thousands of suns were to rise at once into the sky, their radiance might resemble the effulgence of the supreme person in that universal form.”He further thought of another verse from the same chapter of Gita, Lord Krishna said, “Time I am, the great destroyer of the worlds, and I have come here to destroy all people, with the exception of you [the pandavas], all the soldiers here on both sides will be slain.”Such was the devastating power of the nuclear energy witnessed by Oppenheimer and such was the power of Bhagwad Gita that a scientist of his stature, who never had a formal training of this versatile book, had to remember it as only parallel analogy. It was a strategic mistake to make use the nuclear energy as weapon and not as useful energy and it is not important to list the culprits because it is a futile exercise. It is felt very strongly that if the first application of nuclear energy was in the form of a reactor rather than atomic bomb, probably human being would not have suffered from the fear psychosis which is evident from Jaitapur to Kudankulam and from Germany to Australia. Accident at Fukushima has played a significant role in creating more confusion. Well, that was past and whatever has happened is beyond anybody’s prowess now. These are the challenges which we are facing and we have to go ahead with nuclear energy against these odds. The attack on the field of nuclear energy is not based on facts but is purely on speculations. If someone asks What would happen if the reactors are destroyed? or Why should we subject our future generations to worry about radioactive waste that we are generating? The answers are so obvious. What would be required here are not the answers but create an assuring environment that all of us can take care that nothing of the sort would happen. Strong multidisciplinary research arms would ensure well balanced development of nuclear industry. The potential of younger generation is always more than the previous one. The sole reason is ‘experiences enrich with each passing generation’. Indian nuclear programmeIndian nuclear programme aims finally at using thorium resources which we have in large quantities. The three stage programme began in 1950s when Dr Homi Bhabha’s vision was shared by another visionary, Pandit Nehru. The role of nuclear power in Indian context was well identified by Dr Bhabha especially because of large thorium reserves in our country. Since thorium cannot be used directly in the reactor, we need to first develop enough of plutonium through first and second stage reactors and then come to the third stage when our own thorium will be used. Following table indicates the potential of nuclear energy in comparison with some commonly used energy resources.The three stage Indian nuclear power programme can be briefly understood at this juncture.Stage I – Pressurised heavy water reactorIn the first stage of the programme, natural uranium fueled pressurised heavy water reactors (PHWR) produce electricity while generating plutonium-239 as by-product. PHWRs was a natural choice for implementing the first stage because it had the most efficient reactor design in terms of uranium utilisation, and the existing Indian infrastructure in the 1960s allowed for quick adoption of the PHWR technology. Although the first two reactors in the country were boiling water reactors (BWR), we soon realised that developing facilities for enriched uranium would be far more difficult and expensive compared to developing facilities to produce heavy water. Since then we have become self-sufficient heavy water in our country and we do not have to depend on any other country for that purpose. Heavy water is an essential component of PHWRs. It is no wonder that the next 18 reactors in the country belonged to the class of PHWR. Stage II – Fast breeder reactors (FBRs)FBRs would use a mixed oxide fuel made from plutonium-239, recovered by reprocessing spent fuel from the first stage, and natural uranium. In FBRs, plutonium-239 undergoes fission to produce energy, while the uranium-238 present in the mixed oxide fuel transmutes to additional plutonium-239. Thus, the stage II FBRs are designed to breed more fuel than they consume. Once the inventory of plutonium-239 is built up thorium can be introduced as a blanket material in the reactor and transmuted to uranium-233 for use in the third stage. The design of the country’s first fast breeder, called prototype fast breeder reactor (PFBR), was done by Indira Gandhi Centre for Atomic Research (IGCAR). Bharatiya Nabhikiya Vidyut Nigam Ltd (Bhavini) has been given the responsibility to build the fast breeder reactors in India and loading of the fuel is expected in the early part of 2013, followed by one year of system testing after the reactor achieves criticality. Stage III – Thorium based reactorsA stage III reactor or an advanced nuclear power system involves a self-sustaining series of thorium-232, uranium-233 fueled reactors. This would be a thermal breeder reactor, which in principle can be refueled using only naturally occurring thorium. According to the three-stage programme, Indian nuclear energy could grow to about 10 GW through PHWRs fueled by domestic uranium, and the growth above that would have to come from FBRs till about 50GW. The third stage is to be deployed only after this capacity has been achieved.Table 2 lists all the reactors which are working and Table 3 lists reactors under construction at the moment. We have signed nuclear deals with USA, Japan, Australia, Russia, France and England mainly for the supply of uranium which will be needed for our PHWRs. Some of these deals are also for provision of some reactors. Russia has supplied two WWER (Water – Water Energy reactors) and will supply four more reactors in next few years. France is going to supply reactors based on EPR technology. We are building up our potential for thorium reactors through these reactors and the first two reactors at Kudankulam are in final stages of commissioning and there are several problems and especially after Fukushima accident in Japan, the road blocks have increased. But we will have to pass these difficult stages by taking everyone in confidence.Dr Bhabha was aware that a strong multidisciplinary research culture has to be supporting nuclear power programme. He initiated the concept of training the best brains in the country through a system called training school. This has been consistently providing scientists in various disciplines for last 58 years for the nuclear power programme. Peaceful uses of atomic energy are not only in power sector but other areas like research, environment, medicine, agriculture and industry are also benefited by radiation and radioactive isotopes. Bhabha Atomic Research Centre is probably unique research organisation where several thousand scientists are working under one roof for the cause of nuclear energy. There are deep concerns expresses about nuclear waste especially the high level one, since the scope of this article is limited, the topic cannot be covered effectively. However the research efforts at various installations of Department of Atomic Energy have come up with methods to handle this problem. Vitrification of high level nuclear waste seems to be satisfactory answer for containment of such high level waste over a long period.Nuclear energy has played a big role in development of many nations and the worst sufferer of this energy has been the biggest beneficiary also. Japan, though got devastated by two nuclear bombs has been served by more than 50 reactors in last few decades. It was only after natural disaster of tsunami that created havoc in the cooling system of Fukushima which resulted in worldwide concerns about nuclear energy; however human being has survived by accepting challenges. Countries like Germany can afford to say that they will stop atomic reactors and they have no objection in buying nuclear electricity from other countries. Germany is a small country with relatively far lesser population and their needs and resources are very different from our country. As they can decide their future course based on their needs and resources, we can also decide our priorities based on our needs and our resources. Energy resources in the form of thorium are plenty on our country and we have enough manpower and intelligence to overcome the technological challenges. Let us join hands and accept the challenges.

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