Renewable Energy in India – The Three-Stage Nuclear Plan

Feature image. Nuclear FBD.
The Prototype Fast Breeder Reactor under construction

India’s demand for electricity in the year 2018-19 was 1,196,309 GWh. Total electricity generation, on the other hand, was 1,547,000 GWh. Though India has the infrastructure for generating surplus power, its distribution infrastructure was lacking. Thankfully, various programmes, such as the “Power For All” drive launched by the Centre in 2016, have addressed this issue to a great extent.

A major cause for concern, however, is our nation’s reliance on fossil fuels. It is estimated that coal was the source of almost three-quarters of electricity produced in 2018-19, at 1,021,997 GWh. Hydroelectric power, at 135,040 GWh, comes a distant second.

A Renewable Future for India?

In 2018, the National Electricity Plan stated that the country won’t need additional coal burning power plants until 2027. This moratorium is due to the replacement of ageing coal-powered plants with new, efficient facilities, both renewable and non-renewable. It is clear that for the world’s third-largest consumer and producer of electricity, the future has to be sustainable. The question is – what do we replace our fossil fuels with?

“Thorium and solar is the ideal energy mix for India…”

-Dr. Anil Kakodkar, former Chairman, Indian Atomic Energy Commission

Nuclear Energy

Ever since we first split the atom, there were thinkers who advocated turning its tremendous power to peaceful uses. In 1945, after World War 2 ended, Eugene Wigner and Alvin Weinberg filed for the famous Patent #2,736,696, a conceptual LWR (Light Water Reactor) that would go on to form the backbone of civil nuclear power.

The first instance of nuclear power generating electricity was in 1951, at the EBR-1 Experimental Station in Idaho. In 1953, President Eisenhower gave his ‘Atoms for Peace’ speech at the UN.

Though the US Navy took the lead in usage of nuclear reactors, the USSR was where nuclear energy was first used for mass consumption. The Obinsk Nuclear Power Plant, built in 1954, was the first instance of a nuclear reactor powering an electric grid, producing 5 MW of power.

The world’s first commercial NPP was built by the United Kingdom at Windscale. Called Calder Hall, it had a capacity of 200 MW. The reactors were dual purpose, producing power for civil usage and plutonium for weapons.

Interest Declines

However, despite a burgeoning start, nuclear power soon suffered a decline in attractiveness worldwide. Nuclear power generation grew from less than 1 GW in 1960 to 100 GW in the 1970s, and to 300 GW in the 1980s. However, it has risen at a slackening pace since, reaching only 336 GW in 2005. Anti-nuclear pressure groups, falling fossil fuel prices, and rising safety concerns all played their part in this decline. Infrastructure costs also rose, due to the lengthening of the licensing process by governments to appease public anti-nuclear hostility. Accidents like Three Mile Island, Chernobyl, and more recently, Fukushima, have led to many countries opting to phase out or cease development of nuclear power.

However, amongst all this, there was (and is) one country whose nuclear ambitions refused to die. A brilliant mind was cooking up a nuclear plan for India, as early as the 1950s.

Bhabha and his Nuclear India

“India has the most technically ambitious and innovative nuclear energy programme in the world. The extent and functionality of its nuclear experimental facilities are matched only by those in Russia and are far ahead of what is left in the US.”

-Siegfried Hecker, former Director, Los Alamos National Laboratory, USA (Physics Today, 2012)

Homi Jehangir Bhabha, known as the “father of the Indian nuclear programme”, was one of the world’s brightest minds in nuclear physics. He is widely credited with the advent of nuclear power in India. Even before India was independent, he wrote to Dorabhji Tata in 1944, asking for his help in establishing ‘a vigorous school of research in fundamental physics’. The Tata Trust agreed, and in 1945, the Tata Institute of Fundamental Research was established.

When the TIFR proved inadequate for further development, Bhabha proposed that the government build a dedicated laboratory for atomic research. In pursuance of his proposal, the Atomic Energy Establishment Trombay was built in 1954. The Department of Atomic Energy was also established that year. He also established the Atomic Energy Commission in 1948, and became its first Chairman. That very year, Prime Minister Nehru appointed him the director of the Indian nuclear programme, and tasked him with developing nuclear weapons.

Bhabha’s plan for civil nuclear power was first presented in 1954, at the conference on “Development of Atomic Energy for Peaceful Purposes”. Four years later, in 1958, the Indian government officially adopted his plan. Homi J. Bhabha continued to represent India at various conferences and organizations, including the International Atomic Energy Commission.

The Padma Bhushan recipient was tragically killed in 1966, in an arguably suspicious plane crash, while he was on his way to attend an IAEA conference in Vienna. Nevertheless, his vision for India’s nuclear power lived on. Bhabha is best known for his study of scattering positrons with electrons, a phenomenon called Bhabha Scattering in his honour. He was also instrumental in setting up the Indian Space Research Organization. The AEET at Trombay was renamed as the Bhabha Atomic Research Centre, or BARC, after his death.

Indian Nuclear Fuel Reserves

As of 2015, India is estimated to have 138,700 tonnes of uranium – around 1.81% of the global reserves. Out of this, only 11,398 tonnes have been extracted as of 2014. However, at 963,000 tonnes, India holds the world’s largest reserves of thorium, about 25% of the global reserves. The Indian Parliament in 2011 quoted a more modest figure, close to 800,000 tonnes, but the fact of the matter is that India holds a substantial part of the world’s thorium. Most of it is available in the plentiful monazite sands of Southern India, which can be mined and processed to extract the precious nuclear material. (Reserve estimates are according to the IAEA’s reports) 

Recognizing this, Bhabha knew that Indian nuclear power should be built on thorium as a source, and not on uranium. This would ensure complete self-sufficiency for India in nuclear matters.

Unfortunately, thorium is not fissile material. It is fertile, which means it can be converted to the usable fissile fuel, Uranium-233. For this purpose, he came up with a three-step plan, starting from uranium dependent reactors and ending with self-sufficient thorium reactors.

Stage 1 – Uranium Reactors

One of the pre-requisites for Bhabha’s plan was large quantities of plutonium-239. Though not technically forbidden, there is no international trade in plutonium even today, due to its potential in weapons manufacture. Additionally, during the Cold War, no one would sell the material to India. The country needed an indigenous way to kickstart the production of the powerful nuclear material.

Uranium-powered reactors produce plutonium as a byproduct. However, the prevalent LWRs (Light Water Reactors) required enriched uranium. Not only would removing Uranium-238 reduce the plutonium yield, uranium enrichment technology was also extremely hard to develop. LWRs were not an option at that stage.

Heavy Water Reactors

The alternative presented itself in heavy water reactors. Heavy water is water with a greater than normal concentration of deuterium, a heavier isotope of hydrogen. It is a great moderator, inferior only to normal water. Additionally, it does not absorb as many neutrons as ‘light’ water. This allows heavy water reactors to function with a lower amount of Uranium-235, the fissile fuel, thus eliminating the need for uranium enrichment. Heavy water is also expensive to produce or extract, but the cost is offset to a great extent by the ability to use natural fuel. Heavy water reactors also have the ability to transmute the U-238 in the fuel into Pu-239.

India calculated correctly that building heavy water plants would be easier than building uranium enrichment plants. The Chemical Engineering Division of BARC began researching heavy water production in the 1960s, which was continued by the newly established Heavy Water Division, and a pilot plant was built to study production processes. In 1962, the DAE commissioned India’s first Heavy Water Plant at Nangal, Punjab. The plant later had to be dismantled for security reasons, after its operator, National Fertilizers Limited, was disinvested. The Heavy Water Board, a constituent of the DAE, today operates seven HWPs at:

  • Baroda
  • Hazira
  • Kota
  • Manuguru
  • Talcher
  • Thal
  • Tuticorin

The Nuclear Programme Begins

The tender for India’s first commercial nuclear power plant was issued in 1960. The Tarapur Atomic Power Plant was initially commissioned with two Boiling Water Reactors, supplied by USA. The plant was brought online in 1969, with a generation capacity of 210 MW, later reduced to 160 MW due to technical difficulties. In 1963, Canada also decided to provide support to India to build PWHRs (Pressurized Heavy Water Reactors) in Rajasthan. In 1973, the first of these reactors was brought online. However, after India conducted its first nuclear test in 1974, both USA and Canada withdrew all assistance, including their supplies of uranium. India would not get assistance from outside again until the Indo-US Civil Nuclear Agreement in 2008, except from the Soviet Union.

Phase 1 in Operation

Except the two BWRs at Tarapur, all nuclear reactors currently operating in India are PHWRs, predominantly indigenous. The country currently has 22 nuclear reactors spread across 7 nuclear power stations. The Indian government has set 10 GW as the limit until which Phase 1 reactors will be built. This will ensure lifelong supplies of uranium from domestic reserves for all the reactors. Of this, 4780 MW has currently been installed. Additionally, the under-construction Phase 1 reactors are expected to add 6,200 MW more. There are more reactors in the planning phase as well, after the opportunity to import uranium opened up in 2008-10.

Stage 2 – Fast Breeder Reactors

Once a sufficient stockpile of Pu-239 is built up from reprocessing the nuclear waste from the Stage 1 reactors, it is to be used to established a ‘fast breeder reactor’.

The ‘fast’ in the name means that the neutrons are fast-moving, and not slowed down to become thermal neutrons. Fast neutrons create more neutrons per collision, which is essential for the functioning of a breeder reactor. These reactors are called breeders because they are designed to ‘breed’ more fuel than they consume, by transmuting some fertile material introduced into the reactor into fissile fuel as a byproduct.

Stage 2 in India’s plan calls for FBRs to use a fuel mix of plutonium and U-238 to generate power. As a byproduct, the U-238 will be transmuted into plutonium, which can be extracted and used to create more FBRs. In this way, a self-sustaining network of FBRs will be created.

Reprocessing and Fuel Fabrication

To build the FBRs, it is necessary to first obtain the transmuted fissile fuel from the spent fuel rods. The process which allows extraction of usable materials from nuclear waste is known as reprocessing.

India currently operates three known reprocessing facilities. The first is the Kalpakkam Atomic Reprocessing Plant, which can produce upto 125 tons of fuel every year. The second is the Plutonium Reprocessing Plant at Trombay, associated with BARC. It produces around 50 tons of reprocessed fuel every year. The third is the Power Reactor Fuel Reprocessing Plant at Tarapur, which has a stated capacity of 150 tons per year, but is said to operate well under capacity. All three have the capacity to reprocess fuel for the FBRs.

After the reprocessed fuel is obtained, it must be fabricated into fuel rods for use in the reactors. India has two main sites for the production of fuel rods. The first is the Advanced Fuel Fabrication Facility at Tarapur. It specializes in producing MOX, or mixed oxide fuel bundles, the same fuel type used in FBRs. Thus, it has been undergoing upgrades in order to fabricate fuel for the upcoming reactors. The other site is the Nuclear Fuel Complex at Hyderabad. It is an all in one site for the production of nuclear fuel. It includes a uranium oxide plant, zirconium fabrication plants, a special materials plant, and two bundle fabrication plants.

Fast Breeder Reactors in India

Technically, India already operates an FBR. The Indira Gandhi Centre for Atomic Research and BARC jointly constructed a Fast Breeder Test Reactor at Kalpakkam. The FBTR first attained criticality in 1985. It made India the seventh nation to demonstrate the ability to build and operate a breeder reactor. Despite some teething problems, the reactor attained 100,000 megawatts-day/metric ton of uranium in 2002. This is considered an important milestone in breeder technology.

However, the FBTR is designed to produce only 13.2 MW of electric power. It is not a commercial breeder reactor. For this reason, India is not considered to have officially entered Stage 2 yet.

The country’s first FBR, called the Prototype Fast Breeder Reactor, was designed by the IGCAR. Construction was started in 2004. The reactor uses liquid sodium as a coolant, and is slated to produce 500 MW of power. The reactor is designed to burn MOX fuel made from reprocessed plutonium and natural uranium to produce electric power. As a byproduct, the U-238 will be converted into more plutonium. The PFBR was expected to achieve criticality in 2010 as of 2007, but the date has been repeatedly pushed back due to delays. As of now, it is expected to begin operations in 2020.

The same unenriched uranium that was used in the Stage 1 PWHRs may be used to yield upto 128 times more energy by running it through FBRs in multiple cycles. India is expected to build and commission four more breeder reactors starting from 2021, after the PFBR has a year of successful operations.

Doubling Time

The doubling time is the amount of time required to get back double the fissile material inputted into a breeder reactor. Some amount of time loss is unavoidable between Stage 2 and 3, as a sufficient fissile stock has to be built up before proceeding. Current estimates put the doubling time at about 70 years. However, scientists say that the time can be reduced to even ten years if the correct techniques are used.

Bhabha’s plan envisioned that FBRs would increase India’s nuclear power generation capacity to 50 GW. This goal has to be hit to proceed to Stage 3, and the fissile material necessary will be obtained more quickly if the doubling time reduces.

Late Stage 2 – Thorium Usage Begins

When the requisite 50 GW of installed power is obtained, preparations may begin to enter Stage 3 of the nuclear plan. Thorium is to be introduced as a blanket material into the reactors. The nuclear reactions will transmute fertile thorium into fissile U-233. This fuel has to be extracted and stored in preparation for Stage 3.

There will doubtlessly be further delay as the requisite amount of U-233 is bred by the reactors. Some estimates put doubling time at around 50 years in the best case scenario. However, it can be expected that we will be ready to open the first Stage 3 reactor before the amount doubles.

Stage 3 – Thorium-Based Reactors

Once a sufficient stockpile of U-233 is built up, Stage 3 of the nuclear plan can be put into effect. This stage involves large scale usage of thorium in power generation, by the use of thermal breeder reactors. In contrast to the FBRs, thermal breeder reactors use moderators to slow down neutrons.

Stage 3 TBRs are to be charged with a U-233-Th-232 fuel mixture. The uranium is consumed to generate electricity, and the released neutrons transmute the thorium into more U-233, keeping the stock of the fissile fuel up. In theory, at least, a TBR can be refueled by only adding more thorium to the reactor. Thus, a successful Stage 3 programme will almost completely remove India’s dependence on naturally occurring uranium, and make appropriate use of the plentiful thorium reserves in the nation.

Thorium Reactors in India?

Like the FBTR case, India does technically have the proof of concept ready. The Kamini reactor, located at Kalpakkam and designed jointly by IGCAR and BARC, is a research reactor fueled by U-233. Its fuel is produced from thorium, by transmuting it in the neighbouring FBTR. It uses light water as the coolant and moderator, and produces upto 30 kW of thermal power.

The Kamini reactor is currently the world’s only nuclear reactor designed to specifically work with U-233 fuel. India has no large scale thorium-based reactors under construction or active, as the Stage 2 reactors themselves have not been set up. According to replies given by the past governments in Parliament, deployment of Stage 3 can only be expected 3-4 decades after Stage 2, in the best case. Thus, it is unlikely that India will be able to shift to a thorium cycle before 2050 in any case.

Conclusion

As is pretty apparent, the Father of Nuclear India laid down a very comprehensive and well-thought out plan for the development of civil nuclear power in the country. However, there have been some changes in the circumstances since he came up with these ideas. Though the essence of the plan, the shift to thorium, remains unchanged, many of the intermediary steps have been adapted as our needs and available assets have changed over time. One of the greatest game-changers on this front was the 2008 Indo-US Civil Nuclear Agreement. In my next article, that is what I will be analyzing.

This was the first part of my investigative series on Renewable Energy in India. In-depth research and fact-finding is the name of the game here. You can expect many more articles on this topic in the near future, especially in relation to nuclear and solar power. If you like the direction this is going, be sure to follow the site closely for any updates.

Budhaditya Ghosh
Budhaditya Ghosh
Budhaditya is not the sort of guy you would take to be anyone extraordinary at first glance - he looks like your typical, desperate-for-a-girlfriend, bad-joke-cracking teenager, but worse. However, third-party accounts suggest that beneath this rough exterior lies a powerful mind. An aspiring lawyer with a good understanding of various social matters and a nose for current affairs, you can be assured that you will find intelligence and dedication lurking in his articles. He is, as of 2020, studying in the 12th standard and preparing for his CLAT, which he knows for sure he'll bomb.