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India’s Three Stage Nuclear Programme

India’s Three Stage Nuclear Programme

About India’s Three-stage Nuclear Power Program

  • India’s 3 stage Nuclear Power Program was conceived soon after Independence to meet the security and energy demands of Independent India.
  • India’s Uranium reserves constituted a very small amount, but India has a very huge amount of thorium reserves. Hence to attain independence in the energy domain it was conceived to develop a 3 stage nuclear power program utilising the abundant thorium reserves.
  • India’s 3 stage Nuclear Power Program was devised in 1954.
  • Homi J Bhabha, the father of India’s Nuclear program, devised India’s Three Stage Nuclear Power Program.

Objectives Of The Programme

  • India has only 2% of World’s Uranium reserves, on the other hand, India has 25% of the World’s Thorium reserves.
  • Since India was not part of some of the International Nuclear treaties, India was prevented from taking part in international trade in the Nuclear field.
  • India has a huge population and growing economy, to meet the energy demands India had to rely heavily on imports of coal, and crude oil.
  • Hence India had to devise methodologies to be self-sufficient in meeting energy demands arising due to a burgeoning population and economy; the 3 stage Nuclear Power Program was one of the answers to it.

Three Stage programme | India’s Three Stage Nuclear Programme 

Stage I – Pressurized Heavy Water Reactor [PHWR]

  • In the first stage of the programme, natural uranium fuelled pressurized heavy water reactors (PHWR) produce electricity while generating plutonium-239 as by-product.

[U-238 → Plutonium-239 + Heat]

[In PWHR, enrichment of Uranium to improve concentration of U-235 is not required. U-238 can be directly fed into the reactor core]

[Natural uranium contains only 0.7% of the fissile isotope uranium-235. Most of the remaining 99.3% is uranium-238 which is not fissile but can be converted in a reactor to the fissile isotope plutonium-239].

[Heavy water (deuterium oxide, D 2O) is used as moderator and coolant in PHWR].

  • PHWRs was a natural choice for implementing the first stage because it had the most efficient reactor design [uranium enrichment not required] in terms of uranium utilisation.
  • India correctly calculated that it would be easier to create heavy water production facilities (required for PHWRs) than uranium enrichment facilities (required for LWRs).
  • Almost the entire existing base of Indian nuclear power (4780 MW) is composed of first stage PHWRs, with the exception of the two Boiling Water Reactor (BWR) units at Tarapur

Stage II – Fast Breeder Reactor

  • In the second stage, fast breeder reactors (FBRs)[moderators not required] would use 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 fuel transmutes to additional plutonium-239.

Why should Uranium-238 be transmuted to Plutonium-239?

  • Uranium-235 and Plutonium-239 can sustain a chain reaction. But Uranium-238 cannot sustain a chain reaction. So it is transmuted to Plutonium-239.

But Why U-238 and not U-235?

  • Natural uranium contains only 0.7% of the fissile isotope uranium-235. Most of the remaining 99.3% is uranium-238.
  • 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 surplus plutonium bred in each fast reactor can be used to set up more such reactors, and might thus grow the Indian civil nuclear power capacity till the point where the third stage reactors using thorium as fuel can be brought online
  • As of August 2014, India’s first Prototype Fast Breeder Reactor at Kalpakkam had been delayed – with first criticality expected in 2015, 2016..and it drags on.

Stage III – Thorium Based Reactors

  • A Stage III reactor or an Advanced nuclear power system involves a self-sustaining series of thorium-232-uranium-233 fuelled reactors.
  • This would be a thermal breeder reactor, which in principle can be refueled – after its initial fuel charge – using only naturally occurring thorium.
  • According to replies given in Q&A in the Indian Parliament on two separate occasions, 19 August 2010 and 21 March 2012, large scale thorium deployment is only to be expected 3 – 4 decades after the commercial operation of fast breeder reactors. [2040-2070]
  • As there is a long delay before direct thorium utilisation in the three-stage programme, the country is now looking at reactor designs that allow more direct use of thorium in parallel with the sequential three-stage programme
  • Three options under consideration are the Accelerator Driven Systems (ADS), Advanced Heavy Water Reactor (AHWR) and Compact High Temperature Reactor

Challenges | India’s Three Stage Nuclear Programme 

  • Genuine problems of Nuclear technology includes safety and waste management. Incidents like Chernobyl, Three Mile Island, Fukushima are serious case of concern.
  • Complete phase out of nuclear power generation for the fear of nuclear accident would be a wrong move. If nuclear energy is generated adhering to the highest standards of safety, there is less possibility of catastrophic accidents.
  • Land acquisition and selection of location for Nuclear Power Plant (NPP) is also major problem in the country. NPP’s like kudankulam in Tamil Nadu and Kovvada in Andhra Pradesh have met with several delays due to the land acquisition related challenges.
  • As India is not a signatory of NPT and NSG, nuclear supply is severely contained by sanctioned against India. This situation has changed after 2009 waiver and bilateral civil nuclear energy agreements with many countries.
  • Reprocessing and enrichment capacity also required boost in India. For this India needs advanced technology to fully utilise the spent fuel and for enhancing its enrichment capacity.
  • On the front of Infrastructure and Manpower needs, India has worked very hard for development of Industrial infrastructure to manufacture equipment and skill development. Many Universities and institutes provide engineering manpower for NPP.

Prototype Fast Breeder Reactor at Kalpakkam

  • The Prototype Fast Breeder Reactor (PFBR) is a 500 MWe fast breeder nuclear reactor presently being constructed at the Madras Atomic Power Station in Kalpakkam, India.
  • The Indira Gandhi Centre for Atomic Research (IGCAR) is responsible for the design of this reactor.
  • As of 2007 the reactor was expected to begin functioning in 2010 but now it is expected to achieve first criticality in March-April 2016.
  • Construction is over and the owner/operator, Bharatiya Nabhikiya Vidyut Nigam Limited (BHAVINI), is awaiting clearance from the Atomic Energy Regulatory Board (AERB).
  • Total costs, originally estimated at 3500 crore are now estimated at 5,677 crore.
  • The Kalpakkam PFBR is using uranium-238 not thorium, to breed new fissile material, in a sodium-cooled fast reactor design.
  • The surplus plutonium or uranium-233 for thorium reactors [U-238 transmutates into plutonium] from each fast reactor can be used to set up more such reactors and grow the nuclear capacity in tune with India’s needs for power.
  • The fact that PFBR will be cooled by liquid sodium creates additional safety requirements to isolate the coolant from the environment, since sodium explodes if it comes into contact with water and burns when in contact with air.

Present State of India’s Three-Stage Nuclear Power Programme

  • After decades of operating pressurized heavy-water reactors (PHWR), India is finally ready to start the second stage.
  • A 500 MW Prototype Fast Breeder Reactor (PFBR) at Kalpakkam is set to achieve criticality any day now and four more fast breeder reactors have been sanctioned, two at the same site and two elsewhere.
  • However, experts estimate that it would take India many more FBRs and at least another four decades before it has built up a sufficient fissile material inventory to launch the third stage.

Solution to India’s Fissile Shortage Problem – Procuring Fissile Material Plutonium

The obvious solution to India’s shortage of fissile material is to procure it from the international market.

Favourable Conditions for Plutonium Trade | India’s Three Stage Nuclear Programme 

  • As yet, there exists no commerce in plutonium though there is no law that expressly forbids it.
  • In fact, most nuclear treaties such as the Convention on the Physical Protection of Nuclear Material address only U-235 and U-233.
  • This is because Plutonium has so far not been considered a material suited for peaceful purposes.
  • The Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) merely mandates that special fissionable material — which includes plutonium — if transferred, be done so under safeguards.
  • Thus, the legal rubric for safeguarded sale of plutonium and safety procedures for moving radioactive spent fuel and plutonium already exists but it is not too complicated as in case Uranium.
  • Japan and the U.K. who are looking to reduce their stockpile of plutonium will certainly be happy to sell it to India.

What compelling reason does the world have to accommodate India?

  • India’s FBRs that are tasked for civilian purposes and can be brought under international safeguards in a system similar to the Indo-U.S. nuclear deal.
  • FBRs and large quantities of fissile material can easily be redirected towards weapons programme. But India has shown no inclination to do so until now.

Obstacles | India’s Three Stage Nuclear Programme 

  • The U.S. could perhaps emerge as the greatest obstacle to plutonium commerce.
  • cannot prevent countries from trading in plutonium, it has the power to make it uncomfortable for them via sanctions, reduced scientific cooperation, and other mechanisms.
  • The strong non-proliferation lobby in the U.S. would not like a non-signatory of the NPT [India] to open and regulate trade in plutonium.
  • The challenge for Delhi is to convince Washington to sponsor rather than oppose such a venture.




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