Perspective Energy Security AD 2050 – Nuclear Energy Hopes!


(Brig (retd) GB Reddi)

Nuclear energy offers tremendous prospects to achieve “Energy Security for AD 2050”. But, there are critical challenges to overcome including NSG admission breakthrough, timely technology breakthroughs, successful implementation of joint ventures, admission into Generation IV International Forum (GIF), assured uranium resources at optimum costs, financial resources etc.

The state of nuclear power generation is reviewed in outline. In 1964, the Indian nuclear power programme was launched (way ahead of China) with the building of the twin units employing Boiling Water Reactors (BWRs), with US assistance, which became operational in 1969.

Five decades later in November 2015, Nuclear Power Corporation of India Ltd (NPCIL) was talking of 14.5 GWe by 2024 as a target and 63 GWe by 2032 from 6.780 GWe today. And, the Atomic Energy Commission (AEC) is “talking about 500 to 600 GWe nuclear over the next 50 years or so” and predicts higher targets: 600-700 GWe by 2050, providing half of all electricity and export opportunities.

In May 2017, the Union Cabinet has given approval for construction of 10 units of the new indigenous 700 MWe Pressurized Heavy Water Reactors (PHWRs) – addition of 7.000 GWe.  Prior to the Cabinet announcement, NPCIL was planning to commence work on 16 new reactors by March 2017 –   8 x 700 MWe PHWRs MWe each (5.600 GWe) and 8 x  Light Water Reactors (LWRs) based on international cooperation — with Russia, France and the US — total capacity of 10.500 GWe.

As of 2016, NPCIL has 22 nuclear reactors in operation in 8 nuclear power plants (20 x PHWRs and 2 x 1000 Vodo-Vodyanoi Energetichesky Reactor – VVERs). Out of 22, 20 PHWR and BWR reactors belong to “Generation 2” status. Only Russian VVER 1000 reactors – water-water energy reactors – belong to “Generation 3”.

In addition, there are 7 reactors under construction (PHWRs – 2; PFBR -1; and VVERs -2) with generating capacity of 5.3 GWe with probable date of completion in 2023. Add to them, 41 reactors under planning stage to include: 6 x 1650 EPR; 12x AP 1000; 6 x 1000 VVERs; 14 x 700 PHWRs; 2 x 600 FBRs; and 1 x 300 AHWR (41.2 GWe).

Furthermore, National Thermal Power Corporation, Steel Authority of India Ltd, National Aluminum Corporation, Indian Oil Corporation, Oil and Natural Gas Corporation and Indian Railways have plans to set up nuclear power projects as joint ventures with NPCIL. In anticipation of the Atomic Energy Act amendment in 2016, Reliance Power Ltd, GVK Power & Infrastructure Ltd and GMR Energy Ltd were reported to be in discussion with overseas nuclear vendors including Areva, GE Hitachi, Westinghouse and Atomstroyexport.

In contrast, in 1970 only China started to build nuclear reactors. Currently, China has 33 nuclear reactors operating with a capacity of 28.8 GWe and 22 under construction with a capacity of 22.1 GWe. Additional reactors are planned, providing 58 GWe of capacity by 2020 with plans for 200 GWe by 2030 which will include a large shift to Fast Breeder reactor and 1500 GWe by the end of this century.

Next, it is critical to understand the technology developments of Nuclear reactors.  Nuclear reactors are classified as Generation I (early prototype – 1950 to late 1960), II (commercial power reactors: LWR, PWR, CANada Deuterium Uranium reactor (CANDU), VVER – 1970 to 1990), III (Advanced LWRs like ABWR, AP600, EPR – 1990 to 2010), III+ (Designs highly economical – 2010 to 2030) and IV (enhanced safety, minimal waste, proliferation resistant beyond 2030).

After starting with BWR, India progressively acquired technology expertise in Pressurized Water Reactor (PWR), CANDU; PHWR, LWR, VVER among others like 83 MW PWR for the INS Arihant submarine, uranium fuel cycle to supply fuel for LWRs – refining and conversion of uranium, which is received as magnesium diuranate (yellowcake) and refined to UO2, Fast Reactor Fuel Cycle Facility to close the FBR fuel cycle  – oxide fuel or carbide fuel to metallic fuel, depleted uranium oxide fuel pellets (from reprocessed uranium) and thorium oxide pellets made for PHWR fuel bundles etc.

The credit deservingly goes to scientists at Bhaba Atomic Research Center  BARC) who are  designing Gen III and Gen III+ technologies despite sanction from 1974 lifted after signing the Civil Nuclear Agreement with the USA in 2005.   BARC is currently engaged in development of 40 MWt fast breeder test reactor, a 500 keV accelerator was commissioned at BARC for research on accelerator-driven subcritical systems (ADS) as an option for stage three of the thorium cycle, conceptual design of an Indian Molten Salt Breeder Reactor (IMSBR) of 850 MWe which has potential to be used in stage 3 of the thorium program, Innovative HTR (IHTR) of 600 MWt for hydrogen production, and so on.

Furthermore, Indian heavy water plants and zirconium alloy components manufacturing facilities have consistently met not only the domestic requirements but also export commitments. The Indian fuel fabrication facilities are capable of manufacturing a wide range of nuclear fuel based on natural uranium, enriched uranium, plutonium, and uranium-233. Plants for treatment and disposal of various types of radioactive wastes have been set up and functional. The fuel reprocessing facilities for extracting plutonium from spent fuel of PHWRs are already operational. Indian industry has also been a supplier of high-quality nuclear equipment at highly competitive prices to the Indian programme. The leaders of LWRs are looking at new manufacturing platforms. India would be an important platform apart from China and South Korea, if India were to build LWRs.

However, there are four key challenges to overcome: inadequate financial resources; shortage of nuclear engineers; inadequate uranium reserves and industry to make the large forgings needed to build reactor pressure vessels. Financing is going to be the real problem.  Even Areva and Westinghouse are not in a position to finance six new reactors each for India.

Most important, India’s main strength lies in thorium reserves. The Atomic and Molecular Data Unit (AMD) has identified almost 12 million tones of monazite resources (typically with 6-7% thorium). It has an estimated 360,000 tones at 32 per cent – the highest of the world’s reserves —which can fuel nuclear projects for 2,500 years. A word of caution on availability of thorium reserves! Illegal sand mining along the coasts in Tamil Nadu by Shekar Reddy and his ilk could sooner than later exhaust the reserves. So, enactment of a stringent law and surveillance to prevent illegal mining is an imperative.

Ipso facto, the real constraint is availability of recoverable uranium reserves which is only 138,700 tons with production in 2015 at 11,398 tons as per official data.  Maximum recoverable uranium reserves are in Australia followed by Kazakhstan, Canada, Namibia, South Africa and Niger.

Hence, the option is to develop Advanced Heavy Water Thorium cycle (AHWR) in three stages. In Stage I, employ PHWRs fueled by natural uranium, and light water reactors, which produce plutonium. The uranium put into PHWRs — a technology India has mastered — can produce a huge inventory of plutonium, which can be used in FBRs.

In Stage II, use fast neutron reactors burning the plutonium with the blanket around the core having uranium as well as thorium, so that further plutonium (ideally high-fissile Pu) is produced as well as U-233. The breeder reactors need just a third of uranium that the PHWRs do, so it is possible to conserve uranium for many decades.

In Stage III, AHWR would burn thorium-plutonium fuels in such a manner that breeds U-233 which can eventually be used as a self-sustaining fissile driver for a fleet of breeding AHWRs. An alternative Stage III is molten salt breeder reactors (MSBR), which are believed to be another possible option for eventual large-scale deployment.

With a carefully planned programme, the available uranium can be used to harness the energy contained in non- fissile thorium. However, India’s PHWRs are currently operating at 50-55% capacity due to non- availability of uranium. Two years ago, they were operating at 80-85% capacity.

Indigenous nuclear research and development is quite laudable. The three research reactors – Apsara, Cirus and Dhruva – are excellent experimental facilities. India is also an emerging leader in the development of reactor and associated fuel cycle technologies for thorium utilization.

Longer term, the AEC envisages its fast reactor program being 30 to 40 times bigger than the PHWR program, and initially at least, largely in the military sphere until its “synchronized working” with the reprocessing plant is proven on an 18- to 24-month cycle. This will be linked with up to 40,000 MWe of LWR capacity, the used fuel feeding ten times that fast breeder capacity, thus “deriving much larger benefit out of the external acquisition in terms of LWRs and their associated fuel”. This 40 GWe of imported LWR capacity multiplied to 400 GWe via FBR would complement 200-250 GWe based on the indigenous three-stage program of PHWR-FBR-AHWR. Hence, thorium cycle reactors would only be commissioned after 2030 or later.

In 1985, the FBR programme was launched with the setting of a Fast Breeder Test Reactor (FBTR) at Kalpakkam. Based on 23 years of its successful operation, the development of 500 MWe Prototype Fast Breeder Reactor (PFBR) has been implemented. It is a pool type reactor using mixed oxide of uranium and plutonium as fuel. The coolant used is liquid sodium. These FBR systems produce more fuel than what they consume.  Even India’s 300 MWe AHWR has several advanced passive safety features, and goes beyond the requirements generally stipulated for the next generation nuclear power plants.

However, all is not promising as it appears on foreign collaboration and joint ventures after India signed Civil Nuclear Agreement with the USA in July 2005. Even the joint venture with Russia’s Atomstroyexport to build six more VVER reactors at Kudankulam and four more at Haripur after 2017 bringing the total to 12 is delayed. Similarly, other joint ventures are stalled to include: six reactors of  Areva, France at Jaitapur; six x AP 1000 reactors by Westinghouse;   in March 2009 GE Hitachi Nuclear Energy signed agreements with NPCIL and Bharat Heavy Electricals Ltd (BHEL) to begin planning to build a multi-unit power plant using 1350 MWe ABWRs; Korean APR-1400 reactors; and others.

Most important, the LWRs to be set up by foreign companies are reported to have a lifetime guarantee of uranium fuel supply. However, foreign reactor suppliers have put most plans on hold due to the possible implications of India’s Civil Liability for Nuclear Damage Act 2010.

Meanwhile, the NPCIL is setting up five further “Nuclear Energy Parks”, each with a capacity for up to eight new-generation reactors of 1,000 MWe, six reactors of 1600 MWe or simply 10,000 MWe at a single location. The five new energy parks include: Kudankulam, Gorakhpur Haryana, Kovvada, Jaitapur and Chhaya-Mithi Virdi.  According to sources, the second site to be allocated to the Russians at Kavali in Andhra Pradesh for its proposed nuclear power park will also have atomic reactors with an enhanced capacity of 1200 MW.

Let me highlight that the common perception is nuclear energy is high cost option. Of course, during the initial stages, major time and cost over runs have been reported. Once, the full three-stage thorium-fuel cycle goes on-line, it need not be so. Also, there are some who want India to only build indigenous designs and to keep foreign vendors out of the market. None can belie trust and confidence in AEC to do so; but it may result in time and cost over-runs, which must be avoided.

On the other hand, India must join the GIF set up to carry out the research and development to establish the feasibility and performance capabilities of the next generation nuclear energy systems. The selected systems are based on a variety of reactors, energy conversion and fuel cycle technologies. Their designs include thermal and fast neutron spectra cores, closed and open fuel cycles. The reactors range in size from very small to very large. Depending on their respective degree of technical maturity, the first Generation IV systems are expected to be deployed commercially around 2030-2040.

14 founding signatories are members of the GIF.  The active members include: Australia, Canada, China, European Atomic Energy Community (EURATOM), France, Japan, Korea, Russia, South Africa, Switzerland and the United States. Argentina, Brazil and the United Kingdom are inactive members but remain cognizant of the Forum’s activities.

Viewed in above framework, the road map ahead not only offers opportunities, but also challenges to overcome. The key challenge to overcome is to get admission as member to the Nuclear Support Group (NSG). After all, NSG membership provides access sophisticated technologies and nuclear materials and also for export and import in nuclear trade. China is opposed to India’s entry based on its status of non-signatory of Nuclear Proliferation Treaty (NPT). Even Pakistan is opposing India’s entry because it doesn’t want India to possess high end technologies in the nuclear field.

Perhaps, India may review the decision not to sign the NPT, if it is absolutely inescapable in the larger energy security interests. Simultaneously, India must also seek admission to the GIF.

Next, it is critical to fast track the feasibility of entering into mining agreements with countries that possess large uranium reserves like Kazakhstan, Namibia and Niger. Simultaneously, develop the mining of reserves in Kadapa district in Andhra Pradesh.

Not but not the least, mobilize and allocate adequate financial resources for undertaking new reactors projects but also creating academic infrastructure and experts to operate reactors and its associated ancillaries.

Finally, alongside the nuclear power generation plans, the focus should also concentrate on exploitation of “Shale Gas” recoverable reserves and exploration for additional reserves.

In sum, India energy scenario for AD 2050 AD offers bright prospects from exercising nuclear option to ensure shift to ‘clean energy’ medium besides creating employment opportunities and also export purposes to other countries. (Concluded)