‘India can become a global hub for nuclear supplies'

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Pvt sector is extremely competitive and cost-effective, says AEC chief.

The larger capacity growth will come from fast reactors as our indigenous uranium supply is not large. So, it essentially depends on how quickly we can go to the fast reactors as it has the ability to enhance installed capacity. — Dr S. Banerjee, Chairman, Atomic Energy Commission.


Rahul Wadke

Mumbai, Dec. 6

As Chairman of the Atomic Energy Commission, Dr S. Banerjee has many promises to keep and miles to go before the country can stand tall and say it is self-reliant in electricity generation.

In an exclusive interview to Business Line, Dr Banerjee, who has just taken over from Dr Anil Kakodkar, speaks of a large role for the private sector and the barriers that need to be scaled to make power available to all.

With the nuclear apartheid behind us, do you visualise a greater role for the private sector in civil nuclear power generation?

Nuclear technology is not a single technology. Development in each of the areas of a nuclear power station is as such being done with the help of the private sector. Private companies are not only participating in the building of our plants, based on our design, but are also taking it up as a technological challenge. Some think that all the work is done by the Government but it is not so.

Now the question of who in the private sector is competent in all aspects. The Indian private sector is extremely competitive and cost-effective. What needs to be done has to be done in steps/stages. India can become a global hub for nuclear supplies. But the right sort of push is required. Nuclear power is a growth sector and companies will latch onto the opportunity.

They will gradually learn the safety issues, technology and culture involvement that goes in running a plant.

What sort of opportunities do you see for the private sector?

We want the private sector to come into supply chain and ancillary development. Establishing a nuclear plant offers a tremendous amount of ancillary development. The plants require large control systems. Since we are also going for fuel making, the nuclear fuel complex is growing and this too will throw up opportunities.

If you see the overall global picture, the private sector contributes to the nuclear industry, but does not dominate it. As a matter of fact, in France, the process has been reversed: the Government does most of the things.

The country appears to have perfected heavy water technology. Do we need any more technological assistance for it?

We do not require any external technological assistance for the pressurised heavy water reactors. In fact, we are keen on exporting them. We can offer cost-effective reactors at $1,500/kW. Our 220-MW reactors can offer the same cost/ MW as that of the large reactors. Third world countries with small electricity grids can use them. For small– and medium–sized reactors India will have a definite advantage. But the process will take some years as countries that import these reactors would need fuel supply assurance from a third country as we do not have enough uranium fuel to export.

For light water reactors, we have the technology but not the equipment for building them, especially the large pressure vessels. But once we have experience in running them, we will also construct them.

Where does the country stand in terms of fuel reprocessing and enrichment?

Today, we already have undertaken enrichment but on a scale for specific needs. We have not set up enrichment plants to cater to 1,000 MW reactors, but we have the capacity that needs to be expanded. Plans are on to set up a commercial enrichment plant near Mysore, Karnataka. Essentially, it is an issue of expanding scale.

What are the thrust areas of the indigenous programme?

The larger capacity growth will come from fast reactors as our indigenous uranium supply is not large. So, it essentially depends on how quickly we can go to the fast reactors as these have the ability to enhance installed capacity.

This growth rate would be faster if we use a fuel which has a shorter doubling time. Doubling time means a reactor which would create fuel from fertile material after running an ‘n' number of years and which will also save fuel for another reactor. If we run a reactor for 10 years, it will have enough fuel to start another reactor. If the doubling time is shortened then the growth is speedier.

The target is to shorten this doubling time of fuel and it is possible with metallic fuel. Oxide fuel is a mixture of uranium and plutonium oxide. Oxide has a very high melting point, it is very stable and it has been standardised. Now, we want to push into metallic fuel which is an alloy fuel. It could be a binary alloy consisting of uranium and plutonium or a tertiary alloy having uranium, plutonium and zirconium.

Different types of alloys have different doubling time and also we have to take into consideration the safety factor from all angles and optimise conditions of fuel composition and manufacturing ability of these fuel.

A word on the future generation based on Thorium reactors?

Thorium is not a fissile material and it has to be converted so that it can be used as nuclear fuel. The fast reactor can convert thorium into uranium-233. Unless you have fast reactors, you cannot convert thorium into uranium in large quantities.

So fast reactors not only will add to installed capacity but will also help in the conversion of thorium. But at each step we will have to develop a new technology as thorium reactors have not been developed anywhere in the world. It could take another 10 years to develop such reactors.

(This article was published in the Business Line print edition dated December 7, 2009)
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