Nuclear plant near Chennai all set for milestone

M Ramesh Chennai | Updated on July 01, 2014

The PFBR will have a blanket of a mixture of natural Uranium andThorium. - Photo: V GANESAN   -  THE HINDU

₹5,677-crore PFBR plant to be loaded with liquid sodium

Far removed from any protest-din, a nuclear power plant 40 km south of Chennai, is all set to achieving a milestone – loading of liquid sodium. The operators of the nuclear power station, which is half the size of the first unit of the Kudankulam nuclear power plant, are awaiting the green signal from the Atomic Energy Regulatory Board, the country’s nuclear power regulator.

For the 500 MW ‘prototype fast breeding reactor’, loading of 1,750 tonnes of the coolant liquid sodium is practically the last big event before the unit starts generating electricity.

This is an important milestone because nuclear establishments in all countries are watching India’s PFBR, the first plutonium-based fast breeder reactor anywhere in the world.

The ₹5,677-crore techno-economic demonstration plant, which a Government of India-owned company is setting up, is of crucial importance to the country’s nuclear plans. Its success would set the ball rolling for a clutch of ‘fast breeders reactors’— at least six of them have been planned. Two of the six would come right next door to the PFBR.

Fast breeder reactors are a big deal for Uranium-scarce India because they produce more nuclear fuel than they eat up. You blanket the ‘core’, where the fuel is simmering, with natural Uranium and the neutrons flying out of the core convert the Uranium into Plutonium – a valuable fuel.

You blanket it with Thorium, you end up with Uranium – 233, a variety of Uranium that has split-able atoms. (Heat is produced when the atoms’ nuclei are split by a runaway neutron, and the heat is converted into electricity.)

The PFBR will have a blanket of a mixture of natural Uranium and Thorium. So apart from electricity, you also get nuclear fuels. India has a fourth of all the Thorium discovered on this planet, so it is wise to use it gainfully. Unfortunately, Thorium is useless as a fuel until it is converted into Uranium-233, for which you need the fast breeder reactors.

India could not have built fast breeder reactors earlier. These fast breeders need a lot of Uranium, or Plutonium. The country does not have have huge quantities of Uranium and no other country would give us after the Pokhran-I incident in 1974. Plutonium does not occur in nature, it has to be produced in a nuclear reactor.

So, the country had to wait for four decades to have sufficient stock of Plutonium to fire up the fast breeders.

A senior official of Bharatiya Nabhikiya Vidyut Nigam Ltd said the PFBR will start producing electricity in 4-5 months, after loading the liquid sodium.

But then, the schedule would entirely depend upon the regulator, AERB who won’t rush through matters as it would want to double check the safety measures.

But a little delay will not matter as it is still a prototype.

Published on July 01, 2014

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