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 Table of Contents 
Year : 2020  |  Volume : 43  |  Issue : 2  |  Page : 116-119  

The saga of atomic energy in India: Why is nuclear power still subcritical?

Editor, Radiation Protection and Environment; Ex. Radiation Safety Systems Division, Bhabha Atomic Research Centre, Mumbai, Maharashtra, India

Date of Submission17-Aug-2020
Date of Acceptance17-Aug-2020
Date of Web Publication27-Aug-2020

Correspondence Address:
D D Rao
Editor, Radiation Protection and Environment; Ex. Radiation Safety Systems Division, Bhabha Atomic Research Centre, Mumbai, Maharashtra
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Source of Support: None, Conflict of Interest: None

DOI: 10.4103/rpe.rpe_42_20

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How to cite this article:
Rao D D. The saga of atomic energy in India: Why is nuclear power still subcritical?. Radiat Prot Environ 2020;43:116-9

How to cite this URL:
Rao D D. The saga of atomic energy in India: Why is nuclear power still subcritical?. Radiat Prot Environ [serial online] 2020 [cited 2023 Mar 25];43:116-9. Available from: https://www.rpe.org.in/text.asp?2020/43/2/116/293627

Author: M. R. Iyer

Publisher : Authors Press

Price : Rs. 1575/-

ISBN : 978-93-89824-89-6

Year of publication : 2020

Book Type : Policy and Professional

Number of pages : 395

Number of parts : 2

1st Part: 11 topics

2nd Part: Reprints of articles published

This book is authored by Dr. M. R. Iyer, a Radiation Safety Professional, Safe Guards Inspector, and a Prolific Scientific Writer, having decades of experience in Health Physics and Nuclear Physics activities ranging from research in Health Physics, Nuclear Physics, and development of Nuclear Instrumentation. He has served in several committees of regulatory bodies such as Atomic Energy Regulatory Board and BARC Safety Council and worked at IAEA, Vienna, as a Nuclear Safe Guards Instrumentation Specialist. This book is not a textbook for any university curricula but gives lucidly a very interesting insight into how the nuclear activities unfolded in India over the years and useful for nuclear professionals, policymakers, students of nuclear engineering, and new entrants into the department of atomic energy.

This book has two parts: one being on the title of this book and other is the collection of reprints of Dr. Iyer published in Industrial Economist (Part A) and in other media (Part B). First part has 98 pages divided into 11 chapters and covers entire nuclear fuel cycle activities. There is an annexure giving the timeline of atomic energy activities in India. Following are the excerpts and unique features of different chapters in groups. Wherever felt necessary, some of the text is copied as it is, to reflect mainly the depth of the content and also to show the excellence in which the book is written.

  Chapters 1–3: Historical Review of the Evolution of Atomic Energy Program in India, the Cautious Step Toward Asserting as a Nuclear Power, and the Onset of and the End of Cooperation and Development in Isolation Denial Regimens Top

The historical review of atomic energy program begins with the visionary role of Dr. Homi Bhabha, who was ahead of times and established Tata Institute of Fundamental Research (TIFR) in 1945, within a year of his writing a letter to Tata in 1944. In his letter, he stressed that “when nuclear energy has been successfully applied for power production, in say a couple of decades from now, India will not have to look abroad for its experts but will find them ready at hand.” Under Homi Bhabha, TIFR made remarkable contributions to Indian Science. It is great to find that Dr. Bhabha worked with renowned physicists such as Ralph Fowler (under whom he did doctoral studies in Theoretical Physics), Niels Bohr, Sir John Cockcroft, Paul Dirac, James Chadwick, and Blackett. Scientific and technological contributions made by Prof. Govind Swaroop, Dr. George Sudarshan, Prof. Siddiqui, Prof. Narasimhan, and Dr. P. V. S. Rao at TIFR were discussed. Dr. Bhabha followed up his vision after independence with Nehru which resulted in the creation of the Atomic Energy Establishment Trombay (AEET) on January 3, 1954, by the Government of India (GOI). The first indigenous Indian reactor APSARA was commissioned on August 4, 1956, with the fuel only coming from Harwell, U.K. Dr. Bhabha's personal friendship with Sir John Cockcraft enabled Indian physicists to undertake reactor physics calculations. The author has gone on to explain various stages such as fission physics experimentation by Dr. Ramanna, establishment of 40 MW CIRUS Research Reactor (1960), setting up of neutron spectrometers by Dr. P. K. Iyengar, and producing radiopharmaceuticals for diagnostic purposes. The successful cooperation of Canada–India nuclear program began with this 40 MW reactor and paved the way for the Indian PHWR program.

The nuclear power reactor program was explained under the heading of “Dawn of Nuclear Power Program” and author on to discuss how Bhabha shortlisted the BWR type first reactor to be imported from GE, USA, and from site (Tarapur site, 1960) selection to construction work (1964), solving of teething problems, and commissioning in 1969. However, Bhabha could not see this historical completion of power reactor as he passed away in an air accident in 1966. The Canadian PHWR reactor technology, cluster of reactors at RAPS, technology absorption, and agreement to that effect was entered into in the year 1964 and the construction began in 1966.

In the second chapter, the need for a nuclear deterrence for India and the country to assert as a nuclear power and the Pokaran Nuclear explosion (PNE) were dealt in detail. The underground PNE happened in 1974, and with that, the control regimens and embargoes came in from the Western countries (Canada backtracked PHWR construction and the USA stopped fuel supply). The NPT, NSG, and various other countries outside NPT going for nuclear deterrence were also discussed. In 1998, India conducted a series of underground nuclear bomb tests including a fusion device mainly to ensure the credibility of the deterrent and also sense that neighborhood country has gone ahead significantly in its technology. This proved right when Pakistan conducted its tests within 15 days after Indian tests. Chapter 3 deals with the end of international cooperation and India's development in isolation. Despite these hindrances, India demonstrated high degree of resilience and went ahead on its own to build up the nuclear infrastructure by constructing and commissioning of Dhruva Reactor (earlier R5, 100 MW Research Reactor), Zerilina Reactor, Purnima Reactor, Critical Facility, and PHWR Reactor Development.

  Chapters 4–6: Reprocessing Spent Fuel, Fast Reactor Program, and Waste Management Top

Reprocessing of irradiated fuel to separate plutonium from uranium and U-233 from irradiated thorium is the basic step required for initiating a fast reactor program. In this direction, a radiochemistry laboratory was set up to develop radiochemical procedures for the separation of Pu from irradiated uranium fuel, right in 1957. A Project Phoenix (Trombay Plutonium Plant) was given sanction in 1958; construction was started in 1961 and commissioned in 1964 for producing plutonium from the spent fuel from the CIR Reactor. This plant was shut down in 1974 for refurbishing, and for noninterruption of Pu production, a second plant PREFRE was set up and started in 1979 at Tarapur. A third plant KARP was also set at Kalpakkam in 1996. Fuel reprocessing group further developed chemical techniques in a laboratory scale for separating uranium-233 from irradiated thorium rods. This led to the construction of a 30 KW Research Reactor KAMINI fueled with U-233, which was commissioned in 1996 at Kalpakkam. Author has explained all the intricacies involved in the development of this complex chemical technologies. In fast reactor program, the basics involved in the three stages were explained clearly. A new center namely Reactor Research Centre (later named as IGCAR) was set up in 1971 for carrying out fast reactor research. Fast Breeder Test Reactor was commissioned in 1984. Author has given details regarding the termination of French cooperation in this area after the PNE tests, how the complete design was modified, setup of CORAL facility for reprocessing of Pu-U mixed carbide fuel, PFBR construction, and creation of a separate entity BHAVINI for PFBR operations and fast reactors. The DAE had started putting up plants for radioactive waste management – treatment, waste immobilization, and storage at Tarapur. These plants were modified and replicated in Trombay and in Kalpakkam where fuel reprocessing plants operate. Radioactive wastes from the nuclear reactors and reprocessing plants are treated and stored in engineered interim storage facilities at each site. Hence, the country has built up sufficient expertise to deal with the waste management problems arising out of operating fuel reprocessing plants.

  Chapters 7 and 8: Development of New Reactor Concepts and the Efforts Toward Getting Acceptance as a Nuclear Power and Removing the Shackles of Denial Regimens Top

Author began writing that BARC has completed many research projects in reactor technology, including design of AHWR, whose development being the most promising new reactor concept. AHWR combines both power production and generation of fissile materials, though operating in the thermal region. It has unique features with the option of using either low-enriched uranium or Pu-239 as the fissile component with Th-232 along with U-238 as the fertile components of the fuel simultaneously producing both fissile materials Pu-239 and U-233. After the operation of several fuel cycles, once the equilibrium is attained, nearly two-thirds of the power will be derived from U-233, thus enabling India to make use of its abundant thorium resources for energy production. The design of AHWR, which was conceptualized by Dr. Kakodkar and his team, incorporates several passive safety features which are claimed to ensure a high level of safety. AHWR design has been the subject of many review studies by the international agencies such as IAEA under innovative reactor designs and reputed research laboratories such as Brookhaven National Laboratory of the USA and is commended as an elegant concept of a reactor using Th-232. An AHWR critical facility of 100 W power to experimentally verify the AHWR design has been constructed, and it went critical in April 2008 which indicates that the fuel has been successfully designed and fabricated for AHWR. The BARC website carries information of construction of an AHWR simulator for design of control instrumentation which shows that most of the background work is already done. It was claimed that the safety features of this reactor are that there is no need to have exclusion distance of 1.6 km, which is a feature of all nuclear power plants in the country and thus can be operated safely without any impact on public domain. According to Five-Year Plan (2007–2012), site work for AHWR would be started along with the fleet of PHWRs and PFBRs and the first 300 MWe AHWR in 2009. However, of late, this project is not talked about much and is not included in the power profile of the country. Possibly, the reason for delay in the project could be the ready availability of the infrastructure and supply of the seed materials of Pu-239 and U-233. Other research concepts discussed are nuclear submarine program, 900 MW Indian Pressurized Water Reactor, and 600 MWt Innovative High Temperature Reactor.

Author described his views on how the US has realized that instead of containing India after the nuclear tests in 1998, it is better to work through sophisticated diplomatic and political channels rather than the isolation. The USA and other countries started gradually removing the sanctions imposed on India including BARC and ISRO. Finally, it led to the Bush-Singh initiative on the Indo-US collaboration in 2005. This was followed by a joint statement on strategic partnership, emphasizing agreement on civil nuclear cooperation. Moreover, for once it looked that India was successful by boldly carrying out the 1998 tests, to bring upon itself a bargaining power. Soon after 123 Nuclear Agreement, US Hyde Act, exemption for India from signing NPT, etc., have happened in a few years. Author discussed various aspects such as civil nuclear cooperation, IAEA safe guards, civilian and safe guarded nuclear reactors, admission to NSG, USA strategy, and Indian strategy.

  Chapters 9 and 10: Nuclear Power – Why it Remains Subcritical Still? and Nuclear Electricity May Go Critical Perhaps Beyond 2050 Top

Author has lauded the progress made by India in the indigenous development of nuclear technology and also the strategic capability in the defense of the country. However, it is a feeling that the progress was snail paced despite the happening of Indo-US nuclear cooperation and strong indigenization in terms of installed nuclear power. It remained subcritical producing not more than 4% of the power. The realistic analysis of current status of various programs such as PHWR reactor program, PWR imported reactors, fast reactors, and uranium fuel availability is presented based on various inputs from PIB reports, WANO, PRIS database, press statements of NPCIL, and DAE. As an example, following is one paragraph drawn from the beginning of topic, PHWR program. It is interesting to study the progress of nuclear electricity generation in India. In the 1990s, DAE coined the stimulating slogan 10,000 MW by the turn of the century. At that time, the installed capacity was only around 1000 MW. However, when the century turned up, the capacity increased only to 2500 MW. After almost two decades, into the century, we have yet to attain that target. In those days, the mainstay was only our PHWRs of 220 MW and no imported reactors were over the horizon except the talk about importing Russian reactors, which was nowhere near fruition thanks to the American pressures arising out of NPT embargo issues. Thus, to attain a target of 10,000 MW by 2000, involved the setting up of around 40 PHWR reactors in a decade or so. This could have been seen as not attainable, either from the point of view of infrastructure or the known uranium resources. The analysis shows that nuclear power may become “critical” only sometime in the later second half of this century. However, right now, it is “subcritical.” As per the information given from the DAE through PIB, the nine reactors under construction will provide 6700 MW and the 12 reactors for which GOI approval exists can provide 9000 MW. If we consider that the plants under construction will be completed by 2030 and the approved plants can come on stream later in the 2030s, a total of 15,700 MW additional may be expected to be added. Together with the current installed capacity of 6820 MW, it brings us to a total of 22,520 MW. This includes 10 PHWRs under construction of which six PHWRs approved and the rest from four Russian reactors. We can possibly add 500 MW from the PFBR-1 fast reactor. This leads to a realistic projection of 23,020 MW by the 2030s, an estimated 2.7% from nuclear power at that time (based on total anticipated electricity generation by 2030 at 846,482 MW). According to the WANO analysis, by 2050, India plans to meet 25% of electricity from nuclear, presumably looking forward to the successful commercialization of the second stage and entry into the third stage using thorium resources.

The analysis shows that, by the time (2050) the fast reactor technology becomes commercially viable, the installed capacity of electricity from other sources would have become so high (exceeding 1000 GW) that, to catch up to a modest 10% nuclear electricity quickly, it might take commissioning some 10 units per year, a formidable if not an impossible task.

  Chapter 11: The Way Ahead Top

Various tasks are suggested toward making the nuclear program critical in about three decades. The countries which expanded their nuclear capacity such as Korea, France, Japan, and China have adopted the rapid multiplication method of the same type of reactor technology development and use of technology transfers from other countries. Post-2005 agreements, the lack of thrust in technology induction by making use of the avenues provided by the various agreements is discussed in this chapter. The efforts to install substantial nuclear capacity were focused by import of large number of PWR reactors from abroad but with no attempt at technology induction side by side, which was the thrust given by Dr. Bhabha. Today, even these have not borne fruit. Hence, is the case in ironing out suitable international collaborations making use of the opening up in the area of fast reactors? He feels that now, we have fallen back to develop these ourselves in isolation, though lots of international collaborations are taking shape around in this area during the last decade. Ignoring the scope provided by the agreements and continuing to slog on in isolation may not accelerate the progress of nuclear power. In this, the Chinese model is worth examining taking note of the quick progress in technology induction achieved by them in making their program robust in the last one decade. Author has also touched upon the talk of privatization of nuclear business somewhere in 2009 and also its zero progress.

Part II of the book contains reprints of authors articles in Industrial Economist (31 articles) and other media (35 articles).

In my view, author has put in all his professional experience in the DAE and international exposure at IAEA spanning, together over five decades in preparing this book. To sum up, the book gives past, present, and future of Nuclear (Power) India. I sincerely hope that nuclear professionals, nuclear policymakers, and researchers, or whosoever refer this book, will get immensely benefited from the contents of this book.


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