India's first commercial fast breeder reactor is almost complete and will be ready in 2014, the head of India's nuclear programme has told a meeting of top level nuclear ministers.
Speaking at The International Ministerial Conference on Nuclear Power in St Petersburg, Russia, last week, Ratan K. Sinha, chairman of India's Atomic Energy Commission said: “Our first commercial fast breeder reactor is at an advanced stage of construction at Kalpakkam. All the major equipment has been erected and the loading of dummy fuel bundles at peripheral locations is in progress. Indigenously developed mixed oxide type fuel pins for the first core are under manufacture and progressive delivery.”
India's Prototype Fast Breeder Reactor (PFBR) will have a capacity of 500MWe be one of only three commercial-sized sodium-cooled fast operational reactors in the world when complete. The Russian BN-800, which is also sodium-cooled, is reported to be scheduled for commissioning at the end of 2014. The BN-800's predecessor, the BN-600 at Beloyarsk, has a capacity of 600MW.
Fast breeder reactors are able to produce more fissile material than they consume by “breeding” more fuel from normally non-fissionable isotopes. Experimental reactors have been developed since the 1960s around the world, but, after deposits of uranium were found to be larger than anticipated, only Russia developed the design further. Interest in fast breeder reactors has increased recently because of their capacity to burn high level nuclear waste and diminishing stocks of uranium.
India is developing fast breeder reactors because it has the world's second largest reserves of thorium, which can be used as a nuclear fuel in conjunction with fissile material in fast reactors. Although, the first iteration of India's fast breeder reactors will use MOX fuel, the Indian Government plans to use the surplus plutonium and uranium-233 to set up subsequent reactors. This will enable the eventual development of reactors that use thorium and the usage of India's large thorium reserves.
However, fast reactors are not without challenges and experts remain divided about their safety. The quicker movement of neutrons in fast reactors means unpredicted changes happen faster than in conventional thermal reactors, runaway reactions are more likely to happen and coolants such as liquid sodium are difficult to handle.
Construction of the PFBR at Kalpakkam started in 2004 and commissioning was originally scheduled for 2010. According to Bharatiya Nabhikiya Vidyut Nigam, the company producing the fast breeder reactor, 95% of the plant had so far been constructed and commissioning is set for September 2014.