Atomic energy programme represents significant step towards energy self-reliance, security

Prime Minister Manmohan Singh on Friday said India's atomic energy programme represented a very significant step towards technological and energy self-reliance and security.

Dr. Singh was commissioning the country's third power reactor spent fuel reprocessing plant at the Bhabha Atomic Research Centre (BARC) at Tarapur, about 100 km from Mumbai. He activated a switch which, in turn, started chopping the first spent fuel bundle in the new facility.

Calling it a historic occasion, Dr. Singh said: “This is a significant milestone in our country's three-stage indigenous nuclear programme. I heartily congratulate the scientists and engineers who were involved in the design, construction and commissioning of this unique complex and state-of-the-art facility. This is yet another instance that once we make up our mind, India can do anything.”

Construction on the new plant began five years ago. With a 100-tonne annual capacity, it will reprocess spent fuel from indigenous nuclear power plants to be used for fast breeder reactors. “Given the advanced status of our indigenous programme and the capabilities of our scientists and engineers, we can now confidently utilise the new opportunities that have been created with the opening up of international cooperation in the field of nuclear energy,” the Prime Minister pointed out.

Dr. Singh referred to the vision of the founding fathers of India's nuclear programme, Jawaharlal Nehru and Homi Bhabha, which was to achieve mastery of the fuel cycle, and use the country's vast and abundant thorium resources in advanced nuclear power reactors. “Reprocessing of spent fuel is key to our three stage indigenous nuclear power programme. Reprocessing is essential in the transition to the second stage of fast breeder reactors which we have begun, and in the subsequent third stage using thorium in advanced reactors.”

The Prime Minister said: “We have come a long way since the first reprocessing of spent fuel in India in 1974 at Trombay. The recycling and optimal utilization of uranium is essential to meet our current and future energy security needs.”

“Outstanding example”

Tarapur is “an outstanding example of nuclear energy's capacity to provide the clean, safe and economical energy that our nation requires for its development and growth. This site is home to the oldest boiling water reactors in the world. Here we have built our own reactors as well. And we have subsequently added the entire range of facilities covering the entire fuel cycle from fuel fabrication to reprocessing and waste immobilisation,” Dr. Singh said.

Srikumar Banerjee, Chairperson, Atomic Energy Commission (AEC), said the commissioning of the fuel reprocessing plant was a landmark event. In 1966, the plant for reprocessing spent fuel from the research reactor was first set up at Trombay. After that, two more power reactor fuel reprocessing facilities at Tarapur and Kalpakkam were set up. This new addition would enhance the capacity to meet the demands of India's fast reactor programme.

Closed fuel cycle

India chose the closed fuel cycle, taking into account the “modest” uranium resources in the country. The growth in the nuclear power generation capacity hinged on the growth in the fast reactor programme, he said. To facilitate rapid growth in reprocessing activities, the Nuclear Recycle Board (NRB) was recently constituted in the Department of Atomic Energy. This plant was the first one commissioned under its aegis.

Another reprocessing plant, under construction at Kalpakkam, was expected to be commissioned in 2013. Also there was a programme of making large-sized reprocessing plants, the first of which would be located at Tarapur itself, and the site selection was already approved. Dr. Banerjee said. The pre-project formulation was done and the final report would be submitted to the government by year-end. The proposed plant would integrate all processes on a single campus.

The spent fuel, which is encased in an alloy zirconolite, is first chopped into small pieces and dissolved in nitric acid to remove the cladding, and the unused fuel, that is spent uranium and newly formed plutonium, is extracted from it in nitrate form. The remaining high level radioactive waste is vitrified and kept in multilayered canisters for further storage. The reprocessed fuel is sent in oxide form to be reused in fast breeder power reactors.

The entire automated process is carried out in heavily encased special grade stainless steel-floored cells which are sealed with massive doors. Each of the four cells has a complex system of piping and chambers. Spent fuel from the reactors in Kalpakkam, Rajasthan and Narora, apart from the two units at Tarapur, will be processed here.

The vitrified blocks are kept in a separate facility. Currently waste is stored in a large vault, one-fourth the size of a football field at Tarapur which has enough capacity to store the lifetime waste of two 540-MW reactors, Dr. Banerjee said.

Interim storage

However, he clarified, this was not a permanent storage and was only an interim arrangement. Geological repositories would be the permanent solution for waste storage but they had to be seismically stable and have a rock mass which doesn't have cracks or fissures and which is in the nature of solid granite. Clay is also a good option and suitable for long term repositories. “We will take a little more time to identify these repositories,” he said.

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