Kalpakkam fast breeder nuclear reactor (Screengrab from YouTube)
SV Krishna Chaitanya
30th October 2020
CHENNAI: Indira Gandhi Centre for Atomic Research (IGCAR) director Dr Arun Kumar Bhaduri on Friday said India's first Prototype Fast Breeder Reactor (PFBR) was in the final stages of commissioning.
He was responding to a query by The New Indian Express on the sidelines of a rare press conference organised following the inauguration of an incubation centre. "The PFBR is in the final stages of commissioning. I can only say this much," he said.
On March 5, in response to a question in Parliament, the Union minister of state for atomic energy Jitendra Singh said the PFBR will be “commissioned and operationalised” in December 2021.
In an RTI reply to Chennai-based activist, Bharatiya Nabhikiya Vidyut Nigam Limited (BHAVINI), the organisation in charge of building and operating the PFBR, has attributed the delay in various stages of commissioning to multiple technical issues and challenges, primarily pertaining to the design and manufacture, as it is the first of its kind.
"The sequential commissioning comprises various stages. The application for the stage commensurate with the current status of the project has been submitted and permission granted by Atomic Energy Regulatory Board," reads BHAVINI's reply, a copy of which is available with The New Indian Express.
Meanwhile, the World Nuclear Industry Status Report 2020, which was released in September, has termed the PFBR as the most delayed project. It was supposed to be completed by 2010 but its startup date has been repeatedly pushed back.
In March 2020, the Parliamentary Standing Committee on Science and Technology, Environment, Forests and Climate Change outlined the “hope” that the Department of Atomic Energy (DAE) will be in a position to commission the PFBR at Kalpakkam near Chennai by the end of 2021, a timeline that accords with Jitendra Singh's statement in the Parliament.
The committee acknowledges the lengthy delay on this project, but advocates for completion, suggesting the PFBR will “transform” India’s nuclear energy program. That “transformation” might take longer than India’s nuclear establishment promised.
In the latest annual report published by BHAVINI, the chairman admits that within the organisation “a re-think is being done” about the capacity of the next fast breeder reactors and “based on the ongoing difficulties and experience generated during the entire ongoing commissioning phase of PFBR, it is being deliberated whether for the purpose of standardisation it may be prudent to retain them as 500 MWe units” in contrast to earlier proposals to build a design capable of generating 600 MWe.
The ongoing difficulties during the commissioning phase pertain to numerous problems involving various components of the PFBR, including electro-magnetic pumps, fueling machinery, and secondary sodium pumps. In addition to considering lowering the power level of future FBRs, the annual report also admits that “construction of these reactors is expected to commence, only after the power operation of PFBR, so as to ensure availability of adequate performance feedback /data from PFBR and correspondingly bringing about suitable incorporation of required design changes in the proposed FBRs.”
In contrast, the previous annual report had asserted that “construction of these reactors is expected to commence in 2021 by which time adequate performance feedback on full power operation from PFBR is expected to be available, for factoring in the proposed 600 MWe designs.”
The projected cost of the PFBR has also risen from the initially anticipated Rs 34.9 billion (US $463 million) -- first to Rs 56.7 billion (US $752 million) and currently to Rs 68.4 billion (US $907 million).