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India: Two 1983 articles that warned against fast breeder reactor programme

by Praful Bidwai, 10 September 1999

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The Times of India, New Delhi, August 31, 1983

The Fast Breeder Reactor

I-DAE’s Strange Nuclear Priorities


The department of atomic energy has asked the government for the huge sum of Rs. 750 crores to build a large “prototype fast breeder reactor” (PFBR) with a power generating capacity of 500 MW. A “feasibility report”, put together by the DAE’s PFBR working group and recently submitted to the Centre, calls for an early investment of this magnitude, including a hefty Rs. 92.5 crores in foreign exchange. The project, it claims, will be on stream by 2000 A.D.

Even by the rather special standards the DAE tends to set for itself, this is a strange request. For the much smaller fast breeder test reactor (FBTR) at Kalpakkam, with a thermal output of 42.5 MW (of which a third will be electrical), is nowhere near completion. The current target date for its full commissioning—revised and postponed several times over the eleven years that have passed since construction commenced—is the end of 1984.

More Delay Likely

But the FBTR is likely to be delayed even further. By present indications, the last of the crucial pre-commissioning operations—the charging of molten sodium coolant—will be months behind schedule. This means that the next set of steps, such as achieving criticality and final commissioning, will take the FBTR project into 1985.

This will consequently delay by a much longer time, such as five to ten years, the generation of detailed performance data from the FBTR. This data is an indispensable input for the design of any larger reactor. It is simply impossible for the DAE to extrapolate from the old designs supplied by the French for the FBTR (with an electrical output of only 12 to 15 MW) and pull off a workable design for a 500 MW reactor.

And yet the DAE has proposed precisely such a scaling up by a factor of 30 or more—all at one go. Even if possible, such an attempt would be irrational and, as will be argued later, fraught with a number of technical, economic and environmental problems which the DAE has shown no capacity whatsoever to master.

But to start with, no country in the world has attempted a high jump from 15 to 500 MW in fast breeders, since it involves dealing with an unmanageably large number of unknowns in an extremely hazardous, accident-prone and expensive system which becomes more and more unwieldly as it grows in size.

An accident in a fast reactor is far more probable and much deadlier than in a conventional water-cooled nuclear reactor. A fast reactor uses a highly fissile fuel (plutonium mixed with natural uranium). The chain reaction is caused and sustained by fast, highly energetic neutrons which are not “moderated” or slowed down as in a conventional reactor based on “thermal neutrons”. It generates intense heat which is removed by the coolant—typically, a molten metal such as sodium. The sodium in turn transfers the heat to water to produce steam which drives a turbine to generate power. The reactor is also called a “breeder” as it produces more fissile material than it consumes.

The fast reactor is an attempt at taming the bomb. It is more difficult to design or build and considerably more difficult and risky to operate than a conventional “thermal” reactor. It is also at least twice as expensive as the latter, megawatt for megawatt.

Even countries with a higher technological capability than India’s and with a much longer experience with nuclear power and with larger (600 to 1300 MW) nuclear-thermal reactors, such as the U.S., USSR, West Germany, France and Britain, have not risked leapfrogging from the 10 to 50 MW range directly to the 500 MW size fast reactor.

But the DAE has proposed such a jump even though it cannot design or operate a conventional water-cooled thermal reactor anywhere near that size and through its performance in respect of the smaller 200 to 230 MW range reactors of the CANDU (Rajasthan and Kalpakkam) type has been far from satisfactory.

Significantly, the DAE’s proposal for the PFBR comes at a time when the rest of the world is pruning, or soft-pedalling on, fast reactor development, on techno-economic as well as environmental grounds. Britain, for instance, has slashed its fast reactor R and D programme. In the U.S., the 350 MW Clinch River breeder, which has hung fire for 12 years, remains mired in uncertainty. Uncharacteristically long delays dog the French and Soviet fast reactor programmes as their costs sky-rocket. Fast breeders are no longer regarded as the technology of the future. They are fast taking a back seat in energy R and D programmes the world over. They are on a hopelessly slow track.

Specious Pleas

What is the DAE’s main argument for its ambitious fast breeder programme? It is three-fold: first, that India’s resources of fossil fuels are limited and may not last beyond the 21st Century. Secondly, the country is relatively poor in uranium but rich in thorium deposits: thorium can be used as a fuel in a fast reactor along with plutonium reprocessed from the spent fuel of water-cooled conventional nuclear reactors. And finally, that the DAE can design, build and successfully operate such a system, containing its capital costs to only one-and-a-half times those of conventional nuclear reactor.

All these arguments are specious. The first one not only underestimates India’s coal and oil reserves and the likelihood of future discoveries, but also exaggerates the future (21st century) demand for one particular form of energy—electricity. It makes no allowance for long term changes in the technology of energy production and consumption. It also rules out the probable contribution of other energy sources, in particular the renewable ones. Besides, it fails to establish the need, leave alone the urgency, for the chosen alternative, the fast reactor.

The thorium-cycle concept is based on equally abstract and a prioristic premises, starting as it does from the desirability, not the feasibility, of using thorium as a substitute for uranium. No one has yet demonstrated the feasibility of the large-scale use of thorium in a breeder or evaluated its technical or economic performance. The argument for it cannot be that the fast breeder is preferable because the fuel costs of thermal-nuclear reactors are likely to rise substantially. For that would totally negate the DAE’s old and only, justification for the conventional nuclear reactor vis-à-vis fossil fuel power plants, viz, that uranium fuel costs are much lower than those of coal or oil. It is simply illegitimate to hold both that low fuel costs make the conventional nuclear reactor cheaper than fossil fuel stations and that high fuel costs of the former justify the fast reactor.

Finally, in view of the DAE’s far from glorious performance as a designer and operator of relatively simpler nuclear power plants, its claimed capacity to design or build a more complex and hazardous system such as the fast breeder is open to question. Even less sustainable is its claim that it could build the 500 MW fast reactor at one-and-a-half times the cost of a thermal reactor. Not only has the DAE not built or adequately designed any reactor of comparable sizes; nowhere in the world has the capital cost of the fast breeder been lower than twice that of the conventional nuclear reactor.

This may itself be an underestimate. As a well-documented study shows, the capital cost of the West German 300 MW prototype plant SNR-300 is five times that of a comparable conventional nuclear reactor. Besides, the DAE’s track record in respect of cost overruns has been appalling. In the case of FBTR itself, the costs incurred so far exceed the original estimate by a factor of 2.3.

Given the fact that both the Tarapur and CANDU type of stations are essentially based on imported designs, the DAE’s design capacity is open to doubt and as yet unproven. Even taking to account the much smaller FBTR, the DAE is yet to demonstrate that it is capable of designing, building and operating any kind of fast reactor on its own. It received detailed designs for the FBTR directly from the French. These were based on a reactor named “Rapsodie,” which repeatedly ran into problems and had to be closed down last year. “Rapsodie” used as fuel a mixture of 30 percent plutonium (containing 85 percent U-235) in the oxide form.

Problem Fuel

The FBTR will use a carbide fuel, a mixture of 70 percent natural uranium. No one, to whose data and experience the DAE has access, has used this kind of fuel for any length of time. This fuel has its own problems. It has a high reactivity and a lower melting point than the oxide fuel does. Even more significant, the reactivity of this fuel tends to rise rapidly, and, in principle, uncontrollably with temperature, unlike in conventional or certain other kinds of fast reactors.

This makes for a potentially dangerous or even explosive situation in the case of routine leaks, mechanical or electrical equipment failure, power excursions or loss of coolant—accidents that are far from uncommon in fast reactors. —To be concluded—

o o o

The Times of India, September 01, 1983

II—Reactor Cost

High, Risk Heavy


Simply put, the economic argument against the fast breeder is that while its capital costs are at least twice as high as those of the conventional nuclear reactor, its fuel costs are no lower. The best of the existing studies of costs (based on U.S., British and French data) suggest that despite the presumed gain through plutonium breeding, the fuel costs of the fast reactor are of the same order as those of the conventional reactor. This makes the total power generating costs of the breeder twice as high or higher.

There is no national basis for hoping that these will fall. On the contrary, there is every possibility that they will raise. As recent surveys have shows, plutonium reprocessing can add 30 percent or more to the cost of power. These and the costs of waste handling and disposal are likely t increase, not decrease.

Strong as it is, the economic reasoning is doubly reinforced by arguments deriving from the hazards of the technology and the environmental consequences. Because of the very nature of the fission in a fast reactor (caused by fast neutrons), a number of aspects of its working, including the behaviour of the fuel and the coolant, remain only imperfectly understood. Thus, operational problems, some of them unpredictable, are routine in the fast reactor.

Major Accidents

In fact every single one of the world’s dozen or so fast reactors has been plagued by a whole series of them. There have been literally hundreds of minor “incidents” (read accidents) in these plants year after year. At least three last reactors have had to be permanently shut down on account of major accidents—a record that is glaringly worse than that of the conventional nuclear reactor. So serious is the fast reactor’s potential for a core meltdown that many reactors have had to be designed specifically to include a “core-catcher”, a contraption whose function it is to prevent the disintegrated parts of the core from going critical on their own.

A fast breeder reactor can easily turn into a bomb under certain conditions. A disruption of its core can occur in a fraction of a second. Even a minor leak of sodium can create enormous problems since the metal reacts explosively with water or air. The interaction between fuel and coolant is also fraught with problems. An official U.S. report focuses on some of the problems with sodium in a liquid metal cooled fast breeder reactor (LMFBR).

“The sodium-heated steam generator system is one of the most critical of the non-nuclear elements of an LMFBR plant, owing to the demand on it for extremely high reliability of the sodium to steam/water boundary and the necessity to make the system capable of safely accommodating any failure of this boundary and the resulting sodium/water reaction that could occur all to be accomplished with assured functional performance and tolerable equipment and operational costs.

“Despite the intensive steam generator development in the LMFBR community throughout the world since the 1950s, the assurance that the designs now being implemented will in fact be adequately reliable for commercial plants is clouded by the difficulties with leaks, tube vibration and flow instabilities that prevented sustained operation of United States Fermi plant steam generators in the 1970s, the numerous small leaks that have delayed start up of he British “FR since 1974 and the large leak sodium water reactor incidents that have occurred in the Russian BN-350 beginning in 1973”.

Dangerous sodium leaks have occurred in most fast reactors in the world. For instance, the French reactor, Phenix was closed down for most of 1975-76 and between October 1976 and June 1977 and again last year owing to such leaks.

From leaks to power excursions to metal fatigue (which can occur when metal is subjected repeatedly and suddenly to high stresses), to a disruption of one part of he core, any number of factors can combine to produce a serious accident in them has the inherent tendency to escalate rapidly. While in the normal thermal reactor, massive leaks of coolant will shut down the system, in fast reactors this can tend tom increase the reactivity and put the chain reaction out of control-– in seconds.

One major source of the potential hazard posed by the fast reactor is that unlike a thermal reactor, it contains several hundred critical masses of plutonium or uranium. A critical mass”, brought together and left to itself, will start as uncontrolled chain reaction and become a bomb. A bomb is in fact just that. The critical mass for plutonium and uranium-235 is of the order of10 kg. If a small part of the core is disrupted or broken and compacted together, it can go critical on its own and make the reactor supercritical. This phenomenon, called “recrticality”, is among the greatest hazards of the fast reactor.

All these problems and hazards are sought to be controlled through various and increasingly complex mechanisms. But two problems arise here: the more complicated the system, the more vulnerable it becomes. And also more difficult to control. Secondly, with increasing size, costs skyrocket. To control these, compromises are struck with the safety of the system. This is happening with the French 1200 MW “super-Ohenix” reactor series, the new designs for which seem to dispense with the entire containment (concrete shell), thus destroying the possibility of giving the public some sort of protection against core meltdowns or big leaks of radioactivity.

The problem of safety engineering get worse as the size of the reactor increases, thanks to a phenomenon connected with the coolant, called the positive void coefficient of reactivity. In simplified terms, this means that the probability of reactivity and core temperature increasing and leading to a serious accident rises greatly as the total volume of the reactor increases.

This makes designing, building and operating, say, a 500 MW reactor far more complex and qualitatively different from constructing and running a 40 to 50 MW fast breeder. It is different from scaling up a chemical plant, or a thermal reactor.

The fast reactor also poses much greater hazards. The consequences of a serious accident in it tend to be much more devastating than those of a mishap in a conventional nuclear reactor. In fact they are too awesome to contemplate. A sober, recently published analysis of a potential mishap at Kalkar, a 300 MW W. German fast reactor shows that under certain not-uncommon weather conditions, there could be as many as 1.25 lakh early deaths, and another 8.1 lakh cases of cancer and lung morbidity in the case of a serious accident involving the vaporization of 10 percent of the core.

The DAE’s proposal for a 500 MW SPFBR must be seen in the light of all these faces. It asks the government to make a commitment of hundreds of crores of rupees on a system that will be at least twice as expensive as the conventional nuclear reactor, power from which is already much more expensive than from coal. Should we opt for a power trajectory that is fraught with great hazards is not proved to be safe or controllable and which can cause a great loss of human life and widespread ecological destruction in cases of an accident?

The fast reactor system is not proved to be necessary or safe for power generation. Worse, it will lunch India on “a spiral”, an irreversible high-technology course that demands more and more investment in related and downstream plants (reprocessing and waste management) and involves increasingly elaborate technique but greater hazards.

Weak Arguments

The argument advanced so far by the protagonists of the fast reactor programme are too weak to counter the thrust of the arguments against. Even the (often implicit) reasoning that India must undertake such a programme in order to keep abreast with this leading edge of technology” is no more than a feeble plea for huge funds. For the fast breeder does not constitute anything like a leading edge, and its potential cannot justify anything more than a modest R and D programme.

The case for the PFBR is further weakened when seen in the light of its opportunity costs. Any large expenditure on fast reactor R and D, such as even a tenth of the Rs. 750 crores the DAE is asking for, inevitably means less money for other R and D programmes in more relevant and more immediately promising fields, whether they are photovoltaic, hydroelectricity, methanol synthesis, coal-based power generation or bio-mass. It is unnecessary to spell out the implications of this except by pointing out that if even a fraction of nuclear R and D resources were to be diverted to research on more promising, potentially cheaper and environmentally benign energy sources, India could quickly acquire the world leadership in the field.

Support to the dearer, more hazardous and less promising PFBR programme will, on the other hand, effectively destroy such a possibility. —(Concluded)—


The above articles from The Times of India are reproduced here educational and non commercial use. These articles were digitised for the sacw document archive from old papers of Praful Bidwai.