Missing deadlines derail India's nuclear programme

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Missing deadlines derail India's nuclear programme

Tuesday, 01 January 2019 | Kumar Chellappan | CHENNAI

While the Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO) will begin its preparations in 2019 for sending manned mission to space, the Department of Atomic Energy, the body which administers India’s nuclear energy programme, ended the year in disappointment.

The 500 MW Fast Breeder Reactor coming up at Kalpakkam, which was expected to generate power in 2010 failed again to meet the deadline set by the founding fathers of the Fast Breeder Reactor Programme. Even after a delay of eight years, there is no sign of the Fast Breeder Reactor coming to life as the DAE honchos had claimed in 2005 itself that India was the global leaders in the technology.

The work for the FBR had begun at Kalpakkam, near  Chennai in 2004. By 2005 May, the raft where the reactor would be built was ready and the reactor vault was installed by 2008. The designers of the reactor had claimed that it would be an earthquake resistant reactor , capable of withstanding massive quakes up to 9 in the Richter scale. The scientists who headed the reactor programme got superannuated one by one even as the reactor programme remained in limbo.

The Fast Breeder Reactor was expected to generate cheap power (at the rate of Rs 2.50/unit) from a mixed oxide fuel made from Plutonium-239 (an isotope of Plutonium) recovered from processing spent fuel and natural uranium. Once the FBR starts production of power, the natural uranium would get converted into plutonium, which means that the reactor would generate more fuel than what it consumes. This bred fuel could be used to run more such reactors and the DAE had planned four more FBRs at Kalpakkam itself. All these programmes and dreams have come to a standstill.

The Indian nuclear energy programme itself is in crisis with the two modern hi-tech 1000 MW reactors at Kudankulam in Tamil Nadu remaining in shut down mode most of the time. The first unit of the reactor which was commissioned in 2014 and the second unit which was commissioned in 2016 have not worked for more than 150 days at a stretch, say insiders in Kudankulam. There is something seriously wrong with the reactors at Kudankulam which need a comprehensive investigation. No new reactors anywhere in the world have faced such technical faults,” said a senior engineer who has commissioned some of the nuclear reactors of the Nuclear Power Corporation of India Ltd.

He said the Indian nuclear engineers seem to have bitten more than they could chew with the Fast Breeder Reactor at Kalpakkam. “There is no possibility of this reactor generating power in the near future. Even if it generates power, it would not be at an economical rate,” he said.

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