India Nuclear Spotlight- Prototype Fast Breeder Reactor

//India Nuclear Spotlight- Prototype Fast Breeder Reactor


A breeder reactor is a nuclear reactor that generates more fissile material than it consumes. Breeder reactors achieve this because their neutron economy is high enough to create more fissile fuel than they use, by irradiation of a fertile material, such as uranium-238 or thorium-232 that is loaded into the reactor along with fissile fuel. Breeders were at first found attractive because they made more complete use of uranium fuel than light water reactors, but interest declined after the 1960s as more uranium reserves were found, and new methods of uranium enrichment reduced fuel cost.

The Prototype Fast Breeder Reactor (PFBR) is a 500 MWe fast breeder nuclear reactor presently being constructed at the Madras Atomic Power Stationin Kalpakkam, India. The Indira Gandhi Centre for Atomic Research (IGCAR) is responsible for the design of this reactor. The facility builds on the decades of experience gained from operating the lower power Fast Breeder Test Reactor (FBTR). Originally planned to be commissioned in 2012, the construction of the reactor suffered from multiple delays. As of February 2019, criticality is planned to be achieved in 2020.

The PFBR is currently constructed by The Bharatiya Nabhikiya Vidyut Nigam Limited (BHAVINI) is a wholly owned Enterprise of Government of India under the administrative control of the Department of Atomic Energy (DAE). Once the PFBR goes into commercial power production, BHAVINI will be the second power utility in India after Nuclear Power Corporation of India (NPCIL), to use nuclear fuel sources to generate power.

The Kalpakkam PFBR is using uranium-238 not thorium, to breed new fissile material, in a sodium-cooled fast reactor design. The power island of this project is being engineered by Bharat Heavy Electricals Limited, largest power equipment utility of India. The surplus plutonium (or uranium-233 for thorium reactors) from each fast reactor can be used to set up more such reactors and grow the nuclear capacity in tune with India’s needs for power. The PFBR is part of the three-stage nuclear power program.

India has the capability to use thorium cycle based processes to extract nuclear fuel. This is of special significance to the Indian nuclear power generation strategy as India has one of the world’s largest reserves of thorium, which could provide power for more than 10,000 years, and perhaps as long as 60,000 years.

The design of this reactor was started in the 1980s, as a prototype for a 600 MW FBR. Construction of the first two FBR are planned at Kalpakkam, after a year of successful operation of the PFBR. Other four FBRs are planned to follow beyond 2030, at sites to be defined.


India’s Three-stage Nuclear Power Programme

The commercial operation of PFBR is a very important part of Stage II of “India’s three-stage nuclear power programme”.

India’s three-stage nuclear power programme was formulated by Homi Bhabha in the 1950s to secure the country’s long term energy independence, through the use of uranium and thorium reserves found in the monazite sands of coastal regions of South India. The ultimate focus of the programme is on enabling the thorium reserves of India to be utilised in meeting the country’s energy requirements. Thorium is particularly attractive for India, as it has only around 1–2% of the global uranium reserves, but one of the largest shares of global thorium reserves at about 25% of the world’s known thorium reserves. However, thorium is more difficult to use than uranium as a fuel because it requires breeding, and global uranium prices remain low enough that breeding is unnecessary.

Summary of Three-Stage Nuclear Program

Stage I: Use natural uranium to fuel pressurized heavy water reactors (PHWRs). The byproduct, Pu-239, of these reactors are key for Stage 2.

Stage II: Develop fast breeder reactors (FBRs) to produce excess Pu-239 which will then be convert Th-232 to fissile U-233.

Stage III: Build thorium-based reactors that can be refueled using India’s thorium reserves, which are converted to U-233 inside the reactor.


Developing Stage II FBRs is the goal for the next 4-5 decades in order to produce enough fissile material to begin Stage III. In fact, technological barriers to thorium reactors are likely less of a challenge than the material deficiency of having insufficient fissile material. A global trade in plutonium is a potential method to increase fissile material stores.

An Advanced Heavy-Water Reactor (AHWR) is being designed currently as a 300 MW reactor that uses thorium-based fuel to decrease the effect of limited fissile material. These reactors are proposed as both an intermediate step towards immediate nuclear energy goals and also an important research centre for the future large-scale construction of thorium-based reactors in the later parts of this century. The AHWR is projected to be functional around 2020 although no reports of the start of construction have appeared which suggests a longer time-frame before the AHWR becomes reality.


FBRs have long been the promised land for nuclear energy, given their potential to greatly reduce the radioactive waste management burden besides facilitating the extraction of a much greater quantum of energy from extant uranium resources by ‘breeding’ more fissile material (fuel) than they consume. In the Indian scheme of things, they are also the pathway to large-scale thorium utilization in the third stage.

India has the capability to use thorium cycle based processes to extract nuclear fuel. This is of special significance to the Indian nuclear power generation strategy as India has one of the world’s largest reserves of thorium, which could provide power for more than 10,000 years, and perhaps as long as 60,000 years.

BHAVINI is currently working towards commissioning of the primary sodium system, which will be followed by fuel loading and then approach towards first criticality. The Commercial FBR design is a significant modification over the baseline PFBR with a view to reducing capital costs and construction time, while increasing safety and plant life. In comparison to PFBR, the Commercial FBRs are envisioned to see a 25% reduction in material inventory, simplified fuel handling, optimal shielding, the use of a more economical grade of austenitic stainless steel, enhanced burn-up and a higher plant load factor throughout their operating lives.

Indeed, with PFBR, all that DAE really needs is to demonstrate safe full power operation. Neither power generation at competitive rates nor a high-breeding ratio is really a goal for PFBR. As such, BHAVINI has already begun construction of a site assembly workshop and electrical substation for the two Commercial FBRs. Preliminary layout drawings are being studied by BHAVINI’s engineers who had earlier been involved in the erection and installation of PFBR. Work on the Fast Reactor Fuel Cycle Facility, which will close the fuel cycle for PFBR by reprocessing its spent fuel, is also proceeding quickly. The only piece of the puzzle that needs to fall into place is the PFBR itself.

2019 India Nuclear Business Platform will take place on Nov 13-14 in Mumbai, India. We will discuss about the PFBR project latest status at Session 2 “Next Generation Technology”. To learn the first-hand insights on Indian Nuclear Programme from the local nuclear stakeholders:

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Author: Vincent Xu. APAC Account Manager (Nuclear). 

By |2019-09-04T11:18:49+08:00September 4th, 2019|industry-insights|0 Comments