India’s domestic uranium reserves are small and the country is dependent on uranium imports to fuel its nuclear power industry. Since early 1990s, Russia has been a major supplier of nuclear fuel to India. Due to decreasing domestic uranium reserves, electricity generation from nuclear power in India declined by 12.83% from 2006 to 2008. Following a waiver from the Nuclear Suppliers Group (NSG) in September 2008 which allowed it to commence international nuclear trade, India has signed bilateral deals on civilian nuclear energy technology cooperation with several other countries, including France, the United States, the United Kingdom, Canada, and South Korea. India has also uranium supply agreements with Russia, Mongolia, Kazakhstan, Argentina and Namibia.
In recent years, India has shown increased interest in thorium fuels and fuel cycles because of large deposits of thorium (518,000 tonnes) in the form of monazite in beach sands as compared to very modest reserves of low-grade uranium (92,000 tonnes). Kazakhstan is the largest supplier of uranium to India providing 5,000 tonnes during 2015-19.
India’s Department of Atomic Energy (DAE) believes that the adoption of a closed fuel cycle is necessary for the efficient use of uranium resources, reduction of high-level waste (HLW) and large-scale utilisation of its thorium reserves. Since India’s three-stage nuclear programme (Figure 1) envisages the creation of a fast breeder reactor (FBR) fleet as a stepping stone to sustainable thorium use in thermal breeders, DAE is scaling up front-end and back- end activities.
The three-stage programme involves reactors using natural uranium and enriched uranium in Stage 1, plutonium-driven FBRs in Stage 2 and thorium-232/ uranium-233 cycle based ‘thermal breeders’ in Stage 3. The FBRs of the second stage will be loaded with plutonium and reprocessed uranium (RU) from the first stage as fuel. After sufficient FBR capacity has been built up via a closed uranium-238/plutonium-239 cycle, Th-232 will be introduced in the blanket regions of FBRs to breed U-233. This U-233 will serve as fuel for Stage 3 thorium-based breeders.
DAE already operates industrial-scale fuel cycle activities for its Stage 1 fleet of U-235-based reactors which comprises pressurised heavy water reactors (PHWRs) and a few light water reactors (LWRs).
Nuclear Fuel Cycle in India
India’s programme grew amidst years of isolation from international nuclear trade. As a result, DAE has expertise across the nuclear fuel cycle, including mineral exploration, mining and processing, heavy water production, fuel fabrication, reprocessing and managing waste. India is self-sufficient in producing heavy water, zirconium alloy components and other materials and supplies for PHWRs. It also has enrichment capability which it is now looking to expand in a new facility.
The goal is to have 22GWe of Stage 1 plant in place by 2032 (up from 6780MWe now), and several hundred GWe of Stage 1-3 nuclear capacity in place by the second half of the 21st century.
Even though India now has access to global uranium resources and has seen a marked increase in its own domestic uranium reserves, it believes a once-through cycle will not fulfil the energy security role expected from India’s nuclear programme. So spent fuel is seen as a vital resource in India, not waste.
DAE expects to extract sixty times more energy from its uranium resources by successfully cycling it thrice through a fleet of FBRs in Stage 2 on the way to unlocking the potential of its thorium reserves. FBRs will also play a role in the transmutation of minor actinides (MAs), and India’s demonstration plant for actinide separation is already operational. Once accelerator driven sub-critical system (ADSS) technology becomes mature, DAE thinks dealing with alpha-level HLW will become less of an issue.
With its closed cycle approach, DAE expects to greatly reduce the volume of HLW meant for final disposal, by transmuting minor actinides into fission products and long-lived fission products into nuclides with short half-lives.
Closed cycles do not preclude the need for final waste disposal, so investigations into a geological repository are also underway in India. Waste from reprocessing also exhibits a significantly lower level of radioactivity, which after a century declines faster than the radioactivity in used nuclear fuel.
The Nuclear Fuel Cycle supporting the nuclear power programme covers exploration, mining, fuel fabrication, heavy water production, fuel reprocessing and waste management. Following were the activities of DAE in this programme sector:
Exploration and research relating to atomic minerals needed for the Nuclear Power Programme of the country are carried out by the Atomic Minerals Directorate for Exploration and Research (AMD).
Uranium and thorium are the resource minerals for the Nuclear Power Programme. The Public Sector Undertakings of DAE, responsible for mining and processing of uranium ore and minerals sands (which contain thorium and rare earth elements) the Uranium Corporation of India Ltd. (UCIL) and the Indian Rare Earths Ltd. respectively showed marked improvements in their performance.
3.Heavy Water Production:
The Heavy Water Board runs seven of the eight heavy water plants installed in the country to meet the heavy water requirements of the Indian reactors.
4.Nuclear Fuel Fabrication and Development:
The Nuclear Fuel Complex (NFC) at Hyderabad meets the fuel and zircaloy requirements of all the nuclear power reactors in the country. In addition, NFC manufactures stainless steel tubes for industrial applications. The fuels for the research reactors were fabricated at BARC which also continued its pursuit of the development of new fuels for advanced reactors.
5.Fuel Reprocessing & Waste Management:
The Fuel Reprocessing Programme of BARC is focused on the recovery of fertile material from spent fuel after it is discharged from the research/power reactors and safe management of the radioactive wastes from nuclear facilities.
India’s uranium reserves were boosted recently by the discovery of the Tummalapalle uranium mine in Andhra Pradesh, which has the potential to be among the largest uranium mines in the world. India has uranium supply agreements with various countries such as Russia, France and Kazakhstan to import the majority of its uranium needs.
India has huge thorium reserves which could potentially power its thorium reactors for hundreds of years to come. This forms the basis of its plans for the third stage, the large-scale deployment of thorium reactors. However, thorium technology continues to be a long-term goal rather than an immediate option for the country.
In terms of uranium required for operational reactors as well as reactors planned for the near future, India looks set to continue importing uranium, with a recent agreement with Australia currently in the process of being ratified by the its parliament. Further, any reactor supplied by foreign vendors come with an assured supply of fuel. Thus, fuel is unlikely to be an inhibiting factor for India’s projected reactors through to 2050.
India operates a closed fuel cycle designed to make maximum use of its limited uranium resources, act as a plutonium guarantor for its strategic programme if need be and to be a key element in its envisioned three-stage nuclear programme. According to Anil Kakodkar, former chair of the AEC, “India considers a closed nuclear fuel cycle of crucial importance for implementation of its three-stage nuclear power programme,” the third stage being the long-term objective of tapping vast energy available in thorium resources in India. Kakodkar confirms that “this is central to India’s vision of energy security and the government is committed to its full realisation through the development and deployment of technologies pertaining to all aspects of a closed nuclear fuel cycle.”
2019 India Nuclear Business Platform will take place on Nov 13-14 in Mumbai, India. Dr. Anil Kakodkar will give a speech on “How and why collaboration with certain international suppliers has succeeded in India and ingredients for successful future collaborations” at the Keynote Session. To learn more first-hand insights on Indian Nuclear Programme from the local nuclear stakeholders:
Author: Vincent Xu (APAC Account Manager), Nuclear Business Platform.