India to build prototype thorium reactor

Publish date: September 25, 2003

The Indian Union cabinet cleared the Department of Atomic Energy’s proposal to set up a 500 MW prototype of the next generation fast breeder nuclear power reactor (FBR) at Kalpakkam, thereby setting the stage for the commercial exploitation of thorium as a fuel source.

Although uranium is the only naturally occurring fissile element directly usable in a nuclear reactor, the country only has 0.8 per cent of the world’s uranium reserves and may have to depend on imports in the future. On the other hand, India has around 32 per cent of the world’s reserves of thorium, and with a carefully planned program, indigenously available uranium can be used to harness the energy contained in non-fissile thorium to be used in the FBRs. Though the country’s atomic power program had produced only a little over 2,000 MW of nuclear energy over 34 years, the Indian Planning Commission has set an ambitious target of producing around 20,000 MW of nuclear power by 2020.

India has a so-called “three-stage nuclear program”. In the first stage, plutonium is created in its pressurized heavy water reactors (PHWRs) and extracted by reprocessing. In the second stage, fast breeder reactors (FBRs) use this plutonium in 70-percent MOX-fuel to breed uranium-233 in a thorium blanket around the core. In the final stage, the FBR’s use thorium-232 and produce uranium-233 for other reactors.

The first stage has been realized with India’s 10 nuclear power plants. The second stage is only realized by a small experimental fast breeder reactor (13 MW), at Kalpakkam. This reactor has a history with a lot of problems (as has been the case with the 10 nuclear reactors). This reactor is on top of a list of dangerous reactors in the country, according to a safety assessment of India’s Atomic Energy Regulatory Board. The reactor has a lack of safety measures and cooling systems. Ministry of Science &