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Safer future for Indian reactors

Prototype ready; will last longer, won?t need radiation safety zone, reports Reshma Patil.

india Updated: Dec 24, 2006 01:40 IST

Inside the high-security Bhabha Atomic Research Centre (BARC) off Mumbai’s northern fringe, nuclear scientists are designing next-generation nuclear reactors with a target lifespan of 100 years. Apsara, the oldest research reactor, turned 50 this year and reactors worldwide usually survive 40 to 60 years.

They are also currently trying to convince atomic regulatory experts that a prototype 300 MW reactor — under design since the ’90s — can be operated, for the first time, without the mandatory protective barrier of a 1.6-km no-man’s land or radiation exclusion zone.

The site search and safety review for the prototype are currently going on.

“A 100-year lifespan is one of our reactor design objectives. It is achievable,” Srikumar Banerjee, BARC director, told Hindustan Times in an exclusive interview. “We also want to scientifically prove that the prototype reactor is safe enough not to need an exclusion zone. Advanced safety features would ensure there will be no accident or, in case of an accident, no question of atmospheric dispersion of radiation.”

At a time when the India-US nuclear deal has focused attention on the potential import of nuclear reactors to power energy demands, Banerjee emphasised that BARC — with over 4,000 scientists — is simultaneously ensuring that indigenous effort on reactor life management, safety and economics “never slackens”.

“Now, even coal-sufficient states like West Bengal and Jharkhand want nuclear power plants,” said Banerjee, adding that nuclear power is the best sustainable alternative to avoid turning into one of the world’s worst polluting nations as electricity consumption rises. “India’s huge energy demand needs additional reactors, indigenous and imported… there is no
conflict.”

The prototype 300 MW Advanced Heavy Water Reactor (AHWR) will be the world’s first power reactor to use thorium-based fuel, with ‘passive’ or automated safety features that minimise human operations. Ompal Singh, secretary, Atomic Energy Regulatory Board (AERB), said pre-licensing review of the prototype is underway. “The issue of the exclusion zone will be taken up in the next detailed licensing review. Globally, nuclear scientists have similar goals for future technology.”

Banerjee said the aim is to start construction during the 11th Plan period. “The AHWR is totally innovative. The construction plan is ready,” said Banerjee. “The International Atomic Energy Agency has also given it favourable comments.”

Email Reshma patil: reshma.patil@hindustantimes.com


CHAIN REACTION

The future

Nuclear reactors with a lifespan of 100 years. At present, they last 40 to 60 years.

No need for the 1.6-km radiation exclusion zone. Advanced safety features will ensure there is no accident. In case there is, there will be no radiation dispersal.

300 MW Advanced Heavy Water Reactor, world’s first power reactor to use thorium-based fuel. It will have minimum
human operations.


Radiation fear after uranium theft

A container packed with radioactive material has been stolen from the Central Coalfields Ltd’s Rajrappa washery in Hazaribag, 80 km from Ranchi in Jharkhand. “It carries uranium and the radiation could have an adverse effect in an area of 1.5 km,” Chief Minister Madhu Koda said. Central Mines and Planning Development Institute chief S. Chaudhary claimed: “It will not have any impact till the seal is broken. The radioactive ash analyser contained 300-milli-curie uranium and was the size of a needle-tip, sealed in a steel enclosure. It was placed in a lead container for further protection.”