India plans to commission the first-of-its-kind Prototype Fast Breeder Reactor (PFBR) early in 2013, kickstarting the second stage of its nuclear programme.
The 500 MWe reactor, being developed by the Indira Gandhi Centre for Atomic Research (IGCAR) at Kalpakkam in Tamil Nadu, uses a unique mix of uranium and plutonium which significantly enhances the capability to generate electricity per tonne of fuel utilised.
The indigenously-developed PFBR is at an advanced stage of construction under the aegis of state-owned Bhartiya Nabhikiya Vidyut Nigam (BHAVINI).
"The construction will be completed by September and fuel will be lowered by December. We expect commissioning by early 2013," IGCAR Director S C Chetal said here.
The technology developed by scientists at IGCAR was unique and the Indian PFBR would be the first such nuclear plant to be commissioned.
Some other countries, including Korea, are also developing fast breeder reactors but they may be commissioned only in 2025.
India plans to have at least five more 500 MW fast breeder reactors by 2020, two of which could be set up at Kalpakkam.
Critics of the breeder reactors cite high costs for such plants, particularly for reprocessing the spent fuel.
"Breeder reactors are costly and unreliable. Reprocessing of plutonium is more costly than storing spent fuel," according Frank von Hippel, Professor at Princeton University and co-chair of International Panel on Fissile Materials.
On concerns over use of highly combustible liquid sodium as a coolant in the reactor, Chetal said adequate measures have been taken to keep the chemical in an inert environment.
The state-of-the-art PFBR has inbuilt safety features and an array of sensors to detect any minuscule leak of sodium, which may prove hazardous, he said.
IGCAR has been successfully running a 13MW Fast Breeder Test Reactor for the last 27 years and it has been a test bed for new technologies developed at the research facility.
Last year, the life of the FBTR was extended by about another 20 years upto 2030 at 50 per cent operational capacity.
A fast reactor fuel cycle (FRFC), also being set up in Kalpakkam for the reprocessing of spent fuel from fast breeder reactors, is expected to be commissioned by 2016.
On the external front, a unique structural wall has also been erected around the area and the adjoining Kalpakkam township as a measure to protect against a possible tsunami.
The wall can withstand tsunami 50 per cent stronger than the one that hit the Tamil Nadu coast on December 26, 2004.
India is pursuing a three-stage nuclear power programme with a closed fuel cycle, which includes pressurised heavy water reactors, breeder reactors and advanced reactors.
The breeder reactors will use the spent fuel of heavy water reactors as fuel, while the advanced reactors will be fuelled by thorium.