Inside Hyderabad13 September 2017
Debalina Ghoshal gives a profile of the activities at India’s Nuclear Fuel Complex in Hyderabad.
The nuclear fuel complex (NFC) in Hyderabad, India, a major industrial unit of the Department of Atomic Energy (DAE), caters to India’s nuclear energy programme. The NFC was established in 1971and its main functions are:
- Uranium refining and conversion
- Zircaloy production
- Fuel fabrication
- Seamless tubes, fast breeder reactor sub-assemblies and special materials
- Fabrication of critical equipment
- Waste management, health and safety
Manufacturing uranium dioxide for use as a fuel for power reactors began in the early sixties, when it was noted that uranium metal was not an ideal fuel for nuclear power reactors due to its poor thermal cycling, irradiation behaviour and high chemical reactivity.
For the Zerlina reactor, India’s indigenously developed reactor, India fabricated two tonnes of uranium dioxide in 19 rod cluster-type elements. This led to the decision to develop half the initial core for the first Pressurised Heavy Water Reactors (PHWRs) at Rajasthan. This led to the creation of a full-scale facility for fuel fabrication at NFC Hyderabad, where uranium dioxide-based fuels would be produced as well as reactor components. Fuel production in NFC suffered great deal due to the lack of uranium, which could only be supplied from Jadugoda. However, since the Indo-US nuclear deal in 2009 and the Nuclear Suppliers’ Group (NSG) waiver, India has started to receive uranium from various countries.
What happens at the NFC?
NFC Hyderabad is unique in many ways. It is a complex where uranium concentrates and zirconium mineral are processed at the same location, to produce finished fuel assemblies and zirconium alloy tubular components for supply to the nuclear power industry. At the plant, yellowcake is converted into ceramic-grade natural uranium oxide; enriched uranium hexafluoride is converted into enriched uranium oxide; zircon sand is fabricated into zircaloy components; and uranium dioxide is made into sintered pellets and fuel assemblies. The natural uranium oxide and enriched uranium oxide fuels are manufactured here through the classical ‘powder-pellet’ route.
NFC has also established a facility for the production of core subassemblies and components for the prototype fast breed reactor (PFBR), amongst which are hexagonal channels. It uses hex-to hex pilgering (a type of rolling milling) to ensure uniform cold work across the cross section. The NFC has also developed expertise in designing and manufacturing special purpose equipment for pilgering, honing, sintering, welding, machining and final assembly.
Apart from this, NFC Hyderabad also manufactures seamless tubes in different grades of materials for strategic applications, and for the space and defence industries as well as the DAE. These include truss rod assemblies, hydraulic tubing for light combat aircraft, special grade copper blanks for Prithvi and Nag missiles, missile casings, special grade seamless tubes for nuclear submarines, and seamless tubes for advanced ultra supercritical boilers and Brahmos.
NFC Hyderabad has claimed that its high- temperature-resistant nickel-alloy material, Inconel 718, will be used in ISRO’s manned mission to the moon.
Achievements and future plans
According to N Saibaba chief executive of NFC, India needs 750t of fuel to operate its nuclear reactors. In April 2016, reports came in that NFC had achieved a world record: it produced 1503t of nuclear fuel in 2015/16, although its nominal capacity is 850t. This is to demonstrate NFC’s capacity – and also to prepare to cater for a planned nuclear capacity of 16,700MW to be installed by 2030-2031.
In future NFC Hyderabad plans to achieve a fuel production capacity of 2000t annually.
A second NFC is being set up in Kota, Rajasthan by NFC Hyderabad, which is expected to produce 800-1000t of fuel per year. Together the two NFCs are expected to meet the country’s fuel requirements. In April 2016, Russia’s JSC Tvel supplied NFC Hyderabad with 30t of pellets in order to manufacture fuel for the Rajasthan power plant.
The government of India said that it would provide Rs30 billion ($451.9 million) every year for power production and implement a new Act to enable NFC to collaborate with other public sector undertakings in developing new power plants.
NFC and waste management
NFC in Hyderabad also has responsibilities in waste management. This includes:
- All the gaseous effluents that are released to the atmosphere, through particulate air filters, are monitored to ensure that releases are within stipulated limits.
- The liquid waste facility provides chemical treatment followed by ion exchange treatment. The wastes are then diluted such that the final concentration of the effluent is below regulatory limits.
- Water containing low levels of wastes, after checking, is sold to capable vendors for recovery of by-products.
- Direct disposal of low-level solid wastes, into the ground is not permitted. Waste is incinerated, or baled and stored. Different types of containments are used and waste is stored at sites selected for their geological and geo-hydrological suitability. Disposal is followed by continuous monitoring of groundwater, soil and sophisticated environmental surveillance through special laboratories set up near installations.
- For long-lived highly-active solid wastes, a three-stage approach has been adopted. Firstly, the waste is incorporated in suitable inert solid matrices. The conditioned waste will then be placed in canisters and kept in a retrievable store under cooling and constant surveillance. Ultimately, canisters will be stored in suitable deep geological media. India is one of a handful of countries that have mastered vitrification technology, which incorporates high-level radioactive waste into glass.
The NFC Hyderabad has made remarkable progress and adds to the strength of the DAE. Outside nuclear, NFC has provided its expertise to varied sectors including the Hindustan Aeronautics Limited, the Indian navy, the chemical fertilizer and mechanical ball bearing industries, and to other defence organisations. It has also exported zirconium bars and anhydrous magnesium chloride.