Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi has witnessed the start of fuel loading at the Prototype Fast Breeder Reactor (PFBR) at Kalpakkam in Tamil Nadu. The PFBR is a 500 MWe sodium-cooled fast breeder nuclear reactor being constructed at Kokkilamedu, near Kalpakkam. The Indira Gandhi Centre for Atomic Research (IGCAR) designed the reactor based on the decades of experience gained from operating the lower power Fast Breeder Test Reactor (FBTR).

The PFBR has been developed by BHAVINI (Bharatiya Nabhikiya Vidyut Nigam Limited), a government enterprise set up in 2003 under the Department of Atomic Energy (DAE) to focus on fast breeder reactors. Construction began in 2004 and the reactor was originally expected to be completed in September 2010, but is faced a series of delays. It is now scheduled to be put into service in December 2024. As a result of the delays, the project's cost has doubled from INR 35bn ($422m) to INR77bn.

Fast breeder reactors form the second stage of India's three-stage nuclear programme. India has adopted a three-stage nuclear power programme, with the long-term goal of deploying a thorium-based closed nuclear fuel cycle. The first stage is based on pressurised heavy water reactors (PHWRs), fuelled by natural uranium, and light water reactors. The second stage involves reprocessing used fuel from the first stage to recover the plutonium to fuel FBRs. In the final stage, Advanced Heavy Water Reactors (AHWRs) will burn thorium-plutonium fuels and breed fissile uranium-233.

DAE said: "In line with the true spirit of Aatmanirbhar Bharat [Indian self-reliance], PFBR has been fully designed and constructed indigenously by BHAVINI with significant contribution from more than 200 Indian industries including MSMEs [micro, small and medium enterprises]. Once commissioned, India will only be the second country after Russia to have a commercial operating Fast Breeder Reactor."

Modi toured of the reactor vault and the control room of the reactor and was briefed about its salient features. The PFBR will initially use the uranium-plutonium mixed oxide (mox) fuel. The uranium-238 "blanket" surrounding the core will undergo nuclear transmutation to “breed” more fuel. The use ofThorium-232, which in itself is not a fissile material, is also envisaged as a blanket in this stage. Thorium, through transmutation will produce fissile uranium-233 which will be used as fuel in the third stage. “The FBR is thus a stepping stone for the third stage of the programme paving the way for the eventual full utilisation of lndia's abundant thorium reserves,” DAE noted.

The PFBR is an advanced third generation reactor with inherent passive safety features ensuring a prompt and safe shut down of the plant in the event of an emergency. Since it burns used fuel from the first stage of the programme, the FBR also reduces the amount of nuclear waste generated, avoiding the need for large geological disposal facilities.

Upon completion of the core loading, the first approach to criticality will be achieved, leading to generation of power subsequently. “The growth of the Indian nuclear power programme is imperative to meet the twin goals of energy security and sustainable development,” said DAE. “As a responsible nuclear power with advanced technology, India remains committed to expand peaceful applications of nuclear technology, both in power and non-power sector, while ensuring the security of nuclear and radiological materials.”

DAE added that, despite the advanced technology involved, both the capital cost and the per unit electricity cost is comparable to other nuclear and conventional power plants.

Images: Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi attends the ceremony to mark the start of fuel loading at the Prototype Fast Breeder Reactor (PFBR) at Kalpakkam in Tamil Nadu