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India: Fast Breeder Reactor: Questionable Decision

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  • sacw
    Economic and Political Weekly Editorial October 2, 2004 Fast Breeder Reactor: Questionable Decision The Department of Atomic Energy (DAE) is beginning the
    Message 1 of 1 , Oct 18, 2004
      Economic and Political Weekly

      October 2, 2004

      Fast Breeder Reactor: Questionable Decision

      The Department of Atomic Energy (DAE) is beginning the construction of
      the Prototype Fast Breeder Reactor (PFBR) at Kalpakkam. The DAE
      envisions this as the first of many such reactors. Even if one were to
      favour nuclear power, the desirability of such breeder reactors is
      highly questionable.

      Unlike the other power reactors operated by the DAE, fast breeder
      reactors are fuelled by plutonium. The plutonium is extracted by
      chemically treating the highly radioactive spent fuel at reprocessing
      plants. Reprocessing produces large amounts of radioactive waste.
      Radioactive discharges from the Sellafield reprocessing plant in the UK
      have been detected as far away as Ireland and Norway; Ireland, in fact,
      sued UK at the Permanent Court of Arbitration, the Hague, over
      discharges from Sellafield.

      As is well known, nuclear reactors in general have high capital costs.
      The capital costs of fast breeder reactors are even higher. The costs of
      some of the fast breeder power reactors already constructed range from $
      5,304/kW (Superphenix, France) to $ 20,000/kW (Monju, Japan), much
      greater than the typical $ 2,000/kW for thermal reactors. Some reasons
      for this higher cost are the necessity for an extra heat transport
      circuit, more stringent quality and safety requirements, and the use of
      molten sodium as coolant. To this one must add the significant costs of
      decommissioning these reactors and responsibly dealing with the immense
      quantities of highly radioactive materials contained therein.
      Decommissioning the Superphenix is estimated to cost upwards of $ 5
      billion. What is often not considered when discussing the costs of
      breeder reactors is the economics of the fuel cycle that supports them,
      in particular the costs of reprocessing. The British THORP facility cost
      about $ 5.9 billion while the Rokkasho-Mura plant nearing completion in
      Japan is expected to cost over 2 trillion yen. The plutonium extracted
      from these, therefore, is extremely expensive. Fast breeder reactors
      require large amounts of plutonium, both to start operations and for
      periodic fuelling. Fuel fabrication for fast breeder reactors is another
      expensive item. Because plutonium is much more radioactive than uranium,
      more extensive safety measures are required. The price tag for the
      proposed MOX plants in Russia and the UK are of the order of $ 1 billion
      for construction; operations and maintenance is expected to cost
      something comparable.

      The DAE projects about Rs 3,500 crore for the PFBR. However, the DAE's
      track record with constructing reactors does not inspire confidence. All
      of its reactors, with the exception of the turnkey TAPS I and II
      reactors, took longer to construct and were significantly costlier than
      the DAE's initial estimates. The worldwide experience with breeder
      reactors also suggests that the PFBR will not be as cheap and will not
      be ready as projected. Also questionable is the process by which the
      construction of the PFBR has been approved. It is based on an
      environmental impact assessment that has been criticised as being
      incomplete and using data that is of poor quality. At the public hearing
      held on July 27, 2001, the overwhelming majority of participants opposed
      the project. The experiential basis for the DAE's PFBR plans is the
      experimental Fast Breeder Test Reactor (FBTR) at Kalpakkam. Though the
      FBTR was sanctioned by DAE in 1971, with an anticipated commissioning
      date of 1976, the reactor attained criticality only in October 1985. It
      has since suffered numerous accidents and component failures, and was
      strongly criticised by the Comptroller and Auditor-General (CAG) in
      1993. Even in 2000, the longest period for which the FBTR had operated
      continuously was a mere 53 days. The FBTR was originally envisioned as a
      42.5 MWt reactor, but this has never been realised. As of January 2003,
      the power rating was still only 17.5 MWt (2.8 MWe). The PFBR has a power
      rating of 1,250 MWt, and therefore represents a scaling up of the FBTR
      by a factor of about 70. The PFBR will also use a different fuel. Thus,
      not only has the experience with the FBTR been patchy, but the
      applicability of this experience to the PFBR is also dubious. The PFBR
      will, therefore, be a risky project, to say the least.

      There is widespread consensus that we have an energy problem and that we
      need safe, reliable, and economic sources of electricity generation. The
      fast breeder will satisfy none of these conditions.


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