Part 2: Next Generation Nuclear Energy Systems - A Hope for the Future

This article is the present status of Nuclear Energy Power and the opportunities available to exploit

NewsBharati    28-Oct-2021   
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Many analysts have predicted different prospects of India's economic growth story. However, one thing appears quite possible - emergence in 3rd position by 2050 behind USA. Due to varying economic forecasts on the basis of assumptions, one can only provide a broad range of total energy requirements by 2050. A long-term holistic "Energy Optimal Mix" plan needs to be formulated to serve as a guideline for all stakeholders. Let me recount that as on 31 August 2021, India's total installed power generation capacity including from renewable energy sources (REs) is 388.134 GW - nuclear energy at 6.780 GW (23 reactors).

Hypothetically, corresponding to 10 times growth in GDP, total requirement of installed generation capacity by 2050 may be determined as 3800 GWs. Even moderated, the requirement may be between 1500-2000 GWs. To meet 90% of the NZE requirement from REs is intellectually far-fetched.

Ipso facto, there are dramatic improvements in the safety and sustainability of nuclear energy systems. Also, the efficiency and reliability of nuclear plants have climbed to record levels due to improved management techniques and careful practices. Indian nuclear scientists have achieved record of operating reactors without an incident over a period of 50-years achieving 90% plant capacity output.
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It is, therefore, imperative to examine alternative option available, that is, Next Generation Nuclear Energy Systems - Stage 3 thorium fuel cycle in advanced stage of development. Pragmatic "Optimal Energy Mix" plan based on "Next Generation Energy Technologies" covering the entire spectrum is, therefore, vital.

Let me briefly review the status of nuclear reactors globally. As of September 2021, there are 444 civilian fission reactors in the world, with a combined electrical capacity of 396 gig watt (GW) contributing to over 16% of the world's electricity. There are also 53 nuclear power reactors under construction and 98 reactors planned, with a combined capacity of 60 GW and 103 GW, respectively. Most reactors under construction are Gen III reactors in Asia. Under development are Gen IV systems.

In the U.S., 103 nuclear power plants provide about 20 percent of the country’s electrical production. Reactors in other nations include: France 56 (1); China 52 (14); Russia 38 (3); Japan 33 (2); South Korea 24 (4); India 23 (6); Canada 19(0); Ukraine 15(2); UK 15 (2); Belgium 7(0); Spain 7(0); Sweden 6(0); Germany 6(0); Czech 6 (0); Pakistan 5 (1); Finland 4 (1); Hungary 4 (0); Slovakia 4 (2); Switzerland 4 (0); Taiwan 4(0); Argentina 3 (1); UAE 2 (2); Brazil 2 (1); Bulgaria 2 (0); South Africa 2 (0); Romania 2 (0); Mexico 2 (0); Iran 1(1); Belarus 1 (1); Netherlands 1 (0); Slovenia 1 (0); Armenia 1 (0); Turkey 0 (3); Bangladesh 0 (2); Egypt 0 (4).

India’s nuclear power capacity today stands at 6.780 GW compared with the US’s 1,00.350 GW, France’s 63.130 GW, Japan’s 40.290 GW and, China’s 30.402 GW. By size, population and GDP (current and projected) India's 23 nuclear power reactors - mostly Stage 1 reactors - is quite insignificant. Even a small nation like South Korea has more operational reactors than India.

In Stage 2 of India's plan, there is a Prototype Fast Breeder Reactor (PFBR) at Kalpakkam which is a 500 MWe (1250 MWt) liquid sodium cooled, pool type reactor using mixed oxide of uranium and plutonium as fuel.
In Stage-3, the aim is to use thorium as fuel for power generation on a commercial scale. In the thorium fuel cycle, thorium-232 (fuel of the future) is transmuted into the fissile isotope uranium-233 which is a nuclear fuel. India has been developing a 300 MWe Advanced Heavy Water Reactor (AHWR). Fuelled by thorium and using light water as coolant and heavy water as moderator, this reactor will have several advanced passive safety features. Nuclear power employing closed fuel cycle is the only sustainable option for meeting a major part of the India's/world energy demand. World resources of thorium are larger than those of uranium. India has one of the largest thorium deposits in the world with a capacity of 360,000 tones.

Also in advance stages of development are the U-233 fueled Kalpakkam Mini Reactor (KAMINI) that has continued its successful operation at a maximum power level of 30 kWt. It is serving as a unique facility for neutron activation studies and testing of indigenously developed neutron detectors. Next, the newly commissioned Apsara-U reactor was operated at up to 90% of its full rated capacity of 2 MW after achieving the first approach to criticality on September 10, 2018. Finally, research reactor Dhruva operated at its full rated capacity of 100 MW with high availability factor.

Furthermore, under various stages of construction are six reactors: First pair of indigenously designed 700 MW Pressurized Heavy Water Reactors (PHWRs) at Kakrapar in Gujarat (KAPP-3&4); second pair at Rawatbhata in Rajasthan (RAPP-7&8); and second pair of Light Water Reactors (LWRs) at Kudankulam i.e. KKNPP-3&4 to be commissioned by 2025 (2x1000 MW) - total 4,800 MWs/4.800 GWs.

Various preparatory/pre-project activities are in progress for 14 reactors to include: Gorakhpur Haryana Anu Vidyut Pariyojana (GHAVP)-1&2 (2x700 MW PHWRs), KKNPP-5&6 in the third phase of the Kudankulam Nuclear Power Plant Units 5 and 6 are scheduled for completion in 66 months and 75 months respectively (2x1000 MW LWRs); and for 10 PHWRs (10x700 MW) in fleet mode - total 10,400 MWs/10.400 GWs. The sum total of reactors in various stages include 23+6+14 = 43 reactors : 22 GW.

New Project / Sites Light Water Reactor (LWR) Projects at Jaitapur, Maharashtra, land has been acquired and Techno-commercial discussions with Électricité de France (EDF), France are in progress. In Kovvada, Andhra Pradesh, land acquisition process is in progress and Techno-Commercial discussions with Westinghouse Electric Company (WEC) are in progress. At Mithi Virdi, Gujarat, land is to be acquired. At Haripur, West Bengal, land acquisition is contingent to initiative by State Government. Also planned is PHWRs at Bhimpur, Madhya Pradesh.
Next, the costs of nuclear reactors needs in depth review.
The main contenders include: Russia's Rosatom (VVER 1200 MW), France's Areva (1600 MW), and US GE Hitachi (variants - 600 to 1800 MWe). The total costs (including escalation and financing costs) will be in the range of $5,500/kW to $8,100/kW or between $6 billion (Rs.45,000 crores) and $9 billion (Rs.67,500 crores) for each 1,100 MW plant. The cost of the first two units of the Kudankulam Nuclear Power Plant (KKNP-LWRs) was only Rs.17,270 crores initially, but revised to Rs.22,462 crores. KKNP 3 and 4, with a net capacity of 917 MW each, will cost Rs. 39,849 crores ($6.5 billion) to build, but will still provide electricity at Rs.3.90 per KWh.

French firm Areva wants to build six nuclear plants of 1,600 MW capacity each at Jaitapur, Maharashtra. But, the cost of the first two Areva plants is expected to be Rs.1,20,000 crores, or Rs.37.50 crores per MW. In contrast, two PHWR plants of 700 MW each, that NPCIL plans to build at Chutka, Madhya Pradesh, are estimated to cost Rs. 16,550 crores, or Rs. 11.80 crores/MW. Also, the Areva plants, with a 60-year operating life, would be viable at a tariff of Rs. 9.18/kWh. Quoting reports, the Department of Atomic Energy wants that the tariff should not exceed Rs. 6.5/kWh.
Yet another significant factor or constraint is the Nuclear Liability Act 2010 or vendor liability law that provides the operator of the plant the natural right to sue the equipment supplier for damages in case of a nuclear mishap due to a defect in the equipment or services capped at Rs.1500 crores. Another provision in the Nuclear Liability Act that empowers the operator to sue the equipment supplier under “any other law in force”, too, such as the law or torts permit is prevent the US companies from setting up their plants. And, the Russians have been able to get ahead, while European and American companies are stuck over the Act. It is a major impediment in adding new reactors.

Add to it, yet another constraint - anti nuclear civil agitators. They must make up their minds on the horrors of " Climate Change by 2050" and the "New Gen Nuclear Reactors" that are safe.

Fortuitously India has sufficient Uranium oxide (U3O8) and Thorium reserves. Presently, there are seven Uranium mines and two ore processing plants in the State of Jharkhand and one mine and one processing plant in Andhra Pradesh. There is augmentation of additional uranium oxide (U3O8) reserve of over 24,966 tones in the areas of AP, Jharkhand, Rajasthan, Karnataka and Meghalaya. Exploration for uranium oxide (U3O8) reserves is continuing. New Potential blocks have been identified at MP, Karnataka, Rajasthan and AP. Significant uranium anomalies are located in UP, Chhattisgarh, MP, AP, Arunachal and Rajasthan. Significant uranium mineralized intercepts/bands have been identified in boreholes drilled at UP, Himachal Pradesh, Karnataka, AP, Jharkhand, and Rajasthan.

India also has one of the largest reserves of thorium - 10.70 million tones of Monazite which contains 9,63,000 tones of Thorium Oxide (ThO2). Beach Sand and Offshore Investigations (BSOI) resulted in establishing potential heavy mineral zones mainly along the east coast of India. Significant zones of Total Heavy Mineral (THM) concentration have been located at Andhra Pradesh and Odisha.

There is a need to understand nuclear technology innovations at international level - Generation IV nuclear reactor technologies. An international task force is sharing R&D to develop new systems that represent advances in sustainability, economics, safety, reliability and proliferation-resistance.

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Most of the systems employ a closed fuel cycle to maximize the resource base and minimize high-level wastes. All of these operate at higher temperatures than today's reactors. In particular, four are designated for hydrogen production. It is significant that to address non-proliferation concerns, the fast neutron reactors are not conventional fast breeders (i.e. they do not have a blanket assembly where plutonium-239 is produced). Instead, plutonium production takes place in the core, where burn-up is high and the proportion of plutonium isotopes other than Pu-239 remains high. In addition, new electrometallurgical reprocessing technologies will enable the fuel to be recycled without separating the plutonium.

Only one is cooled by light water, two are helium-cooled and the others have lead-bismuth, sodium or fluoride salt coolant. The latter three operate at low pressure, with significant safety advantage. The last has the uranium fuel dissolved in the circulating coolant. Temperatures range from 510°C to 1000°C, compared with less than 330°C for today's light water reactors, and this means that four of them can be used for thermo chemical hydrogen production.

The existing nuclear reactors generate 500 MWs to 1 GW of electricity. Whereas the new reactors range from 150 to 1500 MWe (or equivalent thermal), with the lead-cooled one optionally available as a 50-150 MWe 'battery' with long core life (15-20 years without refueling) as replaceable cassette or entire reactor module. This is designed for distributed generation or desalination.

The latest innovation is the small modular reactor (SMR), which generates a fraction of the energy of traditional reactors (less than 300 MW), but at a fraction of the cost. The large majority of industrial facilities require 25 to 150 MW of energy, which means that in most cases, SMRs are at least theoretically capable of replacing fossil fuels to meet industrial demand, as long as they can get costs down. NuScale, based in Oregon, arguably has made the most progress with SMR technology. Its reactors have a capacity of 60 MW, enough to power about 50,000 homes. Terrestrial Energy, based in Ontario, is working with Canadian regulatory agencies to get approval for its molten salt reactor design. The company aims to have two plants licensed and built by 2030, each with a capacity of 195 MW. The Ultra Safe Nuclear Corporation (USNC)has developed a helium-cooled microreactor with 5 MW capacity.

India is not involved with GIF but is developing its own advanced technology to utilize thorium as a nuclear fuel. A three-stage program has the first stage well-established, with PHWRs fuelled by natural uranium to generate plutonium. Then FBRs use this plutonium-based fuel to breed U-233 from thorium, and finally advanced heavy water reactor (AHWR) system will use the U-233. The spent fuel will be reprocessed to recover fissile materials for recycling. The major option for the third stage is early development of advanced heavy water reactor and its components.

To sum-up, Next Generation Nuclear Energy Systems offers hope to meet the sky-rocketing energy needs by 2050. Just as in USA nuclear energy contributes 20% electricity, India too must aim to acquire similar capacity. The current plan to install 175 GW of renewable energy projects by 2022 and 450 GW by 2030 is inadequate. 20% nuclear energy share implies build-up of 300-400 GWe nuclear energy capacity by 2050 from the existing 6.780 GWe and 15.2 GWe under construction/proposed reactors additions by 2030 (takes 6-8 years to commission reactor). Plan should cater for at least 200 to 260 nuclear reactors in parks of 8-10 each (1600 MWs output capacity) in places with abundant water.

India has mastered the PHWR technology. India needs to fast-track successful development of AHWR that uses thorium-fuel cycle and its commercial transfer. Simultaneously, agreements for France's Areva and GE-Hitachi Reactors with output capacity of 1600 MWs each must also be fast tracked and concluded. Political and bureaucratic will must be expressed. Atomic Energy Commission and nuclear scientists of not only Bhabha Atomic Research Center but all others must innovate on fast-track mode to develop SMRs. The focus must be to develop and maximize indigenous capability.