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India can be a hub for safe, fast breeder reactors

Dr Anil Kakodkar, former Chairman, Atomic Energy Commission, visited the Economist House on 10 March. He graciously mentioned: “your TerraPower article (IE March issue) attracted and made me come here.”

Dr Kakodkar referred to the father of nuclear energy in India, Dr Homi Bhabha, envisioning the prospects for the use of abundantly available thorium in India for harnessing nuclear energy. He pointed to the fast breeder reactor programme pursued by India with several important objectives: it will enable using spent uranium fuel to generate plutonium and uranium as fissionable material along with thorium. This will help fuller burning of the fuel. The spent fuel is not of weapon-grade and thus will meet the concern of proliferation. Most important, it is clean energy; no CO2!

Dr Kakodkar perceives a lot of scope for working together with Bill Gates’ TerraPower, which has similar objectives. He pointed to Bill Gates’ interest in the use of thorium.

India has created the expertise and technology for the manufacture of small capacity reactors at costs that are much cheaper than in the developed countries. These will be of great relevance and importance for developing countries with much smaller grid capacities, especially in the light of the focus on non-conventional energy sources like solar and wind power, which require stable capacity for balancing; this is not an issue for the large grids of developed countries, especially in Europe with loads connected across nations.

Remember the vision of Vikram Sarabhai that was realised: India evolving as a hub for launching satellites; the ISRO facility is used by developed countries also, including those in Europe and the USA.

Kakodkar points to the scope for similar realisation of Homi Bhabha’s vision on FBRs that could open up the prospects for India evolving a hub for manufacturing fast breeder reactors using thorium.Excerpts from the discussions:

IE: How Bill Gates’ TerraPower is relevant to India’s nuclear power programme?

Dr Anil Kakodkar [AK]: TerraPower Company is working on the concept of a traveling wave reactor. This concept is also based on the fast breeder reactor (FBR) principle. The FBR utilises fuel that produces more fuel, generates heat and in-turn energy. The traveling wave reactor needs an igniter as a precursor to start and to trigger the chain reaction. The rest is similar. Bill Gates’ TerraPower also aims at utilising again the spent material. TerraPower is quite focused on this techno-logy and has been working on perfecting this.
India has technology and resources for designing and developing FBRs.

IE: Bill Gates’ rationale for TerraPower…

AK: The objectives of Bill Gates are to address the climate change issue that threatens the very existence of the earth; reuse of spent fuels that cause storage concerns and meeting energy needs of the emerging economies, Gates focuses on nuclear as a clean energy source with large potential.

IE: What is the problem of spent fuel in the US?

AK: USA is the largest producer of nuclear power. But American utilities are private. There is concern over reprocessing the spent fuel as, in the process, there is the risk of diversion, to making nuclear weapons. Jimmy Carter as President, banned reprocessing. This led to the accumulation of a large inventory of spent fuel, which has the risk of rad

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