India unveils world’s safest N-reactor

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India on Thursday unveiled before the international community its revolutionary design of ‘A Thorium Breeder Reactor (ATBR)’ that can produce 600 MW of electricity for two years ‘with no refuelling and practically no control manoeuvres’.

Designed by scientists of Mumbai-based Bhabha Atomic Research Centre (BARC), ATBR is claimed to be far more economical and safer than any power reactor in the world.

Most significantly for India, ATBR does not require natural or enriched uranium which the country is finding difficult to import. It uses thorium–which India has in plenty–and only requires plutonium as ‘seed’ to ignite the reactor core initially.

Eventually, ATBR can be running entirely with thorium and fissile uranium-233 bred inside the reactor (or obtained externally by converting fertile thorium into fissile Uranium-233 by neutron bombardment).

BARC scientists V. Jagannathan and Usha Pal revealed the ATBR design in their paper presented on Thursday at the week-long ‘international conference on emerging nuclear energy systems’ in Brussels. The design has been in the making for over seven years.

According to the scientists, the ATBR while annually consuming 880 kg of plutonium for energy production from ‘seed’ rods, converts 1100 kg of thorium into fissionable uranium-233. This differential gain in fissile formation makes ATBR a kind of thorium breeder.

The uniqueness of the ATBR design is that there is almost a perfect ‘balance’ between fissile depletion and production that allows in-bred U-233 to take part in energy generation thereby extending the core life to two years.

This does not happen in the present-day power reactors because the fissile depletion takes place much faster than production of new fissile ones.

BARC scientists say that “ATBR with plutonium feed can be regarded as plutonium incinerator and it produces the intrinsically proliferation resistant U-233 for sustenance of future reactor programme”.

They say that long fuel cycle length of two years with no external absorber management or control manoeuvres does not exist in any operating reactor.

The ATBR annually requires 2.2 tonnes of plutonium as ‘seed’. Although India has facilities to recover plutonium by reprocessing spent fuel, it requires plutonium for its Fast Breeder Reactor programme as well. Nuclear analysts say that it may be possible for India to obtain plutonium from friendly countries wanting to dismantle their weapons or dispose of their stockpiled plutonium.