BHEL bags contract for 500 MW nuclear plant in TN
NEW DELHI: State-owned Bharat Heavy Electricals today announced it has bagged a contract for 500 MW nuclear power plant at Kalpakkam in Tamil Nadu, being set up by Bhartiya Nabhikiya Vidyut Nigam (BNVL).
"Under international competitive bidding, we have bagged a contract for the turbine generator and secondary side equipment for the first Prototype Fast Breeder Reactor of 500 MWe rating," BHEL said in a statement.
The unit is scheduled for commissioning during the 11th Five-Year Plan...
This is important on a number of fronts. First, India does not have a large quantity of uranium reserves. Most of their nuclear power program (and their weapons program for that matter) has been home-grown. This is another huge step. If the reactor can be built on-time and on-budget and if it operates successfully, the Indians will have moved into an elite group of nuclear-power nations who have proven they can build and run the types of plants that will be a critical part of nuclear power providers in the coming decades. And if they can incorporate this facility into their plans for a Thorium-cycle, then they will become the world leader in a type of fuel cycle that could provide vast amounts of electricity for centuries.
Breeders are important. Right now, the vast majority of nuclear power plants must "burn" uranium that has been enriched in the isotope U-235. The vast majority of natural uranium is the isotope U-238, with U-235 counting for ~ 0.7% in nature. I won't bore you with the physics, but click here for a discussion of they "why" behind it.
Obviously, relying on such a tiny fraction of a resource will limit its usefulness. Breeders take advantage of the fact that sometimes a neutron will strike an atom's nucleus and "stick" there instead of fissioning it. In the case of a breeder, either U-238 (remember, vastly abundant) or Th-232 is struck by a neutron and "captured". This creates U-239 which decays into Pu-239 or it creates Th-233, which decays (after an intermediate step) into U-233.
After running the "bred" material through an extensive (and expensive) reprocessing procedure, both U-233 and Pu-239 can then be used as fuel in reactors, just like U-235 is used today. Both Uranium-238 and Th-232 are widely available. India, while deficient in stocks of uranium, has enormous reserves of Thorium. This would allow India to fuel her nuclear program via indigenous fuels. It will also eventually allow them to export this technology to other countries who might prefer that type of reactor.
We shall see. The U.S. has built and run fast-breeder reactors before, but the last one was shut down by the brilliant minds in the Clinton Administration. The Clinch River Breeder Reactor project was killed in 1983 and the U.S. ceded this entire field of technology to foreigners. They can be tricky to operate, as the French and Japanese have found, but if civilization hopes to keep the lights on, these breeder reactors will be critical in the future (in more ways than one).
My personal favorite would be a molten-salt version, allowing for online reprocessing and the ability to offstream isotopes for medical and research use, but that is just me.
So how does this jive with my ongoing assumption that the West is about to run itself off a cliff and into a deep abyss of credit collapse, poverty and violence? I touched on the topic in Nuclear Power, 4GW and the Downturn in Social Mood and a few other topics labeled nuclear power and think that the short term future for nuclear power is unfortunately not as bright as I would hope.
But, if my assumptions prove even half-way correct, in the coming years there will probably be trade wars and a rise in piracy, both of which could affect world shipments of nuclear fuel. Countries that can produce their own fuel will have a leg up in energy security. I think a very important lesson is going to be learned in the U.S. - cheap electricity is not a birthright. Killing the breeder program because the electricity was too expensive during the energy glut of the 1980's might have made sense in a short-term, bottom-line way, but future generations will suffer for the lack of energy infrastructure, technology and trained personnel embodied by that type of thinking.
And, further down the road, some portions of the world will, hopefully, survive relatively intact. They will be the ones who keep their libraries, universities and industrial companies stocked with the technology and know-how that will be needed to power the rise from the ashes that will occur once the coming storm has passed.
Sustainable fuel cycles, such as fast-breeder programs will be a part of the energy base available to these new civilizations, barring a major breakthrough in physics. And the further that knowledge is spread, the more likely it can survive the Coming Chaos.