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India is a step away from entering the second stage of its nuclear programme with the initiation of core loading at the home-built 500 MWe Prototype Fast Breeder Reactor here, a move described as “historic” by the government.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi witnessed the initiation of core loading at the Prototype Fast Breeder Reactor (PFBR), which generates more power than it consumes and uses the nuclear waste — Uranium-238 — as fuel.

The prime minister toured the reactor vault and the control room of the PFBR along with National Security Adviser Ajit Doval, Atomic Energy Commission Chairman A K Mohanty, Bhabha Atomic Research Center Director Vivek Bhasin and Indira Gandhi Centre for Atomic Research Director B Venkataraman.

This 500 MWe fast breeder reactor has been developed by Bharatiya Nabhikiya Vidyut Nigam Limited (BHAVINI).

“Upon completion of the core loading, the first approach to criticality will be achieved, leading to generation of power subsequently,” an official statement said.

“In the spirit of Aatmanirbhar Bharat, PFBR is indigenously designed and constructed by BHAVINI with contributions from more than 200 Indian industries, including MSMEs,” the official statement said.

India has been running a Fast Breeder Test Reactor experimental facility since 1985. The FBTR was operated for about 120 days at 40 MWt and generated 21.5 million units of electricity last year.

The reactor core consists of control sub-assemblies, blanket sub-assemblies and fuel sub-assemblies.

The core loading activity consists of loading of reactor control sub-assemblies, followed by the blanket sub-assemblies and the fuel sub-assemblies which will generate power.

India has adopted a three-stage nuclear power programme with a closed fuel cycle. In the PFBR, marking the second stage of the programme, spent fuel from the first stage is reprocessed and used as fuel.

“A unique feature of this sodium-cooled PFBR is that it can produce more fuel than it consumes, helping in achieving self-reliance in fuel supply for future fast reactors,” the statement said.

The PFBR will initially use the Uranium-Plutonium Mixed Oxide (MOX) fuel, an official statement said.

The Uranium-238 “blanket” surrounding the fuel core will undergo nuclear transmutation to produce more fuel, thus earning the name ‘Breeder’, it said, adding the use of Throium-232, which in itself is not a fissile material, as a blanket is also envisaged in this stage.

By transmutation, Thorium will create fissile Uranium-233 which will be used as fuel in the third stage.

PFBR is thus a stepping stone for the third stage of the programme, paving the way for the eventual full utilization of India’s abundant thorium reserves.

In terms of safety, PFBR is an advanced third-generation reactor with inherent passive safety features ensuring a prompt and safe shutdown of the plant in the event of an emergency.

Since it uses the spent fuel from the first stage, PFBR also offers a great advantage in terms of a significant reduction in nuclear waste generated, thereby avoiding the need for large geological disposal facilities.

Notably, despite the advanced technology involved, both the capital cost and the per unit electricity cost are comparable to other nuclear and conventional power plants.

Many countries, including the US, Japan and France, have tried developing fast breeder reactors and have given up due to repeated failure to safely handle liquid sodium. Russia commissioned the BN-800 Fast Breeder Reactor in 2016.