Interview with R.K. Sinha, Chairman of the Atomic Energy Commission

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    R.K Sinha: “The DAE has a role to play in enhancing national security and that is an important element in our work profile.”


    It has been a steady climb in the Department of Atomic Energy (DAE) for Ratan Kumar Sinha, who took over as Chairman of the Atomic Energy Commission (AEC) and Secretary of the DAE on April 30 from Srikumar Banerjee. He was Director of the Bhabha Atomic Research Centre (BARC) for two years from 2010.

    Before he became the BARC chief, Sinha was the Director of the Reactor Design and Development Group and the Design, Manufacturing and Automation Group of BARC. He has been working on the development of the Indian High Temperature Reactor (IHTR), which will generate hydrogen, and on the Compact High Temperature Reactor (CHTR), which can be installed in remote areas and needs refuelling once in 15 years.

    Sinha is one of the architects of the 300 MWe Advanced Heavy Water Reactor (AHWR), which will generate electricity from thorium. He led the life-extension and rehabilitation programme of the two indigenous Pressurised Heavy Water Reactors (PHWRs) at Kalpakkam near Chennai. This enabled the safe operation of the PHWRs and extended their life by another 25 years, enabling them to generate their full output of 220 MWe each. He developed several robotic technologies for inspecting and extending the service life of the coolant channels not only in the PHWRs in Kalpakkam but also in other nuclear power reactors in India.

    Sinha designed, developed and installed the coolant channels and other internal components of the world-class Dhruva research reactor at BARC in Trombay. He has guided the development of technologies that will enable, in a large deployment scenario, the setting up of advanced nuclear power stations close to population centres.


    Besides power generation, what will be the other thrust areas of the DAE under your leadership? BARC has been working on the AHWR and the CHTR and in areas such as fusion, supercomputers, health care, agriculture, tissue culture and desalination. It developed a huge dish antenna for tracking Chandrayaan-1 and is making contributions to the International Thermonuclear Experimental Reactor (ITER).

    Our mandates are multifold. The first and foremost is to provide energy security, that is, generate nuclear power on a large scale to contribute in a major way to the national electricity generation capacity, and in the future by producing hydrogen to serve as fuel for transportation. This part of the mandate covers the attainment of complete self-reliance in all critical materials and technologies, including nuclear fuel cycle technologies that are vulnerable to embargoes and supply shocks.

    The second part of the mandate covers a broad range of non-power applications. It includes applications of radiation, radioisotopes and accelerators in health care, medicine, industry, agriculture, food preservation and in sludge hygienisation.

    The third part incorporates the additional areas, which we can call spin-off technologies. The know-how generated as a part of addressing the power and non-power applications of nuclear energy is used to serve broader societal objectives and make contributions to industrial growth.

    For example, addressing water security through desalination and impurity removal technologies and using isotope hydrology for identifying natural resources of water supply. The spin-offs include a range of indigenous products and technologies such as advanced materials, chemical technologies, energy conversion technologies, electronics and instrumentation, sensors and detectors and supercomputers.

    The fourth part of our mandate is to carry out basic and applied research in a wide range of scientific and technical disciplines relevant for the DAE's programmes and activities.

    Besides, by striving to work at the cutting-edge in science and technology, we get an opportunity to involve ourselves in a multitude of academic initiatives and collaborative research programmes with various national and international institutions. The DAE has actively promoted research in academic and R&D institutions in the country by providing financial support and exchanging know-how. A large number of technologies developed in BARC have been transferred to Indian industry.

    Lastly, DAE has a role to play in enhancing national security, and that is an important element in our work profile. I will address each one of these areas, keeping in mind both short-term and long-term objectives and try to accelerate the pace of the DAE programmes, if needed, through a re-definition of the path of development and intermediate milestones.

    Kudankulam, Jaitapur agitations

    What are the lessons learnt from the agitations at Kudankulam (Tamil Nadu) and Jaitapur (Maharashtra)? You can blame the agitation at Kudankulam on the fear stemming from the nuclear accident at Fukushima (Japan). At Jaitapur, land acquisition, inadequate compensation and loss of livelihood have driven the local people to agitate against the project. Do you think the agitations have more to do with the failure of the DAE and National Power Corporation of India Limited (NPCIL) to convince the people with their outreach programmes about the safety of nuclear power?

    You yourself identified two important elements of the agitations: expectations and apprehensions. Insofar as expectations are concerned, we have been sensitive to the legitimate and genuine expectations of the people in the neighbourhood of the nuclear power stations, fulfilling them through the resettlement and rehabilitation policy of the respective State governments and the Central government. This is in addition to NPCIL's neighbourhood development programmes before the plant starts commercial operation and neighbourhood welfare schemes implemented as part of corporate social responsibility. Economic development and transformation of the quality of life of the neighbouring population have been evident at all our sites.

    Nuclear power has existed as a clean source of energy in our power-hungry country for the past four decades. The safety track record of our nuclear power plants in the past 42 years has been impeccable, without any radioactive releases beyond the stipulated limits of the AERB [Atomic Energy Regulatory Board] any time. In places where nuclear power plants are already operational, people have generally seen the economic benefits coming their way and have not faced any safety- or environment-related issues.

    In Kudankulam, where the benefits of having a nuclear power plant in the neighbourhood are yet to be seen, the perception of a small section of the local people was moulded by some anti-nuclear groups. We, however, reacted quickly by augmenting our mechanisms to reach out to all sections of our population through direct interactions, publications, the media and the Internet. We have learnt to be proactive and in continuous touch with stakeholders.

    In this context, I would like to highlight that unfounded apprehensions among people about radiation is a focus area that needs to be addressed vigorously.

    More than six decades of experience and accumulated scientific data on the survivors of the Hiroshima and Nagasaki bombings referred by the United Nations Scientific Committee on Effect of Atomic Radiation (UNSCER) in its 2010 report, and 25 years of the study of the people exposed to radiation following the Chernobyl accident have not indicated any statistically significant genetic effects among the exposed population.

    Further, no statistically significant additional incidences of cancer were found to occur at radiation levels which are nearly 1,000 times the current regulatory limits. Scientifically, therefore, the threshold of radiation dose for causing irreversible harm to human beings seems to be very high and the current limits are very conservative.

    Epidemiological studies in high natural background radiation areas in our country and scientific research in the field of radiation biology carried out by us also support this observation. We will aggressively pursue further scientific research in this area and try to bring about an international consensus on revisiting the decades-old linear no-threshold hypothesis, which lies at the root of this conservatism.

    The Indian nuclear power plants are maintained on a par with current state-of-the-art systems through periodic renovation and modernisation, and safety upgrades on the basis of health assessment and national and international operating feedback. Our plants require regulatory re-licensing every five years, thus ensuring compliance with all the relevant current regulatory guidelines which invariably factor in the latest international practices and the International Atomic Energy Agency[IAEA] safety codes.

    When will the first unit at Kudankulam go critical?

    The mandatory plant site and off-site emergency drills have been completed.

    This opens the way for loading the fuel in the core and approach to criticality [the start of the fission chain reaction for the first time] in accordance with the Atomic Energy Regulatory Board [AERB] stipulations and clearances. The first unit of Kudankulam is, accordingly, expected to attain criticality in a month's time.

    Can you highlight some of the important work done by BARC? It is working on the development of the CHTR, which is transportable, can be installed in remote areas, needs refuelling only once in 15 years, and so on.

    Most of the recent work done on the CHTR has been in the area of materials development. In particular, we have developed the technologies for the manufacture of core structures in graphite. We have developed the technologies for the manufacture of particle-type fuel and the TRISO coatings for the HTR fuel.

    This includes special technologies for the imaging of the quality and dimensions of these coatings on a highly magnified scale. The entire design of the core structures has been completed and a mock-up of the reactor core using non-nuclear materials is being set up at BARC. In parallel, we are doing engineering experiments with molten lead bismuth, which will serve as a coolant in this reactor.

    Anything special in agriculture?

    We have developed 39 mutant breeder seed varieties so far. Some more are in the pipeline and they are in the final stages of development and qualification. These seeds have been developed to address specific performance objectives such as high yield, early maturity, disease resistance, resistance to salinity and drought resistance. With the help of agricultural universities, these mutant breeder varieties have been grown in large volumes and additional inputs have been gathered on their performance from generation to generation.

    What are these seeds?

    Pulses, groundnut, mustard, rice and jute. On the basis of the national breeder seed indent and an assessment of farmer-to-farmer transactions in seeds, it is estimated that nearly half the production of black gram [urad] and one-third of the production of groundnuts in our country are of mutant varieties developed by BARC.

    Is India's 123 agreement with the United States dead? The Jaitapur project, where reactors from France will be built, is yet to take off. The West Bengal Chief Minister says she will not allow any [Russian] reactor to come up at Haripur. Nothing has been heard of the American reactors to be built at Kovvada in Andhra Pradesh or Chaya Mithi Verdi in Gujarat. So, is the exemption India has got from the Nuclear Suppliers Group (NSG) guidelines and its emergence from 36 years of international isolation only a pyrrhic victory for the Manmohan Singh government and the DAE?

    I don't think we have been standing still. A lot of work has been done in the area of establishing the framework that will help in completing the contracts at an early date. Indian industry has been gearing up for the opportunity that will come its way [once these contracts for building the Russian, American and French reactors are signed].

    At the same time, for both vendors and buyers [in our country], such an exercise has been a first-of-its-kind type.

    India, as a democratic country that has a well-established legal system along with a lot of experience in building and operating nuclear power plants, stands in a somewhat different bracket compared with some of the buyers that vendors could have encountered in the past. It has, therefore, taken some time to arrive at a mutually acceptable framework before initiating projects on the ground. We have, however, made excellent progress and I hope these projects will be realised soon enough.

    It was in 2008 that the NSG guidelines were relaxed to enable India to get into the international mainstream. Even though the pre-project activities at Jaitapur had begun before 2008, the nuclear power project there is yet to see even the ground-breaking ceremony.

    A series of deliberations have already taken place between the two sides to meet all the technical and regulatory requirements of the Indian side, participation of Indian industry and optimisation of cost.


    Following the Fukushima accident, a safety review of the EPR [Evolutionary Pressurised Reactor-1650 to be built at Jaitapur] was conducted by the French regulatory agency and we waited for the outcome of this exercise. We are now having further dialogue and negotiations that should lead to the final techno-commercial offer from Areva [for Jaitapur]. I do hope that good progress will be made in the forthcoming weeks in this area.

    The present installed capacity of nuclear power in India is 4,680 MWe from 19 operating reactors. The target was to generate 7,380 MWe by the end of the Eleventh Plan period [2007-12]. The Plan had envisaged the construction to begin on eight indigenous PHWRs of 700 MWe each, four imported Light Water Reactors (LWRs) of 1,000 MWe each, four breeder reactors of 500 MWe each and one AHWR of 300 MWe. However, construction has begun only on four indigenous PHWRs (two each at Rawatbhata in Rajasthan and Kakarapara in Gujarat). What are the reasons for the delay in starting the construction of the other reactors?

    As far as the reactors under construction are concerned, we are making good progress.

    Only four 700 MWe reactors are under construction.

    Yes, the 700 MWe reactors at Kakarapara and Rawatbhata are being built. New sites have been identified for two more 700 MWe power plants, at Bhimpur in Madhya Pradesh and Banswara in Rajasthan. Besides, the government has given permission to build 700 MWe reactors at Gorakhpur in Haryana and Chutka in Madhya Pradesh. Barring a few delays in the land acquisition process, I do not see any major hurdles in the way.

    About the imported reactors, I have already indicated that the first-of-its-kind issues have taken time to get resolved. I do hope that once this phase is over, further progress will be smooth.

    How about the AHWR? You are one of its architects. There has been a delay of eight years even in starting its construction. The AHWR has caught the attention of the nation but you have not even selected a site for it.

    The AHWR, being only a 300 MWe reactor, cannot have a full site for itself. It has to be attached to another project or a site where DAE facilities exist. We have examined some options. However, it turns out that the siting criteria being followed now cannot be fulfilled at Visakhapatnam, the first choice for the AHWR, because of the expected large growth of industrial activities around the site.

    So it cannot be built at Visakhapatnam.

    On the basis of the current AERB siting criteria, it is difficult. The criteria, though, is due for some revision, and the AERB may decide to reconsider it in the future. Although the AHWR has a multitude of advanced, passive safety features that rule out any impact in the public domain, it will be the first reactor that will be operated in a demonstration mode and so no exemption from the existing AERB criteria has been sought. We are now looking for a different location for the AHWR.

    Does that mean that all peer reviews are over for the AHWR? What activities are in progress at the AHWR Critical Facility at BARC?

    The demonstration of passive and first-of-its-kind safety features of the AHWR has been done in full-scale facilities and the results have been excellent. Studies have been done on the thorium-based fuel cycle and confirmation of the reactor physics design as well as the nuclear data associated with thorium has been received through experiments done at the AHWR Critical Facility.

    A large volume of work has been done on the back end of the nuclear fuel cycle, which includes the reprocessing and fabrication of the fuel using uranium-233 extracted from the spent fuel of the PHWRs. The design of the nuclear systems of the AHWR has been completed and the detailing of the conventional systems and civil structures is being done by a consultant.

    We are yet to approach the regulatory body for design safety reviews because a site for the construction of the AHWR is yet to be identified. However, several years ago, a pre-licensing appraisal of the design of the AHWR was done by the AERB and its suggestions were incorporated subsequently.

    In order to establish the design margins available in the AHWR, a large-scale thermal, hydraulic test facility that will use 17 MW of electric power for simulating even the overheating conditions of the AHWR fuel is under construction at Tarapur. Experiments in this facility are expected to yield information on the possibility of enhancing the power rating of the AHWR.

    A uranium mine and a mill to process that uranium into yellow cake were commissioned on April 20 at Tummalapalle near Kadapa, Andhra Pradesh. How much of deposit is available at Tummalapalle? Is it one of the world's 20 largest deposits?

    I do not want to compare Tummalapalle with any other international mine.

    However, early indications have given a lot of hope that it can have a very large reserve of uranium, much beyond what was originally expected. The Atomic Minerals Directorate for Exploration & Research is continuing to explore the limits of the range of this deposit and the results so far have been encouraging.

    How did BARC establish the leachability of the uranium ore at Tummalapalle? It was earlier felt that it would not be possible to extract uranium from the Tummalapalle ore, which is not a good ore.

    The type of ore found at Tummalapalle was not amenable to the conventional acidic leaching process. BARC established a unique alkaline leaching process, first on a small scale, and after validation, it was incorporated as part of the operations at Tummalapalle.

    Light water reactors

    The DAE is going to build a huge uranium enrichment plant in Chitradurga district in Karnataka. At what stage is the design of the indigenous LWRs, which will use enriched uranium as fuel?

    The indigenous LWRs have been conceived to leverage the secondary steam cycle side technologies of our 700 MWe PHWRs. So far as the LWR technologies are concerned, we have already demonstrated our capability to design and construct compact LWRs for naval propulsion.

    You have built an LWR at Kalpakkam.

    The land-based unit is already operational at Kalpakkam. Hence, we don't see any basic technological challenge in engineering the design of domestic LWRs. At the moment, some early design activity on the nuclear side is being pursued.

    Why are you building such a huge uranium enrichment plant in Chitradurga? What is its capacity? Is the plant meant for feeding enriched uranium for India's nuclear-powered submarines or LWRs or to make bombs? In an interview you gave Frontline (June 3, 2011) when you were BARC Director, you said India had mastered the uranium enrichment technology. Can you elaborate?

    Uranium enrichment technology has been developed and demonstrated through the successful operation of our Mysore facility for the past two decades. In order to demonstrate the economics of our nuclear fuel cycle using the domestically produced enriched uranium, it is necessary to have a large-sized operation for such facilities.

    The economics of scale is important in this context. The Chitradurga facility will contribute towards meeting the need for enriched uranium for higher burn-up fuels for the PHWRs and the LWRs. The facility will be built in several stages consistent with the growth in our requirement of enriched uranium.



    Why are we building more and more reprocessing plants? There are already PREFRE-1 and 2 at Tarapur and the Kalpakkam Reprocessing Plant, and we are building yet another one at Kalpakkam. Do we need so many plants just to reprocess plutonium to feed the breeder reactors?


    We have been operating the PHWRs for the past three decades. The spent fuel available with us from operating them and the spent fuel from the PHWRs that will be built in future need to be reprocessed at a reasonably fast rate to construct a series of fast breeder reactors planned by the DAE. The construction of PREFRE-3A at Kalpakkam had been envisaged earlier. In the Twelfth Plan period, we envisage the launch of the construction of the INRP-1, a large-sized integrated reprocessing-cum-waste management plant at Tarapur.

    APSARA ON NEW FUEL

    Have you put a new fuel core in the Apsara research reactor in Trombay? You had taken out the old core. Are you refurbishing Apsara?

    The old core of Apsara was based on highly enriched uranium and the fuel was of foreign origin. As part of our international civil nuclear cooperation agreement, that core was removed from Apsara in December 2010. In parallel, the design of a new core with low-enriched uranium but with a much higher neutron flux and more experimental and irradiation positions was done.

    In January 2012, work on the manufacture of the new fuel, using indigenous enriched uranium, was started. Work on the modification of Apsara, which includes rebuilding part of the civil structures to higher seismic specifications, has been taken up and is continuing.

    When will it go on stream?

    My current estimate is that it will go on stream by 2015 because the extended civil work was not expected earlier.

    What will you use the Apsara for?

    This is a research reactor from which we will produce radioisotopes, and obtain neutron beams for experimental programmes. We will use these beams for a variety of other applications such as neutron radiography, shielding technology development and calibration of neutron detectors.

    You are building a new reactor in place of CIRUS in Visakhapatnam?

    Not in place of CIRUS. We are building a research reactor similar to Dhruva with higher specifications.

    Is it a big one?

    It is 125 MWt compared with Dhruva's 100 MWt. It will use low-enriched uranium as part of its core. In addition, a 30-MWt high-flux research reactor is proposed to be built in Visakhapatnam.

    This research reactor will be mainly used for the production of radioisotopes for a range of health care and industrial applications. It will also provide a large number of experimental locations for the high-flux irradiation of materials and engineering experiments for design and development of advanced reactors.

    What is the purpose of building another Dhruva?

    It will be useful for the production of radioisotopes for health care and other applications. Dhruva at BARC has already completed 25 years of life. It is the only working research reactor today for the production of radioisotopes [in India]. Any shutdown of Dhruva for maintenance leads to disruption in the supply of isotopes, particularly for health care. It is important that another Dhruva is made available to enable large-scale production of radioisotopes.

    What will you call this new reactor?

    At present we are calling it Dhruva-II.

    How do you use the compact LWR at Kalpakkam? A reactor of the same size has gone into Arihant, the nuclear-powered submarine. Are you using the LWR at Kalpakkam to supply power to the grid?

    No. It is not intended for supply of power. We are using it for training operators and maintenance personnel.

    Are you using it to train naval personnel?

    Yes. It is also serving as a platform for the demonstration of several indigenous technologies in the area of instrumentation and control for compact reactors. We have set up experimental facilities to study the corrosion-performance of new materials in simulated environmental conditions.

    How will you tackle it if the agitation erupts again at Kudankulam? The earlier agitation erupted essentially because of the failure of the outreach programmes.

    I was at Kudankulam in the last week of April along with Dr Srikumar Banerjee and the [then] Chairman, NPCIL, S.K. Jain. In a meeting in the morning, nearly 40 different villages were represented and the presidents and sarpanchs of these villages – all of them – expressed their full support to the project and they wanted the project to deliver electricity at the earliest. Other than a few isolated pockets in the neighbourhood of Kudankulam, a very large fraction of the population from nearby villages fully supports the project.

    We are continuing our public outreach programme in the neighbourhood. I, therefore, see no particular reason for apprehending any disturbance in the future.

    When will the construction of units 3 and 4 at Kudankulam begin?

    The processing of financial sanction for the project is in an advanced stage. We expect the work on the ground to start within six months.
     
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