October 2000

India perfects MOX fuel N-tech Cocks a snook at China, USA, France

The Indian Express, 14 October 2000
By D. N. Moorty

[Posted 17/10/2000]

MUMBAI, OCT 13 - With the loading of two more MOX fuel assemblies to the BWR (Boiling Water Reactor) at Tarapur, India has announced to the world that it can no longer be pressured with conditions in the matter of supply of enriched uranium.

BWR is a light water reactor. Unlike PHWRs (pressurised heavy water reactors) which use natural uranium as source fuel, enriched uranium at 1.8 to 2.66 per cent is required to run the reactors. Two such units are in operation at 170 MWe capacity at Tarapur. These BWRs were supplied by the US in 1969. After the Pokharan-1 nuclear blast, India came under sanctions. Despite clear commitment, the US reneged on supplying enriched uranium to Tarapur.

When the available fuel was used up, India was hard pressed to find another source or close the reactors altogether. After negotiations, the US authorised France to supply the much needed fuel till the end of the US contract to supply fuel which was to end around 1995. France too refused to supply the uranium after that year. Despite hard negotiations by P C Alexander, the present Maharashtra Governor, US refused to budge. Alexander, under instructions from the then Prime Minister Indira Ganndhi negotiated with China for the fuel, and China obliged.

Dr A K Anand, head reactor division of the BARC, under whose direction the MOX fuel was being developed by BARC scientists, speaking to The Indian Express on Friday confirmed that the enriched uranium fuel bundles being fabricated for the Tarapur units were supplies from China. Dr Anand, incidentally, is also overseeing the PWR being built for the Indian nuclear submarine.

Anand said that anticipating problems with continued supply of enriched uranium, experiments were conducted between 1980-88 with MOX fuel in the pressurised water loop of the experimental reactor Cyrus simulating Tarapur conditions. MOX is a mixed oxide fuel comprising natural uranium and plutonium dioxide. Then the fuel was introduced in the Tarapur reactor starting with two fuel assemblies in 1994. Eight more were later added. The fuel bundles were successfully irradiated and this success resulted in the addition of two more MOX fuel bundles taking the total number of fuel bundles to 12 of the total 284 required. Up to 40 per cent can now be loaded with MOX.

The success of MOX fuel is a major step forward in nuclear fuel self-sufficiency and gives India the edge while negotiating for enriched uranium with China or the West. It is understood that fresh Indo-Chinese negotiations are underway for continued supply of enriched uranium. Russia is committed to supply the enriched uranium needed for the contracted 1000 MWe VVERs of Kudankulam.

BARC's singular achievement in the field also makes it an equal partner with Russia in the development of mixed thorium-uranium dioxide fuel. More so, and this was confirmed by Dr D B Boje, that India has also been successful with the Fast Breeder Test Reactor in using a thorium blanket along with MOX. Dr Boje said that the prototype 500 Mwe fast breeder reactor (PFBR) under construction at Kalpakkam would be using MOX instead of enriched uranium with the thorium blanket in the fuel assemblies.

With the perfection of MOX technology, India is sending out a strong signal to China, France and the US and indeed to the world that any future negotiations in the nuclear reactor field would be on equal terms and would be free from any attendant compulsions like signing the CTBT (Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty) or the MTCR (Missile Technology control Regime).

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