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It was recently reported that the commissioning of the 500 MWe Prototype Fast Breeder Reactor at Kalpakkam has been further delayed, this time due to a shortage of plutonium. Touted as a one-of-a-kind reactor, the PFBR boasts of some of the latest safety mechanisms and will use a mixed oxide fuel of PuO2-UO2. India’s Atomic Energy Commission intends to follow the PFBR with two more Commercial FBRs whose construction will start in 2017, and three more CFBRs by 2020 before scaling up to 1,000 MW reactors. However, with the PFBR, cost overruns have been as high as 62%, raising initial estimates of Rs. 3,500 crores to a final Rs. 5,677 crores.

Ignoring the wonders of thorium for now, it is indeed puzzling why India would have a shortfall of plutonium. India has been operating multiple reactors capable of generating plutonium as a byproduct – Cirus (1960-2010) and Dhruva (1985) for weapons grade plutonium, and 17 Pressurised Heavy Water Reactors, of which only six are under safeguards (RAPS I, II with Canada, Tarapur I, II with US, and Kudankulam I, II with Russia). This leaves about 4,000 MW of India’s 5,730 MW nuclear capacity unsafeguarded, an important consideration since India has refused to designate the PFBR as a civilian facility. A separation of Indian nuclear facilities, civilian or military, is mandated by the agreements the country entered into in 2008 with the United States, the Nuclear Suppliers Group, and the International Atomic Energy Agency, and as per the nuclear non-proliferation concept of “contamination,” any unsafeguarded material that goes through a safeguarded facility comes under safeguards.

The amount of plutonium – or any fissile material – a country has is difficult to calculate precisely, particularly a country like India that, until recently, fell outside the non-proliferation regime. Experts estimate Cirus to be capable of producing about 9.2 kgs and Dhruva of 23 kgs of weapons-grade plutonium per annum if run at a reasonable 70% load factor. Thus, Cirus should have yielded about 359 kgs of WGPu by the time it was decommissioned in 2010, and Dhruva 552 kgs until the end of 2012. In addition to the 911 kgs of WGPu (some 130 kgs of which has been used in India’s six nuclear tests as well as to fuel some of India’s test reactors such as Purnima), India’s PHWRs have also contributed to the overall national stockpile with their reactor-grade plutonium. The amount of RGPu produced by the PHWRs over the years is even harder to ascertain with any certainty since Indian PHWRs have been used to experiment with various fuel cycles to conserve India’s small uranium reserves, the outputs of which are not the same. Assuming the use of natural uranium only and a load factor of 73%, approximately 16 tonnes of RGPu should have been produced. The actual figure is likely to be lower – nine tonnes according to the International Panel on Fissile Materials – due to use of depleted uranium and recycled uranium from LWRs, as well as U-PU and Th-Pu MOX fuel cycles. Nonetheless, even the lower range estimates do not point to a potential plutonium shortfall for the PFBR.

However, plutonium stockpiles are measured in terms of reprocessed fissile material, not spent fuel. India’s fuel reprocessing facilities, the Power Reactor Reprocessing Plant (PREFRE) at Tarapur and the Kalpakkam Reprocessing Plant (KARP), are capable of handling 150 tonnes and 100 tonnes respectively of spent fuel per annum. However, Kr-85 plumes – used for nuclear monitoring – from both sites are far below expectations for plants running at maximum potential. If claims that the PFBR project has been delayed due to shortage of plutonium are true, it would mean that India’s reprocessing facilities have been operating at less than 20% capacity. Even low estimates of spent fuel produced and the amount of RGPu contained therein indicate a healthy stockpile for a small nuclear power. Though India’s rickety nuclear infrastructure is known to have interminable hiccoughs, less-than-20% efficiency would represent a new low.

The shortage in plutonium for the PFBR is highly unlikely to be due to a diversion of RGPu to India’s weapons stockpile; nor is a “loan” from the military stockpile likely to help the reactors much. The former is unlikely due to the higher percentage of Pu-240 and Pu-241 in RGPu; Pu-240 is unreliable for weapons as it experiences spontaneous fission and could result in a premature explosion, while Pu-241’s relatively short half-life makes it unsuitable for long storage (fissile core may not retain criticality). Similarly, though supplementing RGPu with WGPu even temporarily is technically possible, it gives diminished results – RGPu contains Pu-240 which gets converted to Pu-241, a better fissile material than Pu-239.

Under the Separation Plan that New Delhi has agreed to under the framework of the Indo-US civil nuclear agreement, India will be placing most of its PHWRs under IAEA safeguards. This will reduce RGPu supplies to approximately 50% of pre-Plan levels by 2014. The PFBR itself will not be safeguarded, nor will the reprocessing plants. This seems to be to retain a secondary plutonium source for India’s military programme, which would normally be catered to by dedicated military reactors such as Dhruva (as an aside, though Cirus was shut down in 2010, there is no news of the planned Dhruva II). If there are shortages of plutonium with more reactors free of safeguards, the situation could become quite acute when supplies are reduced. The hope that the PBFR will itself be a source of plutonium will have to remain a hope for a few more years as experts have questioned the doubling time – the time it takes for the reactor to generate enough plutonium to start a second similar reactor – that has been projected. This means that India’s ambitious plans of having five CFBRs by 2020 will join the list of overly optimistic declarations India’s nuclear establishment has made an art form out of.

One can hope that as India’s civilian-designated reactors come under IAEA safeguards through 2014, there will be a little more transparency in their operation. Right now, the Government of India has conflated secrecy with security and the nuclear establishment remains impervious to outside scrutiny. To be fair, there may be some justification to this opacity as capital cities world over are notorious for information leaks. However, it defeats the purpose when secrecy becomes a hindrance in intra-department or intra-agency operations and hurts the outcome. Nuclear concerns like the Bhabha Atomic Research Centre, Nuclear Power Corporation of India Ltd, and Bhavini are ultimately responsible to the Atomic Energy Commission, which in turn is answerable to the Prime Minister’s Office. That is where the ossification starts, and that is where the first step towards efficiency must be taken.

This post appeared on Tehelka Blogs on January 23, 2013.