The basic physics and engineering of a thorium-fueled Advanced Heavy Water Reactor (AHWR) are in place, and the design is ready,” said Ratan Kumar Sinha, the director of the Bhabha Atomic Research Centre (BARC).
Once the six-month search for a site is completed – probably next to an existing nuclear power plant – it will take another 18 months to obtain regulatory and environmental impact clearances before building work on the site can begin.
“Construction of the AHWR will begin after that, and it would take another six years for the reactor to become operational,” Sinha added, meaning that if all goes to plan, the reactor could be operational by the end of the decade. The reactor is designed to generate 300MW of electricity – about a quarter of the output of a typical new nuclear plant in the west.
One problem is the “trigger fuel” the reactor needs to initiate operation. In the original design, this is a small quantity of plutonium. Instead the new reactor’s trigger will be low-enriched uranium (LEU) – which India is permitted to import under the 2008 Indo-US deal.
“The AHWR will eventually have design flexibility, using as fuel either plutonium-thorium or LEU-thorium combinations,” said Sinha. “The LEU-thorium version will make the AHWR very much marketable abroad, as it would generate very little plutonium … making it suitable for countries with high proliferation resistance.”
The LEU-thorium design is currently at pilot stage. For the first time last year, the BARC tested the thorium-plutonium combination at its critical facility in Mumbai, but is still some way from doing the same for the thorium-LEU combination.
Sinha added that India was in talks with other countries over the export of conventional nuclear plants. He said India was looking for buyers for its 220MW and 540MW Pressurised Heavy Water Reactors (PHWRs). Kazakhastan and the Gulf states are known to have expressed an interest, while one source said that negotiations are most advanced with Vietnam, although Sinha refused to confirm this.
“Many countries with small power grids of up to 5,000 MW are looking for 300MW reactors,” he said. “Our reactors are smaller, cheaper, and very price competitive.”
Producing a workable thorium reactor would be a massive breakthrough in energy generation.
Liquid flouride thorium and molten salt thorium reactors