Dr.Swaminathan Iyer’s criticism on India’s fast reactors

Dr Swaminathan Iyer’s criticism of India’s fast breeder reactors

One can get very useful information from the feedback and comments accompanying newspaper articles on topics related to nuclear power in leading dailies. The results of opinion polls could be easily influenced by the way the questions are framed. Opinions and comments by readers do not restrict or bias the readers. On line versions of the articles help to gather useful ideas about the readers’ perception on various nuclear power related topics. Because of the topical nature, such articles often get enthusiastic coverage among the readers.

A typical example is Dr Swaminathan Iyer’s article titled “Fast breeder reactors are the least safe” in The Times of India (March 27, 2011). It depended heavily on other articles particularly the one titled ”Safety inadequacies of India’s fast breeder reactor” in the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists (21 July 2009) by M V Ramana and Ashwinikumar two well known anti nuclear writers. They claimed that the fast reactor being constructed in India is dangerous. His main premise was that the reactor uses sodium which, he characterized as inherently dangerous. He claimed that the containment dome of the reactor is not strong and these reactors have positive coolant void coefficient. He argued that these reactors are financial disasters and cost cutting comes at a price in safety.

He has reproduced the criticism of other writers that Jaitapur Reactor is untested. He listed the “problems” faced by fast reactors elsewhere. He depended entirely on anti nuclear articles to conclude that fast reactors are the least safe.

This article attracted 35 comments between March 27 and April 17, 2011; 33 of them were received by April 1. Seventeen of them were critical of Dr Iyer… A few questioned his knowledge on the subject.

While appreciating the article, one reader stated “that it will be foolish to rubbish the efforts of the Indian   scientists who have faced major challenges in the Indian atomic apartheid years to develop this technology on their own and have an experimental reactor now running for the past approx 20 years at IGCNR (it should have been printed as IGCAR) Kalpak am – though a small one in comparison to the commercial 500MW”. Only a few readers noticed that he depended on other anti nuclear activists and did not make any attempt to verify the observations with other scientists.

A few readers went totally off the subject. They accused himto be against indigenous technology.One of them wondered whether he is in the pay roll of some MNC

There was some severe criticism of Dr Iyer’s bonafides. “Mr Aiyar, when you talk economics you always make most sense and when you do talk politics, I find you are an average columnist. But when you write some aspects like nuclear technology you look like an amateur”. One critic wrote

One of the readers thought that Mr. Aiyer has correctly stated the problem – “it is the ability of the Indians to be dishonest! Scientists in India are known to rush off and claim breakthroughs in various technologies to get rewards. The Govt. keeps the actual benefit of these breakthroughs, inventions etc. a secret. If exposed to International scientific scrutiny they don’t amount to much. Granted that developed countries try their utmost to rubbish discoveries, inventions coming from underdeveloped nations in order to keep them dependent on rich nations. Even then, we have not seen any great improvement in the lives of common people here for the amount of funds which have been wasted in the science and technology field”.

A reader wanted to de-link nuclear safety from nuclear establishment while another suggested carrying out R & D to look for a suitable alternative that does not explode when it comes in contact with water!

I commented thus:

“Shri Swaminathan Iyer got carried away by the conclusions of M V Ramana and Ashwin Kumar. I recall that IGCAR scientists have convincing answers to those points. Mr Swaminathan should have verified whether his fears are true by discussing his doubts with the scientists in IGCAR. Fast reactors are not becoming popular now because many feel that it is uneconomic. Scientists in IGCAR contest this argument. Mr Iyer should not have judged FBRs and arrived at patently wrong conclusions without spending a few minutes with FBR designers or read appropriate technical literature. Admittedly these are highly complex matters; but he can seek guidance to arrive at his own conclusions. I respect Mr Iyer.I am writing this more in anguish than with anger realizing that such a respected economist got carried away so easily. I wish that the discerning public may distinguish corn from the chaff. Lack of carrying out home work can be damaging whether it is economics or nuclear technology”.

Among the commentators were Dr M R Iyer and Shri Bhoje. Without going into the merits and demerits of the article, Dr. M R Iyer  stated thus:

“More than the other types of reactors planned in India, fast reactors call for maximum attention from the safety point of view. The safety aspects which calls for careful attention are due to their being intrinsically more difficult to control, have tons of highly toxic plutonium loaded in the core, and liquid sodium tranferring heat to a water loop (sodium steam reaction can lead to explosions in case of leaks) amongst other factors. Further, experiences elsewhere are limited in the safety aspects of these reactors. Though India has developed expertise in handling these problems in the 15 MW Fast breeder test reactor the scaling up to 500 MW FBRs needs great care”.

The review of the comments pointed to the need for disseminating suitable information to public. Many of the fence sitters need information badly so that they will turn pronuclear effortlessly!

I sent Dr Swaminathan’s article and that of Dr M V Ramana and Awinikumar to Dr Chang Yoon II, Argonne Distiguished Fellow, Argonne National Laboratory for his comments. He is an outstanding engineer who spent over 36 years in advanced reactor design and fuel cycle technology.

“These are typical anti-SFR (sodium cooled fast reactor) articles without proper understanding of technical facts.” Dr Yoon replied.

“The positive coolant void coefficient is a misnomer. It is indeed positive for most SFRs, if void is generated by a large gas bubble passing through the core. But there is no source of such gas bubble generation in the core. If the void is generated by coolant boiling, then the rising coolant temperature provides negative reactivity by thermal expansion of the structures, etc. negating the positive coolant coefficient.” he said

“What is important to the reactor safety is the overall negative temperature coefficient and negative power coefficient at all operating conditions. All SFR designs that I know of have both negative temperature coefficient and negative power coefficient. The coolant void coefficient is a small component of the overall temperature coefficient. It does not matter whether the coolant void coefficient is positive or negative as long as the overall coolant temperature coefficient is negative”, he asserted.

“Sodium has a very high boiling temperature and hence pressurization is not necessary. This enables opportunities to maximize inherent passive safety, including passive shut down heat removal capabilities. The sodium fire and sodium-water reaction is taken care of by providing an intermediate heat transport loop, so the primary reactor system is always protected”, he clarified

He conceded that the past SFRs had a mixed record of operation. “Largely these were first-of-a-kind demonstration plants built in each country. Design mistakes were made occasionally; there were component failures, particularly in the non-nuclear portion of the plants, and a few sodium leaks and fires. On the other hand, the decades-long success of EBR-II and lessons taken from the mistakes made elsewhere lends confidence that SFRs properly designed and operated should be safe, reliable, and easy to operate and maintain”

I published an article titled “Fast breeder reactor safety” as a PTI feature (April 9, 2011).

About ksparthasarathy

I am a former Secretary of the Atomic Energy Regulatory Board. I am a former Raja Ramanna Fellow in the Department of Atomic Energy. Free lance journalism is my hobby
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