Back in 2006 India wanted to expand its nuclear power by 15 times (from 4,120 MW to 63,000 MW) by 2032, according to the Planning Commission's 2006 integrated energy policy report. In percentage of the total energy mix, the nuclear share would double from 3 per cent to 6 per cent. "We hope to touch 7,000 MW by next year," said then S K Jain, chairman and managing director of India's public sector nuclear utility Nuclear Power Corporation of India Limited. There was however a problem with uranium supplies.
Hence the idea of Fast Breeder Reactors. Worldwide, fast breeder reactors have been abandoned. The Superphenix reactor in France (Creys-Malville) was shut down in 1997 after a sodium leak and a roof cave-in. Russia began constructing one in 1987 but did not finish it. Japan shut down its Monju reactor after a fire caused by a sodium leak. The US and Germany pursued large breeder programmes for several decades before abandoning them. (Radioactive Mirage, Down to Earth, 15 Oct. 2009).
After the nuclear agreement between the US and India in 2005, India’s government identified a list of purely civilian nuclear facilities, with no military links. The US agreed to supply nuclear equipment to India, and France was to follow suit. Guarantees of not military use were sought. As Glaser and Ramana (2007) explain, the civilian facilities listed would exclude military use of byproducts. However, one contentious issue in the civil-military separation of nuclear facilities is the status of the fast breeder reactor program. The Indian Department of Atomic Energy (DAE) declared that sites and facilities related to the breeder program would not be put under safeguards. This includes the entire Kalpakkam nuclear complex near Madras (Chennai), where the existing 40 MWe Fast Breeder Test Reactor (FBTR) and the upcoming 500 MWe Prototype Fast Breeder Reactor (PFBR) are located.
This PFBR is not yet operational by January 2016, its imminent inauguration has been announced many times.The site also features a reprocessing plant and two operational heavy-water reactors. The construction of a second reprocessing plant at the site is planned. Existing stockpiles of separated plutonium or spent fuel from some heavy water reactors would also remain outside safeguards under the US-India agreement, which was signed to allow nuclear equipment to reach India again, after some years when this was stopped because of sporadic rumors of nuclear confrontation with Pakistan.
To explain this position, the head of the DAE said in an interview to a leading Indian newspaper: “Both, from the point of view of maintaining long-term energy security and for maintaining the minimum credible deterrent, the fast breeder programme just cannot be put on the civilian list.” Glaser’s and Ramana’s conclusion is that this suggests that India’s nuclear establishment envisions the use of plutonium generated in the breeder reactor to make weapons.
Building of fast breeder reactors elsewhere was stopped because of malfunction or protests. It continues in India where there is talk of six fast breeder reactors, of which Kalpakkam would be the first one. They operate with plutonium (and are cooled by sodium), and their link to military programmes is difficult to hide. In future they might operate with thorium. The uncertain risk of accidents is an argument for the latent opposition. One wonders who would face the liability if an accident were to take place. For conventional nuclear reactors, liability is capped, and commercial suppliers of reactors are by law practically exempt from liability.
Opposition to the Kalpakkam PFBR is muted, and to the extent that it exists, it is diluted in the opposition to nuclear energy in general. However, some vigorous voices are heard. Writing in 2011, Swaminathan S. Anklesaria Aiyar stated: “Nuclear safety has become a top priority after the Fukushima nuclear disaster in Japan. Safety at all Indian plants is being reviewed, and coastal reactors may be built on higher ground for tsunami protection. Critics have objected to unproven French reactors for the Jaitapur (Maharashtra) nuclear power complex. Yet critics and agitators are ignoring the biggest nuclear risk of all: the inherently dangerous nature of fast breeder reactors (FBRs). The Indian nuclear establishment has long viewed FBRs as a great prize because these are indigenously engineered and can use India’s huge thorium reserves, eliminating dependence on uranium. Problem: conventional reactors are cooled by light or heavy water, but FBRs are cooled by liquid sodium, which is inherently dangerous. Liquid sodium reacts explosively with both air and water. Hence, even a tiny leak of sodium coolant can cause a fire.”
M V Ramana, a physicist who has followed closely the development of the nuclear industry in India, said that: "The three-stage nuclear programme was an idea from the 1950s when no one knew that breeder reactors would be a technological failure, expensive and prone to accidents, and that reprocessing would be so costly". (Down to Earth, 15 Oct. 2009).
In March 2013 there was a peaceful protest of about 1000 people complaining against the nuclear complex at Kalpakkam. Nityanand Jayaraman reported (in Dianuke) that in a bid to intimidate fenceline communities living around the Kalpakkam nuclear reactors, the Tamil Nadu Police jailed 129 people of the 650 that were detained while protesting to highlight that the nuclear complex in Kalpakkam was all threat and risk to the local community with no benefits either in the form of jobs or electricity.