India’s three-stage nuclear power program, devised by Homi Bhabha in the 1950s, aims to ensure long-term energy independence for the country while taking into account its limited uranium resources and abundant thorium reserves.
The program can be outlined as follows:
- Stage I – Pressurized Heavy Water Reactors (PHWRs): This stage employs natural uranium (0.7% U-235 + 99.3% U-238) as fuel, generating plutonium-239 as a by-product.
- Stage II – Fast Breeder Reactors (FBRs): FBRs are designed to “breed” more fuel than they consume. Once a stockpile of plutonium-239 is established, thorium can be introduced as a blanket material in the reactor, transmuting it to uranium-233 for use in the third stage.
- Stage III – Thorium Based Reactors (TBRs): In this stage, self-sustaining reactors fueled by thorium-232 and uranium-233 are employed.
While nuclear energy is seen as a viable alternative to fossil fuels for sustainable development, it also offers numerous other applications:
- Health: Nuclear technology finds uses in various medical fields, such as oncology, cardiology, neurology, and pneumology. It plays a crucial role in accurate and timely diagnostics.
- Food/Agriculture: Radiation technology aids in obtaining desired crop varieties through controlled mutation, reducing the time-consuming natural mutation process. Direct irradiation of food crops eliminates microorganisms and insects, reducing post-harvest losses and improving food quality.
- Industry/Manufacturing: Radio technology facilitates standardization, measurement, automation, and quality control in industrial processes. For example, nuclear technology allows non-destructive imaging of internal structures using X-rays.
- Environmental Applications:
- Isotope hydrology helps research subterranean freshwater sources, determining their origin and assessing the risk of saltwater contamination.
- Neutron probes accurately measure soil moisture content, enhancing resource efficiency and productivity.
- Gamma and electron beam radiation can convert plastic waste into fuel and feedstock through radiolysis.
- Space Navigation: Nuclear technology enables efficient and prolonged space exploration. For instance, robotic equipment powered by the plutonium-238 isotope can embark on unmanned space missions lasting centuries.
- Archaeology: Nuclear technology, particularly carbon dating, is vital for determining the age of rocks and other materials by analyzing the relative abundance of naturally occurring isotopes.
Despite these applications, nuclear technology faces several challenges:
- Concerns over safety, nuclear waste disposal, and land acquisition make establishing nuclear plants time-consuming and cumbersome, as seen in the case of Kudankulam in Tamil Nadu.
- Limited availability of fissile material in India, the capital-intensive nature of nuclear plants, and competition from cheaper renewable energy sources make nuclear energy relatively expensive.
- Nuclear meltdowns, resulting from severe overheating and core melting, can lead to catastrophic incidents like Chernobyl, Three Mile Island, and Fukushima.
- Ensuring a seamless supply of nuclear materials remains a daunting challenge, despite civil nuclear energy agreements with many countries.
- As India is not a signatory to the Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT), access to reprocessing and enrichment technology is restricted.
Adopting nuclear technology would not only align with India’s Intended Nationally Determined Contributions (INDCs) but also enhance the country’s energy security. Encouraging global collaborations to develop new technologies such as the ITER Tokomak, based on nuclear fusion, can promote a decarbonized growth pattern.