On the sleepy palm-fringed coast of the Bay of Bengal, the developing world's first fast-breeder nuclear power complex has been built around a tiny old temple.
Officials originally planned to raze the temple when constructing the nuclear reactor, but the workers threatened to walk off the job.
"So we've got built-in safety," said G. Venkataraman, principal physicist at the Kalpakkam Reactor Research Center."This is the only nuclear reactor in the world protected by God."
As a growing number of developing countries push into the more sophisticated nuclear technologies -- breeder reactors, plutonium reprocessing plants, uranium enrichment facilities -- many experts feel they can use every bit of safety protection they can get.
The Carter administration has decided not to oppose breeder research-and-development programs in the major nuclear nations like France, but it clearly is far from overjoyed by the spread of this technology to the developing world.
For one thing, fast-breeder reactors -- which require large amounts of plutonium to begin operation and then produce more plutonium than they consume -- threaten to increase tremendously the worldwide availability of a substance that can easily be diverted into fabrication of nuclear weapons.
They also increase the pressure on developing countries to build reprocessing plants, which would take the used fuel from conventional atomic power stations and provide fast breeders with their initial plutonium.
But fast breeders also pose -- particularly for a developing country -- safety hazards, still not fully evaluated in the United States, which appear to be considerably greater than those associated with the present generation of water-cooled nuclear power plants.
While a water-cooled nuclear reactor cannot explode like an atomic weapon, experts feel it is conceivable that a fast breeder could sustain a small, low-grade nuclear explosion.
"We are not underestimating the safety problems of fast breeders," Venkataraman said as he led the way into the domed, three-foot-thick concrete containment structure.
"We have a safety group that is closely monitoring the safety aspects," he said. "When you build a fast breeder, you don't want an accident."
The fast breeder being built here at Kalpakkam was started in the early 1970s on a basis of a collaboration agreement with France under which the French were to provide "the broad know-how and design consultance," an Indian official said.
A team of Indian engineers and draftsmen spent several months in France studying the pilot Rapsodie fast breeder at the Cadarache nuclear research center near Marseilles, which at that point had been operating for several years.
"The French had acquired a lot of useful experience," Venkataraman said. "They pointed out several things they would not do if they were building it again, and we made some changes in design."
Electricity-hungry India also decided that unlike France, it would use its pilot fast breeder as a tiny power station that would contribute 15,000 kilowatts of electricity to the Indian grid.
"We are trying to combine fast-breeder research with power-generation experience," Venkataraman said.
While India is now building most of the parts for its conventional nuclear power stations, officials conceded that they have had to buy many of the materials for their pilot fast breeder abroad -- mostly from France.
"A key problem is that of material radiation damage," Venkataraman said.
Unlike nuclear reactors that are cooled by water, fast breeders are cooled by liquid metal sodium, which corrodes some materials. The intense radiation in a fast reactor core also puts extraordinary demands on metals.
"Our metallurgy still has to catch up with the requirements of this kind of sophistication," Venkataraman said.
Still, the control system for the steam generator, the reactor vessel, the control-rod drive, the reactor pumps, and even the heat exchangers -- a particularly tricky piece of equipment for fast breeders -- are being made in India.
In another part of the Kalpakkam complex, scientists and engineers are also building a plant to produce the liquid metal sodium that will be used to cool the breeder reactor.
"We plan to produce 100 tons of nuclear-grade sodium for this reactor," Venkataraman said.
The Kalpakkam fast breeder will be fueled with a mixture of highly enriched uranium and plutonium.
Since India does not have a uranium enrichment facility, it expects to obtain the 120 kilograms of highly enriched uranium for the breeder from France.
India has constructed, however, two plutonium reprocessing plants, and Venkataraman said the 50 kilograms of plutonium needed for the initial loading "will come from our own resources."
India's third plutonium reprocessing plant, a laboratory-scale facility, is also being constructed as part of the Kalpakkam complex to give scientists experience in reprocessing spent fuel from the breeder.
It will not be able to handle all the spent fuel from the breeder, however, so Venkataraman said it will quickly be followed by "a larger reprocessing plant that will be located adjacent to the reactor building."
Some developing countries like Argentina, which has plentiful supplies of the natural uranium used in a plutonium breeder reactor, view this fuel cycle as their best hope for energy independence in the future.
"I think all the world will go on breeders," Adm. Raul Castro Madero, head of Argentina's Atomic Energy Commission, said in an interview.
But India, which has relatively little natural uranium, views the plutonium fuel cycle as only a second stage that will ultimately let it develop a fast-breeder fuel cycle based on thorium.
"We have large deposits of thorium," said Indian Foreign Secretary M. A. Vellodi. "We are not interested in plutonium technology, but plutonium is midway until we get onto the thorium technology."
For India, however, large fast breeders using the plutonium cycle probably will not appear, at best, until the 1990s, and the thorium fuel cycle is clearly a 21st century dream.
In the meantime, said Venkataraman, "we hope to use this reactor as a test bed -- as the French and others have in the past."
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