Indian engineers seem to have set the cat amongst the pigeons of the nuclear energy industry.
Yesterday, in a Mumbai press briefing hosted by Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, the newly-formed INEF announced that a new breakthrough would make nuclear reactors fuelled by thorium a commercial reality within three years.
India’s growth in nuclear energy has always been constrained due to their limited local reserves of uranium. The recent global attitude turnaround towards nuclear power has driven uranium prices sky high.
This announcement means that India is not dependent on any outside source of fissionable materials and government strategy now dictates that they will treble their nuclear power capability every five years.
The fact that India is still not a signatory to the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty remains a bone of contention world-wide, even while the USA has actively embraced the booming Indian economy as a trading and nuclear partner.
Thorium is about three times as plentiful world-wide as uranium and India and Australia have half the world’s reserves of thorium between them.
It is expected that soaring uranium and coal prices will be curtailed in the short term, and that, in the long term, this breakthrough could lower energy prices and have a beneficial effect on nuclear waste.
ANALYSIS >> SYNTHESIS: How this scenario came to be
Thorium is now thought to be three times more abundant in nature than uranium.
Thorium can also be used as a nuclear fuel through breeding to uranium-233 (U-233). When this thorium fuel cycle is used, much less plutonium and other transuranic elements are produced, compared with uranium fuel cycles. Several reactor concepts based on thorium fuel cycles are under consideration, including in India.
Thorium is a naturally-occurring, slightly radioactive metal discovered in 1828 by the Swedish chemist Jons Jakob Berzelius, who named it after Thor, the Norse god of thunder. It is found in small amounts in most rocks and soils, where it is about three times more abundant than uranium. Soil commonly contains an average of around 6 parts per million (ppm) of thorium.
Thorium occurs in several minerals, the most common being the rare earth-thorium-phosphate mineral, monazite, which contains up to about 12% thorium oxide, but on average 6-7%. Thorium-232 decays very slowly (its half-life is about three times the age of the earth) but other thorium isotopes occur in its and in uranium’s decay chains. Most of these are short-lived and hence much more radioactive than Th-232, though on a mass basis they are negligible.
World thorium resources (economically extractable, tons):
Australia 300 000
India 290 000
Norway 170 000
USA 160 000
Canada 100 000
South Africa 35 000
Brazil 16 000
Other countries 95 000
World total 1 200 000
India, Nuclear Power and Thorium
India has particularly large reserves of thorium, and so have planned their nuclear power program to eventually use it exclusively, phasing out uranium as an input material. This ambitious plan uses both fast and thermal breeder reactors. The Advanced Heavy Water Reactor and KAMINI reactor are efforts in this direction.
The Advanced Heavy Water Reactor (AHWR) is a proposed heavy water moderated nuclear power reactor. It is now being developed at Bhabha Atomic Research Centre (BARC) and aims to meet the objectives of using thorium fuel cycles for commercial power generation.
The Bhabha Atomic Research Centre (BARC) is India’s primary nuclear research facility. It has a number of nuclear reactors, all of which are used for India’s nuclear power and research program. It was started in 1957, as the Atomic Energy Establishment, Trombay (AEET), and became India’s primary nuclear research center, taking charge of most nuclear scientists that were at the Tata Institute of Fundamental Research.
The first reactors at BARC and its affiliated power generation centers were imported from the west. India’s first power reactors, installed at the Tarapore Atomic Power Plant (TAPP) were from the US. The primary importance of BARC is as a research centre. The BARC and the Indian government have consistently maintained that the reactors are used for this purpose only.
The plutonium used in India’s 1974 nuclear test carried out in Pokhran in the Thar desert of Rajasthan, sometimes referred to in the liberal media as a ‘Peaceful Nuclear Explosion’, came from on their own reactors, the primary charter of which was ‘peaceful’ nuclear research. The 1974 test (and the 1998 tests that followed) gave Indian scientists the technological know-how and confidence not only to develop nuclear fuel for future reactors to be used in power generation and research, but also the capacity to refine the same fuel into weapons-grade fuel to be used in the development of nuclear weapons.
India and the NPT
India is not a party to the nuclear non-proliferation treaty (NPT), citing concerns that it unfairly favors the established nuclear powers, and provides no provision for complete nuclear disarmament. Indian officials argued that India’s refusal to sign the treaty stemmed from its fundamentally discriminatory character; the treaty places restrictions on the non-nuclear weapons states but does little to curb the modernization and expansion of the nuclear arsenals of the nuclear weapons states.
More recently, India and the United States signed an agreement to enhance nuclear cooperation between the two countries, and for India to participate in an international consortium on fusion research, so there are signs of a thaw in the stance of the west.
Thorium in Pebble-Bed Modular Reactors (PBMR)
Arising from German work, the PBMR was conceived in South Africa and is now being developed by a multinational consortium. It can potentially use thorium in its fuel pebbles.