It’s abundant, less radioactive than uranium, and cannot be weaponized or made to explode even by accident. It’s Thorium, and could well be the safe nuclear fuel of the future. What’s more is that India is the world leader in its research, and if all goes according to plan, it could make it the leading indigenous energy source in the country.
For an aspiring superpower like India, it is good to be at the cutting edge of something. Thorium as a safe alternative to uranium could be just the panacea the world’s atomic alarmists are looking for, with opposition to nuclear energy rising in the wake of the Fukushima disaster.
Thorium is several times more abundant than uranium, and 25-30 percent of the world’s reserves of it are estimated to be in India. India imports most of the fissile material it consumes, but the same was limited (or negated entirely) by international sanctions on its nuclear program that began in 1974. However, India needs uranium to sustain the first stage of its three-stage nuclear programme – which Dr. Homi Bhabha conceived as early as the 1950’s to secure India’s energy independence in the future.
India gained major ground in thorium based research primarily because of its inability to source uranium from other countries as a result of the Nuclear Suppliers Group’s (NSG) opposition to its nuclear program. With India lacking sufficient reserves of uranium, it was forced to develop alternatives to the same – a strategy that pays off well today in a time where nuclear energy needs to evolve into a cleaner and safer alternative to what it used to be.
Where thorium was initially seen as an alternative to sourcing uranium, now uranium will be sourced to fuel the creation of utilizable thorium. The commercial use of thorium has yet to be executed to its maximum potential, and India, which is nearing the end of the first stage of its programme, will have to follow through with two more stages in the next two decades before thorium can emerge as the new primary nuclear fuel. Until then, uranium will continue to hold prominence, which is why the NSG waiver in 2008 that permitted India to import uranium despite not being an adherent of the Non-proliferation Treaty is greatly appreciated by the energy community.
One could say India’s nuclear program succeeded in this regard because of and not despite the international sanctions of technology and material transfer. India’s nuclear program has been commended by many, and Siegfried Hecker, a former director of the Los Alamos Research facility (the same one that produced the world’s first nuclear test codenamed ‘Trinity’), even put it ahead of that of the USA’s (who have been reducing their nuclear energy research and dependence since the three mile island accident in 1979 – prompting a global slowdown of research into the same that only grew worse when the Chernobyl meltdown happened in 1984). “India has the most technically ambitious and innovative nuclear energy programme in the world. The extent and functionality of its nuclear experimental facilities are matched only by those in Russia and are far ahead of what is left in the US.”
Making nuclear energy cleaner and safer is the need of the hour, especially in the wake of the Fukushima meltdown – which raised questions as to the safety of existing nuclear technology and the accountability of its providers.
The last direction the nuclear deal has taken was for the two countries to find a way to exempt US technology providers from having to face liability in the event of an accident. It is telling that General Electrics, who made the GE Mark 1 reactor that suffered a meltdown in Fukushima, hopes to provide reactors to India through the nuclear deal while remaining immune to accountability in case anything goes wrong. GE has not been required to compensate Japan for its economic loss as a result of the accident – with the cost of clean-up alone estimated to be in the range of $200 billion. The Indian Civil Liability Bill provides for a maximum compensation of around $241 million (where the price of a single reactor alone could go up to $9.6 billion).
There’s a lot more to the story of thorium, and India’s strides in researching the same should be recognized and commended with the same pride with which we cheer for Mangalyaan and the Agni programmes. Let’s hope India can use thorium to fuel its growth story in the direction it needs to go – clean and safe self-sufficiency.
Image Source: The Viewspaper