Is Thorium answer to India’s nuclear energy woes?


Forced by global nuclear sanctions and hunger for clean energy, India had embarked on a three-stage nuclear energy programme that would eventually help it to exploit its vast reserves of thorium. Even as the nuclear trade embargo has been lifted, importing Uranium could be a costly affair and hence India remains one of the pioneering countries to continue research in the area with its thorium-fuelled Advanced Heavy Water Reactor (AHWR).

The thorium-fuelled Advanced Heavy Water Reactors (AHWRs) forming the base of Indian nuclear power grid was mooted in 1950s by Homi Bhabha to make India self-reliant in nuclear power as it has vast Thorium reserves in contrast to Uranium serves that needs to be imported. Bhabha Atomic Research Centre (BARC) – a unit of Department of Atomic Energy – is working on the research and development of AHWR. According to an Indian Government BARC has already developed a technology demonstrator of thorium fuel-based vertical pressure tube type, heavy water moderated and boiling light water cooled reactor.

“Thorium will be an important contributor to achieve sustainable energy independence for India as a ‘developed’ nation. Thorium also offers important benefits in the management of spent nuclear fuel on account of very low generation of long-lived minor actinides,” Dr RK Sinha, Former Chairman of Atomic Energy Commission (AEC) and Secretary of Department of Atomic Energy (DAE); and present Homi Bhabha Chair told Nuclear Asia. Dr. Sinha has been guiding the programmes for new advanced reactors under design and development at BARC to utilise thorium. These include, the AHWR, which produces most of its power from thorium, and has several innovative passive safety systems.

Various technologies of the 300 MWe capacity AHWR are presently under validation. The government has given in-principle approval for the Tarapur Maharashtra site for locating the 300 MWe AHWR. The fuel to be used is thorium 232 (an isotope of thorium). Thorium is not fissile in itself but it absorbs a neutron to start the radioactive process to yield Uranium-233, which is fissile. The Indian Government affirms that the AHWR will give fillip to the third state of India’s Civil Nuclear Power Programme.

Dr. Sinha terms it imperative for India to exploit its thorium reserves to become energy sufficient. “A large country like India, with its huge demand for clean energy, cannot be perpetually dependent on imports of nuclear fuel from abroad. Considering the reality of non-availability of sufficient uranium in our country, but plenty of thorium, our priority for closed nuclear fuel cycle and thorium is higher than most of the other nuclear power countries,” he added.

In line with its objective India has been following the three stage closed nuclear cycle that generates relatively less waste. The three stages are Pressurized Heavy Water Reactor, Fast Breeder Reactor and AHWRs.

Till October, 2014, AMD has established 2,14,158 tonnes in-situ U3O8 (1,81,606 tonnes uranium) resources and 11.93 million tonnes of in-situ resources of monazite resources, which contains about 1.07 million tonnes of Thorium Oxide (ThO2). For a sustainable thorium-based cycle the country needs to obtain enough fissile material and expert see 2040 as the practical deadline for the AHWRs to become operational.

But in the meantime, India is working to build its uranium stockpiles through import so that its present and upcoming nuclear reactors can continue to run. Indian nuclear energy programme is soon going to reach a stage where it will have 21 reactors under construction and 22 reactors in operation. But the paucity of Uranium resources used to fuel the reactors is pushing India to step up its mining operations and enter collaborations with different countries for supply.

The ray of hope for the mushrooming civil nuclear programme has been the vast amount of Uranium reserves found in Andhra Pradesh. The state on the eastern coast of India presently has 1.22 lakh tonnes of Uraninum Oxide that is equivalent to 1.04 lakh tonnes of Uranium. This makes the state the largest repository of Uranium in India. The Uranium Corporation of India Limited has already began laying of groundwork for the extraction of the material. An underground mine in Tummalapalle (Andhra Pradesh) has already been constructed.

Chairman of India’s Atomic Energy Commission and Secretary of Department of Atomic Energy (DAE) Dr. Sekhar Basu recently gave stock of the development of India’s nuclear energy programme at the 61st International Atomic Energy Association’s General Conference. “70th year of Indian independence has also been an year of exceptional achievements for us in the area of nuclear power, heavy water, nuclear fuel and associated material, uranium mining and milling, rare earth, radio isotopes and cancer care. All our research facilities, including synchrotron, cyclotron and reactors achieved their highest ever performance,” Dr. Basu said in his address.

India has taken giant strides in the field of nuclear energy and nuclear applications. Beginning of the year 2017, the Indian Government approved the construction of 10 Pressurised Heavy Water Reactors in serial mode and sanctioned construction of two more reactors at Kudankulam Nuclear Power Plant in Tamil Nadu. With these reactors we will now have 21 reactors under construction and 22 reactors in operation. This will increase the capacity to over 22,000 MWe by the end of next decade.

The recently constructed mine in Tummalapalle has a capacity to mine about 3000 tonnes of uranium ore every day. However, the present production of Uranium in India is not enough to feed its hungry nuclear reactors and the Indian establishment is also seized of the matter. “To cater to the needs of expansion of nuclear power programme, we are also stepping up our exploration and mining operation for production of uranium,” said Dr. Basu.

The extraction of Uranium in India is also facing other problems like Environmental clearances. The Minister of State for Personnel, Public Grievances & Pensions and Prime Minister’s Office Dr. Jitendra Singh has told the Parliament that the survey of Uranium deposits in Nallamala Forest in Andhra Pradesh is lagging behind pending the clearance from The National Board for Wildlife and the Ministry of Environment, Forest and Climate Change. Atomic Minerals Directorate for Exploration and Research (AMD), a constituent unit of Department of Atomic Energy (DAE), which has the mandate to identify and evaluate mineral resources of uranium in the country, has submitted application December 2014. The proposal is stuck as the location is the oldest tiger reserve of the country and is home to a protected Indian primitive tribe – Chenchu.

In response to a written question, Dr Singh told the Parliament that the Indian government is in negotiation with other countries for supply of fuel. “Negotiation meetings for supply of fuel were held with various firms of Australia, Russia, Kazakhstan and Canada,” Dr. Singh said.