November 21, 2019

India’s Tryst with Thorium

Time for India to lead the world with thorium power plants

Global warming is a source of concern because it is believed to be leading to drastic changes in weather patterns.  This could cause serious damage to both the economy and the ecosystem. The burning of carbonaceous fossil fuels, coal and oil, are said to be the most important cause for global warming because they lead to the discharge of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere and this in turn traps solar heat through the greenhouse effect. Hence many activists have argued against the usage of coal and oil, in thermal power plants and internal combustion engines, and demand conversion to electric power. But while the usage of electric power is certainly clean, electricity itself needs to be generated somehow -- it just cannot appear by magic in those two or three holes in the wall.

Two clean sources of electricity are solar and wind and activists have long argued that these should be the basis of electricity generation in the future. However anyone who has seen the vagaries of the weather knows that neither sunshine nor winds are predictable or persistent and so it is difficult to run an entire industrial society based on these two resources alone. Though environmental-fundamentalists would argue that it is indeed possible to work with solar and wind alone any pragmatic analysis would show that these are at best good supplements to more stable sources of energy. In fact, solar and wind power system have many problems too -- especially in the huge requirements of land and the maintenance of highly distributed equipment, but that would be another story.

Thermal power plants based on either coal or nuclear energy are, in fact, the only two options that we have for reliable generation of electricity. Frankly coal based thermal power systems are not as bad as they are portrayed to be because all the carbon dioxide is generated at one location and there exists excellent technology to trap and contain this carbon dioxide but somehow the popular consensus is that coal is bad. And if coal is bad then nuclear power is far worse because it leads to Hiroshima, Nagasaki, Chernobyl, Three Mile Island and Fukushima.

This negative perception of nuclear power is wrong and is based on outdated knowledge. In an article in the previous issue we have seen that   as far as India is concerned, thorium is a nuclear fuel that (a) is safe, since it can be used with the thermal breeder technology that has a low risk of explosions (b) generates far less radioactive wastes so that  containment and management is much simpler and (c ) is readily and easily available without having to go begging to international regulators of non-proliferation. After all,  2011 USGS estimates put global reserves at 1.91 MT of which 50% or 0.963 MT is in India.

Why is it is that we have not moved on thorium? Is it that our scientists are ignorant or our engineers incompetent? No. Not at all ...

Homi Bhaba, who laid the foundations of atomic energy in India was very much aware of the vast potential of thorium in India but the route to and through thorium is not easy. The primary goal of the global nuclear industry was to build bombs with plutonium, not generate power. So the primary focus of almost all research and development in both the US and in Russia was along the uranium and plutonium route. India alone, under Bhaba’s guidance was interested in thorium because it would lead to cheap and abundant energy from India native resources. But this is a lonely path, that India has had to tread alone, until China realised its importance and has jumped onto the bandwagon.

Then Bhaba died in a plane crash in 1966, shortly after he had made a casual statement that India could build a bomb in 18 months. While it was obviously never proved, journalist Gregory Douglas had quoted a retired CIA officer Robert Crowley who claimed that this accident was a CIA operation to block India’s nuclear aspirations.  This is very similar to the case of Nambi Narayan, the father of India & ISRO’s cryogenic engine who had a number of  false cases registered against him by rogue IPS officers -- Siby Mathews, KK Joshua & S Vijayan -- of the Kerala police at the instance of a Western spy agency. All the cases were eventually thrown out by the Supreme Court but ISRO’s cryogenic engine program along with Mangalyaan and Chandrayaan was set back by over 15 years. That is another tragic story.

Bhaba’s plan envisaged a three stage approach to sustainable nuclear energy based on the availability of both the technology and natural resources. First with uranium, then with plutonium and finally, after the accumulation of adequate fissile plutonium, India would start with its abundant thorium reserves that will last for a very long time. The plan was that by the early years of the 21st century, in the decade of the 2010s, India would be in a position to begin with the thorium technology.

In accordance with this plan, the Advanced Heavy Water Reactor (AWHR) has been designed to use thorium but before it can be put to use, the entire Atomic Energy Program has to be freed from a slew of politically motivated constraints. Environmental activists with little knowledge of technology but well connected to the media have painted a fearful picture of impending disaster. Politicians and NGOs with the backing and funding of US and European social activists have leveraged this public fear of nuclear power to create political opposition. These agitations obstruct land acquisition and delay the building and commissioning of nuclear plants. The worst example of how foreign funds have been used to thwart India’s national interest is the violent and virulent opposition mounted by Catholic Church backed organisations against the Kalpakkam plant, near Chennai -- the first fully indigenous facility for the full spectrum of nuclear power technology. Similar agitations backed by the Trinamool Congress have sabotaged the proposed nuclear facility at Haripur in West Bengal.

While the danger from radioactivity is a reality, media hype has made it into something that is far larger than what it really is. For example, the Fukushima disaster is said to affect “32 million people” but the number of actual deaths would not be more than 500 which is small compared to the 20,000 people who died in the tsunami that actually triggered the accident. Similarly, the total number of deaths caused by the Chernobyl accident has been estimated to be between 4000 and 16000, spread over 30 years. While these numbers are large, these should be seen from the context of the 140,000 people who are killed in road accidents in India every year. Similarly, while the Trinamool Congress was up in arms against acquisition of land for the Haripur nuclear project, there was no similar urgency or frenzy in tackling the silent proliferation of deadly arsenic in the groundwater that is used by over 26 million people in South Bengal.

No technology is perfectly safe and nuclear energy is as good as or better than many other competing technologies. India has both the thorium as well as the technology to use it to generate all the energy that we would ever need without having to beg, or spend, for oil, uranium or even solar panels. It is time for the political leadership to take a hard stand and drive India to its long awaited tryst with thorium technology. For a change, let India lead the world.

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