Mumbai: On the black, glittering soil of the Tamil Nadu and Kerala coastlines may lie the answer to India’s nuclear needs. Thorium, an abundant mineral found in these sands and once used in kerosene lamps, represents an alternative fuel for nuclear reactors.
But the substance also finds itself the ironic meeting point of two controversies hounding the Union government: the sputtering Indo-US nuclear deal and the plan to dredge Adam’s Bridge, which some believe was built by Hindu god Ram.
Thus, scientists have been actively lobbying the government, saying it needs to support efforts to mine thorium to become a self-sufficient nuclear power.
India is home to more than a quarter of the world’s thorium, a black mineral found mixed in monazite ore, but about half of these deposits are on the Tamil Nadu coast—close to the site of Adam’s Bridge, a coral walkway between India and Sri Lanka, also known as Ram Sethu. Hindu groups, environmentalists and, now, thorium advocates have protested the Rs2,600 crore plan to dredge the bridge and create a channel to shorten shipping routes.
So valuable has India’s thorium become that administrators in the area have to contend with miners smuggling it out of the country.
Most nuclear powers use uranium, which is not readily available, but scientists say it can be made with thorium.
That view has been at odds with the government’s platform that the stalled treaty with the US represents access to much-needed nuclear technologies and resources. For instance, when Prime Minister Manmohan Singh said India needed 100 tonnes of uranium to run its 17 nuclear reactors, scientists responded that India can create its own.
“We have the know-how to use thorium to make uranium. We are also mining uranium in Andhra Pradesh and Nagaland. India will have the 100 tonnes of uranium in less than six months,” said P.K. Iyengar, former chairman of the Indian Atomic Energy Commission and a close associate of Homi Bhabha, the father of India’s atomic programme who built the country’s first reactors.
Like Bhabha, Iyengar advocates self-reliance as a better nuclear programme. He calls the proposed deal between India and the US, which has faced stiff opposition from the Left parties, a “backhanded way of signing the Non-Proliferation Treaty”. The global treaty limits the spread of nuclear weapons, and only India, Pakistan, Israel and North Korea have not ratified it.
Within three years, Iyengar pledges, a 500MW nuclear reactor at Kalpakkam in Tamil Nadu should be able to use thorium to breed plutonium and uranium. It cost about Rs3,000 crore to build.
As fissile fuels plutonium and uranium split, when bombarded with a neutron, they generate a huge amount of heat and light, which can be used to generate energy and electricity.
As India’s economy and consumption grow, nuclear power has been seen as one way to guarantee energy security, especially as oil prices skyrocket. (On Friday, global oil prices soared to a new high, jumping $3.36, or Rs132.72, to $90.46 a barrel.)
In fact, nuclear scientists believe thorium breeding can provide nuclear power to fuel India for the next few centuries. This month, former president A.P.J. Abdul Kalam reiterated that India should capitalize on its large thorium reserves. “The thrust should be to be self-reliant in thorium fuel-based reactors,” he said in an email interview. Kalam is a native of Rameswaram, the site of the Adam’s Bridge.
And despite optimism over thorium, geologists say the so-called Sethusamudram project could endanger half of India’s thorium deposits, found along the beaches where the channel will be dredged.
“Why has no study of ocean currents been done at the site of the Sethusamudram project? You need four things to get this kind of rich, heavy mineral deposit on your beaches: source rocks in the country, rivers to break them down and take the rock pieces to the ocean, the right ocean currents and the perfect deposition belt,” said R.R. Gopala-Krishnan, former director of the Geological Survey of India (GSI).
If any of these factors is missing, “we will not be able to hold on to the thorium and titanium in these sands. We need both of these for our nuclear and space programmes... These resources cannot be risked at any cost”, he added.
The bridge stops ocean waves from funnelling into the Gulf of Mannar, allowing the deposits to wash ashore, said S. Kalyanaraman, a scientist who runs an independent research centre in Chennai. He has been critical of the dredging, citing religious, economic and environmental factors.
“Ocean currents have been depositing minerals on India’s southern coastline because of the Ram Sethu,” he said.
These incoming waves rebound in a wide arc around Sri Lanka in a churning motion, and heavy minerals are flung out with the waves and deposited on the southern shores of India, he said. “This makes the Adam’s Bridge strategically important for India,” Kalyanaraman said. “We at least need to study the ocean currents and make sure our resources are not affected.”
Not everyone agrees with these fears. At GSI, senior geologist A.C. Dinesh said he did not think the Sethu project would have any impact on the deposits already present on the beaches, but added that he did not know for sure about the future deposits. Dinesh said GSI could experiment to form a conclusion.
Meanwhile, government officials continue to insist that the nuclear deal with the US is crucial. “We need to increase our power potential,” said Anil Kakodkar, current chairman of the Indian Atomic Energy Commission and secretary in the department of atomic energy.
That could only happen by adding more “power-producing reactors”, he said. “We need uranium.”
Thorium-based nuclear reactors have been termed the “holy grail” of nuclear scientists for the last six decades because countries such as Japan, China and France have been unsuccessful in transforming the mathematical formulas involved in the construction and operation of such reactors into reality—or usable nuclear energy. But nuclear scientists at the Bhabha Atomic Research Centre in Mumbai say it can be a reality for India.
When Bhabha conceived India’s nuclear programme, he drew up three stages. At the first stage were the heavy water reactors. Right now, India has 17 such reactors that use uranium as fuel. Stage 2 involves fast breeder reactors, two of which are in Kalpakkam. One 40MW reactor is operational and another 500MW prototype will start running in 2010. Normally, these reactors use plutonium-uranium mix as fuel in a 70:30 ratio.
Iyengar said Indian scientists have worked out a way to use thorium instead of uranium in this mixture that can create new plutonium and uranium.
Stage 3 represents the Holy Grail: thorium-based breeder reactors. Here, thorium is used as a fertile fuel blanket to breed fissionable uranium. The fast breeder reactor is a special reactor. While the idea behind the fast breeder is to produce more fissionable material than is consumed, the challenge is to be able to control the chain reaction, said Marko Beljac, an Australian expert on nuclear weapons and co-author of the book, An Illusion of Protection.
“No other country in the world has managed to create a prototype to make this kind of reactor so far,” said Sandeep Saxena, a nuclear safety expert at the Nuclear Power Corp. of India.
A scientist involved with the designing of the stage 3 prototype said the team secured necessary approvals for stage-three breeders. He requested anonymity.
Kalam, often called the brains behind India’s nuclear weapons programme, calls a thorium-based nuclear programme India’s “final goal” and says the reactor should be ready in five-seven years.
In an email interview, he said thorium-based nuclear reactors are essential. “The country has got the capability to realize power through thorium-based reactors within five-seven years. We should continue our R&D and ensure that we are self-reliant in nuclear fuel for power generation.”
Kalam said India also has the technology to extract thorium from the sand. There are three extraction plants in Kerala and another one is being set up in Orissa. But first they must secure thorium, a process that has grown thornier as its value and properties become more apparent.
Critics of the Adam’s Bridge dredging say that it will convert the historical waters between India and Sri Lanka into international waters, hence harder to monitor.
Apart from the immediate security implications like monitoring terrorist activities and refugees in the gulf, locals say they are concerned about the safety of the thorium.
Earlier this year, geology and mining officers in Kanyakumari apprehended six vehicles full of sand boxes. A sand analysis revealed that the boxes, which belong to South India’s biggest mineral company, VV Minerals, were full of sand containing thorium. As a prescribed mineral under the Atomic Energy Act, 1962, it is a punishable offence to handle it. A case was filed against VV Minerals in the Madurai bench of the Madras high court.
The next hearing is scheduled for 13 November. Calls to VV Minerals for comment remained unanswered.