Since India began its nuclear programme in the 1950s, it has aimed to tap the ample thorium reserves that lie within its borders.November 09, 2012 By Hal Hodson Article from New Scientist
Construction is finally set to begin on a reactor that will produce electricity from India’s most convenient fuel for the first time. But with a checkered past on the subject, the country’s promises of a new dawn for nuclear rest on shaky ground.
Last week, the Nuclear Power Corporation of India (NPCIL) put out statements to the Indian press touting the safety of its new Advanced Heavy Water Reactor (AHWR), which could break ground near one of the country’s conventional reactors next year. Once operational, they claim it will fulfil the vision of India’s 60-year-old blueprint for thorium-based nuclear energy production, generating 300 megawatts of power from thorium more safely than nuclear energy has ever done. NPCIL’s technical director, Shiv Abhilash Bhardwaj, told the press that such reactors will be so safe they can be built right inside major cities like Mumbai.
The rhetoric is familiar: for decades, thorium has been repeatedly held up as a cheap, clean way forward for nuclear power. Compared with the uranium-based fuel cycles, thorium produces far smaller amounts of radioactive waste elements – including plutonium, which remains dangerous for tens of thousands of years.
But the reality is that there’s nothing new about the AHWR, says Craig Smith, a nuclear engineer at the US Naval Postgraduate School in Monterey, California. Smith says Bhardwaj’s claims that the reactor will be safe enough to build in urban areas simply do not stand up. The reactor will convert thorium to uranium-233, which then splits to produce heat and other elements with short half-lives. If an accident were to occur, this dangerous mix of chemicals could be released into the environment.
Ralph Moir, a nuclear physicist at the Lawrence Livermore Laboratory in California, suggests that India’s devotion to thorium is driven more by ideology than science. India’s nuclear road map was laid out by nuclear pioneer Homi Bhabha in 1954. His primary goal was not safe nuclear power but energy independence based on the sheer abundance of thorium in the country – as much as one-quarter of the world’s supply.
Half a century later, however, the AHWR is the best thing India has to show for its thorium efforts – and it hasn’t even been built yet. This reflects India’s poor record on nuclear power projects: in 1969, the country’s Atomic Energy Commission predicted that India would be producing a total of 43 gigawatts of power by the turn of the new millennium. Today, 4.8 gigawatts come from nuclear, good for just 2.3 per cent of the total output of electricity in the country.
Meanwhile, China has raced ahead. Not distracted by thorium, China built uranium reactors at a furious pace and its nuclear capacity now stands at three times India’s, despite having only completed its first power plant in 1991.
In the wake of the Fukushima meltdown in Japan, world governments are waking up to the reality that nuclear power is not necessarily safe. The promise of thorium-fuelled reactors remains great. Decades of hype in India may have dampened the mood, but if the country can finally follow through on their claims, what has for so long been the “technology of the future” may at last arrive in the present.