Thorium power : a long term solution

Bhabha Atomic Research Centre in association with International Thorium Energy Organization, Nuclear Power Corporation of India Limited(NPCIL) and Homi Bhabha National Institute (HBNI)  organized  a four day ( Oct 12-15) “Thorium Energy Conference”  at Trombay. Over 450 delegates including about 50 from abroad participated in the deliberations.

Thorium is three times more abundant than uranium.  According to an authentic publication (OECD NEA & IAEA, Uranium 2014: Resources, Production and Demand- “Red Book”), India with an estimated thorium resource of 846,000 tonnes (T) leads 15 others such as Brazil (632,000T), Australia (595,000T), USA (595,000T) etc. in owning thorium resources

Thorium is not a fissile material. To be useful, it has to be converted into uranium-233, a fissile material. Dr Homi Bhabha advocated the three stage nuclear power programme for India because India has only very modest resources of uranium and abundant quantities of thorium.

Producing the needed quantities of uranium-233 will take time. There are no short cuts available for this.

In his address as the chief guest at the inaugural session of the conference Dr R Chidambaram, Principal Scientific Adviser and Chairman, Scientific Advisory Committee to the Cabinet traced the history of “International Thorium Energy Committee” set up in 2012 at CERN, Geneva under the leadership of Dr Carlo Rubbia to promote the use of thorium in nuclear power production. Dr. Rubbia carried out experiments in CERN to test the basic concept of a subcritical thorium fuelled reactor driven by a proton accelerator.

“The ADS concept….. has also interested Indian scientists”, Dr Chidambaram added

Dr Chidambaram advocated “a synergistic use of both uranium and thorium as envisaged in India’s 3-stage programme to be the best approach, tweaking the third stage as appropriate to accommodate Accelerator-Driven Systems (ADS) “.

He referred to the emphasis given by Dr Hans Blix, former Director General of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) to thorium-U-233 fuelled reactors, in the context of enhanced safety, easier management of radioactive waste and nuclear non-proliferation.

Indian researchers have utilized thorium in many programmes. They have used thorium fuel bundles in pressurized heavy water reactors for flux flattening. They used uranium-233 produced by irradiating thorium in the Purnima reactor.

Dr. Chidambaram recalled that KAMINI, a 30 kW reactor based on U-233 set up in the Indira Gandhi Centre for Atomic Research at Kalpakkam is used for neutron radiography of radioactive and non radioactive objects and for neutron activation analysis.

” If  the fuel cycle is closed with plutonium and fast breeder reactors, the same amount of uranium can give  ~50 times more power, ……If thorium is included in closing the fuel cycle, this will be increased to ~600 times” he clarified.

In his brief address, K C Purohit, CMD, NPCIL stated that NPCIL is making its modest contribution in supplementing the power requirement through the first stage of India’s nuclear power programme. NPCIL has demonstrated that nuclear power is an integral component of clean energy for sustainable development. NPCIL operates 21 reactors with a capacity of 5780 MW. Presently, the Corporation is commissioning one reactor of 1000 MW capacity and constructing four indigenous Pressurized Heavy Water Reactors each of 700 MW

” Journey of NPCIL so far, had been stabilization of 220 MW design, development, manufacture of equipment in India, and thereafter Design of 540 MW and now NPCIL- designed 700 MW units under construction which gives us satisfaction and confidence”  he added.

In his address, Dr R B Grover, Vice Chancellor, HBNI stated that climate change seems to be real and calls for development and deployment of carbon neutral technologies to meet global energy needs.

“In the quest for carbon neutral technologies, nuclear energy can play a dominant role and all of us who work in the area of nuclear energy has to do our bit towards realizing that goal” he reminded the audience

Recalling the climate change commitments, India has made, as “Intended Nationally Determined Contribution in response to COP decisions for the period 2021 to 2030”,  he noted that in the part of the report dealing with promotion of clean energy, the list of clean sources identified  includes nuclear along with wind ,solar, biomass etc.

“All technology options have to be explored: it could be molten salt reactors, fission-fusion hybrids, accelerator driven systems and of course conventional thermal and fast reactors. One has to choose the option that is found safe and economical” Dr Grover concluded.

Welcoming the participants Dr P K Vijayan, Director, Reactor Development and Design Group, BARC reminded the audience that the development of thorium reactor concepts was intensely pursued during the initial years of nuclear power development with many countries including India participating. Researchers examined several reactor types.

“Most of these efforts were terminated by the late 70s following the success of Light Water Reactors, except in India. India with its unique resource position of modest uranium and abundant thorium continued to work on thorium. As a result, India has developed  technologies for all aspects albeit on a lab scale for thorium utilization starting from mineral exploration, mining, fuel fabrication, irradiation in reactors, reprocessing and waste management”, Dr Vijayan clarified.

He highlighted the developments in competing power technologies; fossil fuel power plants switched from superheated to super critical to ultra supercritical contemplating to switch to advanced ultra supercritical, thereby reducing the greenhouse gas generation and increasing efficiency and cost significantly.

He noted that the nuclear community realized these challenges and embarked upon economically competitive, sustainable and safer new generation reactors which included thorium based reactors.

Dr Ratan Kumar Sinha and Dr Sekhar Basu who are pioneers in several, nuclear related advanced technologies gave a bird’s eye view of the research and development activities in the DAE family

Other speakers included, Dr Anil Kakodkar, Shri Asok Chauhan, Dr Bhaskar Sur, Dr Balraj Sehgal, Shri R Bhattacharya, Prof Ian Scott, Dr B N Jagtap, Dr Jean-Pierre C Revol, Dr Jiri Krepel, Dr R N Patra, Dr K L Ramakumar, Dr Srikumar Banerjee, and Dr P K Wattal, among others

The oral and poster presentations at the conference reflected the variety and diversity of the research and development activities in frontier areas of nuclear science and technology   A dozen engineers and scientists working in these areas received awards for their poster presentations.  These were of such high standard that peers must have been hard pressed to choose them.

The presentations from the trade including those from institutions that developed and supplied complex components and systems to India’s nuclear industry vividly showed the country’s capabilities in many areas. As a mark of recognition to India’s pre-eminence in the field, India received the Thorium Energy Prize 2015 instituted by International Thorium Energy Organization. The participants at the conference left with the conviction that thorium power can offer long term energy solution







About ksparthasarathy

I am a former Secretary of the Atomic Energy Regulatory Board. I am a former Raja Ramanna Fellow in the Department of Atomic Energy. Free lance journalism is my hobby
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