The future is nuclear: Why Modi government should open up atomic energy sector

The situation sounds asinine, that even the government can't invest in itself, but it is emblematic of highly restrictive laws on nuclear activity in India.

Jaideep Prabhu December 12, 2015 16:53:23 IST
The future is nuclear: Why Modi government should open up atomic energy sector

The Narendra Modi government is set to introduce a bill in the Lok Sabha that would seek to amend the Atomic Energy Act, 1962. If passed, under the new and expanded scope of the law, public sector units that are not subsidiaries of the Department of Atomic Energy would be able to invest in the nuclear energy sector. This amendment comes shortly after the government had to turn down a Rs 12,000 crore investment proposal by the National Aluminium Company (Nalco) to become a silent partner with the Nuclear Power Corporation of India (NPCIL) in the construction and operation of one Pressurised Heavy Water Reactor (PHWR). The situation sounds asinine, that even the government cannot invest in itself, but it is emblematic of the highly restrictive laws surrounding nuclear activity in India.

Around the beginning of the previous century, the world saw rapid advancements being made in the sciences. It also witnessed the birth of a new discipline, atomic physics, whose revolutionary potential was felt almost immediately. A satisfactory postulation of the atomic structure, the discovery of the electron and neutron, and the classification of the various types of radiation were all made in a short span of about 35 years. These discoveries would go on to spawn industries of their own, worth trillions of dollars, and radically alter human existence.

Around the same time, science also got bigger. Until then, most research was done in universities or was patronised by wealthy citizens. With the advent of the Age of Physics, the necessary equipment became more expensive and the manpower involved increased drastically. No longer could wealthy philanthropists and universities afford to support tinkerers and researchers, and the vastly deeper pockets of the state were required. Of course, the arrival of the state and taxpayer funds changed the very nature of scientific advancement; projects were now desired to have a specific purpose and give the state an advantage, either militarily or economically, over its rivals. This trend seemed irreversible until the end of World War II and the birth of the American military-industrial complex. Even then, nuclear research remained a taboo subject for private entities for a little longer and the few private players remained beholden to the state as their main and sometimes only client.

The future is nuclear Why Modi government should open up atomic energy sector

A nuclear power plant. Representational image. Image courtesy: Getty images

One of the lasting impacts of the state patronage of high technology has been the secrecy which surrounds most related activity. India, for example, still clings to an archaic notion of secrecy regarding its nuclear facilities that only dampens the entrepreneurial spirit of its citizens and hurts its own economy. Though the private sector is allowed to provide certain components for nuclear reactors, the scenario is by no means anything other than very bleak. Anything transgressing the boundaries of the purely theoretical is forbidden; more importantly, it is next to impossible to acquire any equipment to undertake such studies outside the confines of the behemoth government conclave. Forcing all talent in the country under a government umbrella has stifled the sort of explosive growth needed in clean and safe nuclear technology that India needs, resulting in fewer opportunities, little incentive, loss of innovation, elimination of competition, and poor academic support for the nuclear industry.

Internationally too, it is only in the last few years that nuclear technology has seen a rare entrepreneurial spirit from smaller private players seeking the next big breakthrough but this was more due to the perception that there were no economic incentives in the nuclear arena except for big players. The revival of this techno-optimism, perhaps not dissimilar from the early days of the nuclear age in the 1950s or the sentiment around the late 19th century during the height of the Second Industrial Revolution, has seen big money get behind startups that have little more than a clear idea. Most of these ideas, interestingly, were discarded by governments as impractical in the pursuit of Cold War goals - meaning weapons. Presently, there are some 55 nuclear startups with a total funding of approximately $2 billion, admittedly a drop in the nuclear bucket. However, what is of interest is where this money has come from - seasoned venture capitalists like Peter Thiel, Scott Nolan, Jeffrey Bezos, and Paul Allen who made their billions on their ability to take early calculated risks on how society would be a few years ahead. This alone should indicate the interest nuclear technology has generated.

Some startups are looking at nuclear fusion, the Holy Grail of energy research and considered by most to be a long shot for years to come. Nonetheless, General Fusion, a British Columbia based startup, has attracted the interest of Bezos through Bezos Expeditions, the firm that manages his venture capital investments and Canadian clean tech venture capital firm Chrysalix Partners. General Fusion intends to use shockwaves through a lead-lithium mixture to cause fusion in deuterium and tritium. Similarly, California-based Tri-Alpha Energy has won the backing of Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen and the Rockefeller family. Their approach involves adding boron to the hydrogen fuel, a technique the US government had experimented with earlier but given up on. A third fusion technology startup is Helion Energy out of Seattle, funded by Peter Thiel of PayPal fame via Mithril Capital Management. Helion is experimenting with crashing hydrogen atoms into each other at speeds approaching light to cause fusion. While fusion has eluded their collective grasp until now, these startups argue that they have been far more efficient than government projects.

Of immediate interest to the world and to India are the several private firms working on thorium or related technologies. Most of these ventures have technology that is ready to be deployed but face regulatory checks designed for a different era of nuclear technology. Kirk Sorensen's Alabama-based Flibe Energy is perhaps the best known of these companies, owing to an aggressive internet and social media presence. Flibe’s product, the Liquid Fluoride Thorium Reactor, whose acronym, LFTR, is pronounced lifter, is an improved version of the Molten Salt Reactor Experiment (MSRE) that was operated by the Oak Ridge National Laboratory between 1965 and 1969. The LFTR is not only significantly safer than conventional Heavy or Light Water Reactors but is also more proliferation resistant and generates much less waste. A similar design has also been put forward by Transatomic Power, a startup co-founded by two MIT doctoral students barely a week after the incident at Fukushima Daiichi. This reactor, called the Waste Annihilating Molten Salt Reactor (WAMSR) or wham-ser, is also a modular Molten Salt reactor like the LFTR but instead of thorium, dissolves spent nuclear fuel from conventional reactors into molten salt. Transatomic Power's concept is not too dissimilar from that of Seaborg Technologies' Wasteburner reactor, designed to be a transitory bridge between conventional reactors and thorium-fuelled reactor. Scott Nolan of the Founders Fund has been interested in Transatomic Power's design and made an initial investment of $2 million into the company followed by another $2.5 million earlier this year from Founders Fund, Acadia Woods Partners, and Daniel Aegerter of Armada Investment AG.

Several other companies such as Martingale, Inc, based out of Florida, Terrestrial Energy from Ontario, and Moltex Energy of London are also working to have their first reactors out early in the next decade. The ThorCon project, Integral Molten Salt Reactor (IMSR), and Sustainable Salt Reactor (SSR) respectively, are all advanced nuclear designs that have been recovered from the dustbins of the Cold War plutonium production factories and improved upon. As such, these technologies have been proven and are ready to be deployed if an investor is willing to foot the bill. Martingale found an investor in Indonesia just this month and will be looking to constructing its first reactor by 2025.

Yet other companies, like NuScale Power out of Oregon and UPower from Boston, have optimised on other aspects of nuclear technology. NuScale works on modularity and has designed small modules of up to 50 MW each that can easily be manufactured. The mass manufacture of modules will create economies in construction that can compensate for economies in power generation capacity. These modules can be combined to create facilities of up to 600 MW per location. UPower goes one step further and has conceived of micro-reactors rated as low as 3 MW for rural and sparsely populated regions. These reactors can be manufactured, loaded on to the back of a truck, and deployed near a community with ease. Hyperion Power Generation, headquartered in Santa Fe, have a similar idea - the 30 MW self-moderated uranium hydride reactor that also promises great economies via mass manufacture.

Given India's numerous rural communities, SMRs may be useful to expand nuclear energy beyond the populous urban and industrial concentrations. Even India's unintentionally low-rated reactors like the early PHWRs that are now operating at 160 MW could be too big for many regions. The modularity and size of some of the international projects make them ideal for agricultural communities.

Another young company, though hardly a fragile startup, is Bill Gates' TerraPower, a spin-off from the Nathan Myhrvold founded think tank, Intellectual Ventures. Gates has played philanthropist for a while in the medical arena but since 2008, the billionaire has started to invest in clean technology as well. TerraPower's primary product is the depleted-uranium-fuelled Travelling Wave Reactor (TWR), which was in the news this September, as the company signed a deal with China to develop a 600 MW prototype by 2022 and commercial 1,150 MW reactors by the end of that decade. TerraPower has also been dabbling in MSRs, including thorium-fuelled variants, though they believe that their fast reactors will obviate the need for thorium in the medium term.

Admittedly, India has its own thorium reactor design, the Advanced Heavy Water Reactor (AHWR). However, India is also looking at MSRs as a more efficient design and stands to benefit from plugging into international research efforts. There is, of course, also a lot of development going on in other aspects of thorium technology that Indian researchers might find of interest. Steenkampskraal Thorium (STL) of South Africa and Thor Energy from Norway, for example, have spent more effort on thorium fuel research than on reactors. Both companies have studied the use of thorium in various fuel configurations in different types of reactors. Thor, for example, has worked on thorium-MOX fuel that can even be used in conventional LWRs; they have emphasised better utilisation and longer cycle length, therefore less waste generation. STL's research has focused on pebble bed reactors with thorium-uranium tristructural-isotropic fuel but has also touched upon better thorium extraction, refining, and fuel fabrication.

Luckily for India, it still has the opportunity to benefit from nuclear entrepreneurship despite being late to the game. An important step it can take is to further amend the Atomic Energy Act to allow private sector participation in all aspects of nuclear energy but something less shocking to the ossified establishment is seeking active collaboration with some of these nuclear startups. India is still seen as one of the leaders of the thorium revolution - though China is fast closing the gap - and there is tremendous international interest in working with India from foreign governments as well as companies. At the recent Thorium Energy Conference, ThEC15, organised by the International Thorium Energy Organisation (IThEO) and held at the Bhabha Atomic Research Centre (BARC), delegates from almost 20 countries presented their research and showed interest in the work of their Indian counterparts. Given the importance climate change has assumed on the Indian agenda, it would be foolhardy not to find synergies between Indian interests and the several promising international private ventures. Collaboration on various research projects can improve upon India's existing technology, save time developing proficiency in some aspects, and hasten the launch of India's thorium reactor fleet.

An interesting tidbit many might have missed is that Mukesh Ambani's Reliance Industries purchased a minority stake in Bill Gates' TerraPower in late 2011 and the Indian business baron sits on the company's board. Clearly, there is interest among Indian industry leaders to enter into a new and challenging sector that holds a lot of opportunities. With appropriate regulatory framework, private participation in nuclear energy can stimulate competition and harness large pools of capital in service of national development goals. The first step, however, would be to stop the step-motherly treatment of private players in the nuclear sector.

(Disclosure: Firstpost is part of Network18 Media & Investment Limited which is owned by Reliance Industries Limited.)

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