Thorium, if India's nuclear scientific community is to be believed, holds the key to our nuclear programme being freed from the dependance on uranium imports to power our nuclear plants and allowing us to develop limitless amounts of fuel since it could be extracted from sand on beaches.
But according to a report in the Statesman, the government has failed to control the export of monazite, the raw material from which thorium can be extracted, and has allowed 2.1 million tonnes of it to be extracted.
The report estimates that if the thorium extracted from the monazite is estimated at $100 per tonne, then the loss to the exchequer is approximately Rs 48 lakh crore, in addition to the incalculable loss to the nuclear fuel programme.
So what is monazite? Sand, rather sand from particular beaches in states like Kerala, Orissa and Tamil Nadu which yields about 8 to 10 percent thorium, according to the BARC.
Thorium is converted into an isotope of uranium which is used to feed nuclear reactors and can be used multiple times to generate electrcity, creating a seemingly endless cycle of fuel availability.
The Bhabha Atomic Research Centre has developed a research nuclear reactor that is powered by thorium at Kalpakkam near Chennai and work has also begun on a 500 MW fast breeder reactor at Kalpakkam.
According to another report in the Statesman, the US and Japan are actively looking to increase their production of thorium and thorium-based reactors, due to which India needs to safeguard its mineral resources by banning the export of minerals from which thorium can be extracted, in order to safeguard its nuclear fuel programme for the future.
So is there an immediate cause for worry? Maybe not.
As recently as July, the Atomic Energy Chairman RK Sinha was quoted as saying that it would take some time for thorium to replace uranium as the fuel of choice in all nuclear power plants, specifically a couple of decades.
"We have to assess the thorium-powered reactor on various aspects in the long-term before replicating similar models in bigger ways," he was quoted as saying in a report in the Times of India.
However, if it is as crucial for the Indian nuclear power programme, the Indian government might do well to guard its exports more carefully.
Updated Date: Sep 03, 2012 13:51 PM