Advanced Heavy Water Reactor, AHWR, BARC, Bhabha Atomic Research Centre, Bharatiya Janata Party, BJP, energy, environment, India, Indira Gandhi Centre for Atomic Research, Molten Salt Reactor, MSR, Narendra Modi, NPCIL, nuclear, Nuclear Power Corporation of India Limited, thorium, United Nations Climate Change Conference
As the United Nations Conference on Climate Change gets underway in Le Bourget, a commune in the northeastern suburbs of Paris, thousands of state officials, academics, activists, journalists, and ordinary people await the outcome of the extraordinarily ambitious agenda of the summit. Delegates from 195 countries are expected to gather in Paris and cobble together a legally binding agreement to reduce greenhouse gas and carbon emissions. Over 145 heads of state have also arrived in Paris at the beginning of the summit, a significant departure from United Nations custom, and many have spoken on the first day.
The protagonist (or antagonist) of the conference is Prime Minister Narendra Modi. As the leader of a rapidly growing economy with over 1.25 billion people, Modi’s decision on the burden India will assume in fighting climate change bears substantial consequences on his country as well as the planet. On the opening day, the prime minister spoke at the plenary session, the Innovation Summit, and the launch of the Solar Alliance. It was disconcerting to note that at no event did Modi mention nuclear power, especially since his party had included that, particularly thorium technology, in its election manifesto for the 2014 general elections.
By now, it has become apparent that the Bharatiya Janata Party, while in Opposition, slammed the door on India’s nuclear renaissance. In concert with the Communist Party of India, they pushed for a liability law that was at odds with international norms and has chased international nuclear vendors out of the Indian market. The only firm that still maintains a presence in India is the Russian Rosatom, which has renegotiated its contract and sharply increased the cost of its reactors – the cost of the first two reactors at Kudankulam was approximately Rs 17,300 crores while the third and fourth are expected to cost about Rs 39,400 crore. Meanwhile, the government has shown little interest in the Indian nuclear establishment ramping up nuclear power either. The sector has not undergone the necessary reforms to make it a competitive industry nor have there been announcements of a series of new projects. During the first 18 months in office, all that Modi Sarkar has achieved in the nuclear arena is the purchase of uranium ore from overseas – something that the previous government would have been able to do anyway since the Indo-US nuclear deal in 2008.
It is unrealistic to expect the BJP to be pro patria before pro politica and walk back its errors on civil nuclear liability. Thankfully, there is another option that allows India to circumvent the nuclear liability logjam altogether – thorium. Considered the next generation of the nuclear era, thorium-fuelled reactors are proliferation resistant, safer, cheaper, and more efficient than most reactors in service presently. Thorium is plentiful in India, and more crucially, all thorium technology, from mining to reprocessing, has been indigenously developed. In every aspect, India can be completely self-sufficient with the deployment of thorium reactors.
Although the Advanced Heavy Water Reactor (AHWR) is presently the mainstay of Indian thorium reactor technology, thorium reactor design is not constrained to this one model. Indian scientists at the Bhabha Atomic Research Centre (BARC) and the Indira Gandhi Centre for Atomic Research (IGCAR) are also studying the Molten Salt Reactor (MSR) for future deployment. These reactors contain passive safety features in their design that make them, according to one director at the Nuclear Power Corporation of India (NPCIL), suitable for construction without an exclusion zone or even in the middle of a city. The MSR, for example, is a low pressure reactor that does not have fuel elements in zircaloy cladding. This reduces chances of any mishap due to excess pressure from steam or buildup of hydrogen. Furthermore, like most newer designs even in conventional reactors, thorium reactors come with a core catcher that prevents any radiation leak even in case of total core rupture.
Thorium reactors are also cheaper than conventional reactors. One reason is that unlike uranium, it does not require expensive isotope separation during fuel fabrication. Furthermore, the higher burnup of fuel envisaged in such reactors makes them far more efficient. Nobel laureate Carlo Rubbia approximates that a tonne of thorium could produce as much energy as 200 tonnes of uranium or four million tonnes of coal. Consequently, far less nuclear waste is generated. More importantly, no isotopes with a half-life of beyond 35 years are present in the waste from thorium reactors which reduces storage time by over an order of magnitude.
What makes thorium politically expedient for the BJP is the favourable actuarial numbers on thorium reactors. Substantially lower than on conventional reactors, liability, and hence insurance pools, can afford to be much smaller and affordable. This would not necessitate that the party back down on its earlier stipulations for a nuclear liability law, though it would still be inefficient but less so.
Powering India’s growth by thorium opens the door to several new economic opportunities: an abundance of cheap electricity may well encourage a shift from gas, petrol, and diesel for cooking and transportation. This will not happen overnight but even a small shift can reduce India’s hydrocarbon import bill. Nuclear energy can also release Railways capacity from the burden of transporting millions of tonnes of coal, reducing the need to expand services. It has almost become an article of faith that India cannot grow without coal. This might be true in the short term but there is no need to accept this in the medium term. A substantial shift from coal over the next 30 years is possible if the government creates and follows a concerted and aggressive plan to expand nuclear and hydro power.
The key obstacle to mass deployment of thorium is the lack of fissile material. Under the auspices of the Conference on Climate Change, Modi could have lobbied the international community to allow India to acquire plutonium and spent nuclear fuel, under safeguards, of course, from the global market for use in its fast breeder and thorium reactors. Modi ought to have also used the opportunity to pitch for developed states to provide soft loans for the expansion of nuclear and thorium power. Unfortunately, the moment was squandered chasing after solar unicorns.
At the summit, Modi has announced an ambitious programme of solar power growth. This is not reliable enough to fulfill India’s growing demand. All solutions to the demerits of solar power are posited in the future – China will export sufficient rare earths, we will be able to manufacture enough panels, efficiency will increase, we will solve storage within a decade. That much hope can certainly keep the casinos of Las Vegas in business but will not provide a solution to India’s energy shortage. Nuclear power and thorium technology is a proven solution that is ready to be deployed now. It is a shame that Modi Sarkar has not realised that yet.