Thu, Nov 03, 2011 - Page 5 News List

India plans ‘safer’ thorium power plant

The Guardian, MUMBAI, INDIA

India has announced plans for a prototype nuclear power plant that uses an innovative “safer” fuel.

Officials are currently selecting a site for the reactor, which would be the first of its kind, using thorium for the bulk of its fuel instead of uranium, the fuel for conventional reactors. They plan to have the plant up and running by the end of the decade.

The development of workable and large-scale thorium reactors has for decades been a dream for nuclear engineers, while for environmentalists it has become a major hope as an alternative to fossil fuels.

Proponents say thorium is more abundant and exploiting it does not involve release of large quantities of carbon dioxide, making it less dangerous for the climate than fossil fuels like coal and oil.

In a rare interview, Ratan Kumar Sinha, the director of the Bhabha Atomic Research Center in Mumbai, told the Guardian that his team is finalizing the site for construction of the new large-scale experimental reactor, while at the same time conducting “confirmatory tests” on the design.

“The basic physics and engineering of the thorium-fuelled advanced heavy water reactor [AHWR] are in place and the design is ready,” Sinha said.

Once the six-month search for a site is completed — probably next to an existing nuclear power plant — it will take another 18 months to obtain regulatory and environmental impact clearances before building work on the site can begin.

“Construction of the AHWR will begin after that, and it would take another six years for the reactor to become operational,” Sinha added, meaning that if all goes to plan, the reactor could be operational by the end of the decade.

The reactor is designed to generate 300 megawatts (MW) of electricity — about a quarter of the output of a typical new nuclear plant in the west.

Sinha said India was in talks with other countries over the export of conventional nuclear plants.

He said India was looking for buyers for its 220MW and 540MW pressurized heavy water reactors.

Kazakhastan and the Gulf states are known to have expressed an interest, while one source said that negotiations are most advanced with Vietnam, although Sinha refused to confirm this.

Producing a workable thorium reactor would be a massive -breakthrough in energy generation. Using thorium — a naturally occurring moderately radioactive element named after the Norse god of thunder — as a source of atomic power is not new technology. Promising research was carried out in the US in the 1950s and 1960s, but abandoned in favor of using uranium.

The pro-thorium lobby maintains this was at least partly because national nuclear power programs in the US and elsewhere were developed with a military purpose in mind: namely access to a source of plutonium for nuclear weapons.

Unlike uranium, thorium-fueled reactors do not result in a proliferation of weapons-grade plutonium. Also, under certain circumstances, the waste from thorium reactors is less dangerous and remains radioactive for hundreds rather than thousands of years.

Also, with the world’s supply of uranium rapidly depleting, attention has refocused on thorium, which is three to four times more abundant and 200 times more energy dense.

India has the world’s largest thorium deposits and with a world hungry for low-carbon energy, it has its eyes on a potentially lucrative export market for the technology.

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