India Is About to Start Building Its Thorium-Fueled Nuclear Power Plant

The thorium dream is an alluring one, as any member of its devoted band of disciples will tell you. The jury is still out as to whether this beloved alternative brand of nuclear power is feasible, though thorium is more abundant and less radioactive than uranium, and its advocates argue that thorium plants are much safer than conventional nuke plants.

Hope so; it looks like the world’s about to get a real-live thorium test run in India.

The Deccan Times reports: “Over the next five years, India plans to start building a safe nuclear reactor that can be installed in the heart of Delhi or Mumbai without posing danger to people and environment. The 300-MWe advanced heavy water reactor (AHWR), whose construction will start in the 12th plan period, would be so safe that it can be erected in the heart of any city, said S A Bhardwaj, director, Nuclear Power Corporation of India Ltd.”

Construction on the actual thorium reactors will commence in 2016.

Yes, India’s infamous three-stage nuclear power program, probably the foremost and best-funded thorium power program in the world, is edging nearer to fruition. The quirky video above showcases some of the program’s experimental thorium technology from years back. In a meeting in May, the government announced it was well into its thorium program, and was currently developing its 10.7 million tons of Monazite sands, from which thorium is extracted.

“We are well into the first stage based on natural uranium fuel, both from domestic and imported sources,” reads an update from the Department of Atomic Energy. “This will be followed by second stage comprising of fast reactors. It is proposed to set up a large power generation capacity based on fast reactors before getting into the third stage. Thorium in itself cannot produce electricity and it has to be first converted to Uranium-233 in a nuclear reactor. A comprehensive three-stage nuclear power programme is therefore being implemented sequentially.” However, in comments he made in July, the atomic energy commissioner sounded less sanguine about thorium’s prospects in the immediate future. “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.”

Thorium is abundant in India (and pretty much everywhere else), but there is a special concentration in the sands of Kerala. The plant, which itself will largely be used as an experimental facility, will generate 65% of its power from the famed radioactive chemical element. DT notes that the “first AHWR reactor – with thorium for fuel — will be used to test new technologies on safety as well as on thorium fuel cycle … It will be India’s first step to embrace thorium as the nuclear fuel of choice.”

Getting thorium power up and running in India would be a huge boon for the energy-poor nation, which also sits atop 30% of the world’s thorium reserves. But it’d also make for an unprecedented laboratory with which to study modern thorium technology; the world’s energy companies, thirsty for clean baseload power, will be watching closely. It’d be about time, as far as India’s concerned.

The country’s Atomic Energy Commission has made repeated and vocal calls for other nations to join its crusade for thorium power, perhaps most recently in 2010. According to the Hindu Times, the AEC chairman said that “the world must revive research in utilising thorium and join hands with India, the only country engaged in this endeavour, to ensure that energy is sustainable for the next few centuries.”

Now, with India’s first thorium plant now firmly on the horizon, perhaps it will.

Watch Motherboard’s documentary on “The Thorium Dream”

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Topics: nuclear power, thorium, technology-and-philosophy

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