Thorium deposits in Kerala’s coastal areas

GS Paper III

News Excerpt:

The Union government has been asked for approval by Kerala's power company to build a nuclear power plant based on thorium in the state.

About Thorium:

  • Thorium is a radioactive metal, and Kerala’s coasts are estimated to have two lakh tonnes of such deposits.
  • The bulk of the thorium deposits in Kerala are in the black sands of Chavara.

Significance of Thorium:

  • Thorium is a cost-effective alternative for producing electricity.
  • It is a safer option than traditional nuclear energy because it reduces the risk of nuclear proliferation and waste management.
  • It is a source of carbon-free power with a lower possibility of meltdowns.
  • Unlike other nuclear materials, thorium does not undergo fission spontaneously and decays slowly, emitting alpha radiation that cannot penetrate the human skin.
  • The most significant advantage of thorium is that it is challenging to weaponize, making it less attractive for atomic bomb production compared to conventional nuclear methods.

Challenges:

  • India needs to develop operational experience before expanding its nuclear power plants, and it will take another 10 years to breed the required fuel, including plutonium, to build another reactor before transitioning to thorium conversion.
  • Researchers at Bhabha Atomic Research Centre (BARC) have demonstrated the process of extracting U233 from spent thorium, which emits highly radioactive gamma rays.
    • However, scaled extraction requires heavy radiation shielding and complex robotics to isolate workers, posing challenges.
  • Even India’s nuclear establishment admits the country is unlikely to generate substantial energy from thorium until at least the 2050s.
  • India's increasing focus on renewable energy has raised questions over the viability of commercializing thorium for electricity production.
  • According to a nuclear expert, the cost of developing thorium-friendly reactors and complex fuel reprocessing is unconvincing.
  • Thorium waste is more hazardous in the short term due to its particular mix of isotopes but less hazardous over extended periods due to the amount and type of radiation it releases.
    • This makes it easier to handle and store in the long term, but the benefits are marginal and of limited relevance.

Way forward:

  • There is a long delay before direct thorium can be utilized in the three-stage nuclear program. Therefore it is advisable to consider reactor designs that allow more direct use of thorium along with the sequential three-stage program.
  • The deployment of Molten Salt Reactors to use thorium is expected to be sustainable and feasible.
  • India’s entirely indigenous nuclear power plant “Bhavni” would pave the way in this respect. It would be the world's first thorium based nuclear power plant which would be set up at Kalpakkam in Tamil Nadu.

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