Today's Editorial

Today's Editorial - 19 March 2024

Onward to thorium

Relevance: GS Paper III

Why in News?

The 500-MWe Prototype Fast Breeder Reactor (PFBR) began fuel-loading earlier this month, marking the successful completion of commissioning trials and rectification of a range of first-of-its-kind equipment in the fast breeder reactor technology.

Acknowledging the achievements:

  • The thorium dream has been a challenging journey, but Homi Bhabha's spirit of self-reliance has enabled the autonomous pursuit of these goals.
    • Their three-stage strategy aims to develop critical nuclear technologies, starting with modest uranium resources, and achieve a large-scale thorium-based energy program.
    • The need to decarbonise the energy supply, the largest contributor to the climate change-related existential threat we face, has created an immediate demand for large-scale deployment of nuclear power plants.
  • The start of fuel-loading into PFBR is an important milestone. BHAVINI, the company responsible for building and operating the PFBR, the Indira Gandhi Centre for Atomic Research (IGCAR), the Bhabha Atomic Research Centre (BARC), and the associated industries, deserves commendation for its achievements.
    • While nuclear power deployment must be rapidly scaled up to decarbonise our power system, one must also recognise the potential for advancing thorium deployment.

Role of thorium in energy self-sufficiency:

  • Given the size of India’s population and its economy, its energy demands would be among the largest in the world, leading to serious challenges to energy security.
  • To become Vikasit Bharat, India needs around three-and-a-half times more energy, which can come only from nuclear energy, specifically thorium.
    • This is why thorium is critical. India has been dependent on energy imports all along. Thorium presents us with a unique opportunity to become energy self-sufficient.
  • The level of nuclear energy deployment will, in fact, determine how much progress India will make towards becoming a developed country.
    • Renewable energy, including large hydropower projects, can, at best, meet current energy needs.
  • The PFBR is expected to become operational, paving India into the second stage of its three-stage nuclear power programme.
    • This is of singular importance for India's long-term energy security. It opens the gateway to meeting the country's energy needs for a long time into the future, leveraging India’s vast thorium resources, which are the largest in the world.
  • There is no other clean energy source available on the Indian landmass that can cope with India's energy needs. 

Way forward -

Advancement in fast reactor technology:

  • The realisation of large-scale utilisation of thorium requires a large enough operational fast reactor capacity as a prerequisite.
    • The rapid deployment of PHWRs based on imported uranium allows for the advancement of thorium utilisation in PHWRs, facilitating the deployment of third-stage thorium reactor systems, reducing spent fuel inventory, proliferation resistance, and enhancing safety and economy.
  • The growth of fast reactor capacity is crucial for the second stage of the nuclear power program.
    • While fuel fed from the first stage can sustain a high enough rate of growth in the second stage's initial phase, fast reactor systems with faster growth based on inherently better breeding performance are needed.
  • More reactors on the PFBR model must be constructed to consolidate sodium-cooled fast reactor technology, a key feature of the second stage of the nuclear programme.

High-temperature reactor:

  • Thorium utilisation can be improved in high-temperature reactors to produce low-cost hydrogen with minimal carbon footprint, a priority for decarbonising industries and the heavy transportation sector.
    • Technology exists for this; the sooner it becomes available, the better.
    • Direct hydrogen production without electricity would make hydrogen production cheaper and less dependent on hydrogen electrolysers.

Transitioning to better fuel:

  • Graduating from the mixed oxide fuel that the PFBR uses to metallic fuel and related fuel-cycle technology is needed.
  • A high-assay, low-enriched uranium (LEU) and thorium fuel capable of delivering a seven-times larger fuel burn-up than currently with little or no change in the PHWR design is needed.
    • ANEEL fuel has been designed and will be available shortly. The ANEEL fuel concept could also bring the Advanced Heavy Water Reactor (AHWR300-LEU), a fully developed design immune to any severe accident-related anxiety, to reality.

Concurrent fuel recycling processes:

  • Fuel recycling in fast reactors must be a concurrent process, unlike in thermal reactor systems.
    • A Fast Reactor Fuel Cycle Facility (FRFCF) that would work alongside the PFBR is coming up.
  • Once a sizeable fast breeder reactor capacity is built up and an adequate inventory of uranium-233 accumulates, we must bring in reactors specifically designed for thorium and the related fuel-cycle facilities, constituting the third stage of our nuclear power programme.


The start of fuel-loading in PFBR is a significant step that must be celebrated to motivate our scientists and prepare them for the bigger tasks ahead. Sustained encouragement, duly backed up by a demanding but conducive framework around them, is the need of the hour. One must move on the thorium path, though it has no parallel anywhere else in the world.


Mains PYQ:

Q. With growing energy needs should India keep on expanding its nuclear energy programme? Discuss the facts and fears associated with nuclear energy. (UPSC 2018)

Q. Give an account of the growth and development of nuclear science and technology in India. What is the advantage of fast breeder reactor programme in India? (UPSC 2017)