A future energy giant? India's thorium-based nuclear plans

Oct 01, 2010
A future energy giant? India’s thorium-based nuclear plans

As part of an ambitious three-stage plan to fulfil its nuclear vision and desire for energy security, India could find itself a leading global exporter of an alternative nuclear technology that is more efficient than today’s uranium-plutonium fuel cycle.

In October’s - having toured through India’s nuclear labs with a British High Commission team -- science writer Matthew Chalmers details India’s vision of a secure nuclear-energy future based on thorium technology.

With 40% of its population not yet connected to the and an economy growing by about 8% each year, India’s need for a bold strategy is apparent. While India already has 19 operational pressurized heavy water reactors (PHWRs), the government is planning to increase its nuclear contribution from its current 5GW to 28GW in the next 10 years and to a huge 270GW by 2050.

India's three-stage vision was first set out in the 1950s by the father of the country’s nuclear programme, physicist Homi Bhabha. On returning from his studies at Cambridge University in the UK, Bhabha conceived a nuclear strategy that would work around India’s rather meagre resources of uranium, the fuel powering current commercial reactors. Instead, he sought to exploit the country's vast reserves of thorium, which - if bathed in an external supply of neutrons - can be used a nuclear fuel.

The first stage of India's grand plan is based around the country's fleet of PHWRs and state-of-the-art research facilities, which have proceeded steadily despite the country being isolated for more than 30 years from the international uranium community after it detonated a nuclear device in 1974.

But following a landmark agreement with the US in October 2008 on civil nuclear co-operation, India can now, in principle, import fuel and reactors, while building more of its own, indigenous PHWRs. These reactors burn uranium while irradiating thorium oxide to produce uranium-233.

Stage two, which seeks to plug India's energy deficit by 2050, involves using reprocessed plutonium to fuel "fast reactors" that breed further uranium-233 and plutonium from thorium and uranium.

In stage three, advanced heavy-water reactors will burn uranium-233 while converting India’s thorium reserves into further uranium in a sustainable "closed" cycle. All three stages are running parallel and each has been demonstrated on a laboratory scale.

The UK is also getting on India's thorium plans, with five nuclear-research proposals worth more than £2m being jointly funded by the UK's Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council and by India's Department of Atomic Energy. One of the grant holders is Mike Fitzpatrick from the Open University, who has already visited India's Bhabha Atomic Research Centre in Mumbai and claims to be "amazed at the ambition and resource behind India's nuclear programme, and how much UK researchers could benefit from being associated with it".

India’s energy future doesn’t however end with thorium. As Chalmers writes, “In a modern context, Bhabha’s nuclear vision is part of a wider goal for clean, affordable energy also in form of solar, wind and hydroelectricity - all of which India is investing in heavily.

“India’s nuclear programme could even one day encompass nuclear fusion, with the country already a partner in the ITER project currently being built in France, “

Explore further: Imaging fuel injectors with neutrons

More information: www.physicsworld.com/

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JamesThomas
1.9 / 5 (18) Oct 01, 2010
HEY India!!! Nuclear is the old paradigm.

Solar is already cheaper than nuclear, and in two years it will be far, far cheaper with new power storage to match.
Plus huge power plants that need hundreds of miles of wasteful power line, is also the old way of thinking. Small community based solar and wind plants are a far less wasteful, cleaner and efficient avenue to pursue.

The improvements within solar and wind power generation, and battery power storage is happening at exponential rates.

Nuclear, and the problems that come with it, are now unnecessary.
Skeptic_Heretic
4.1 / 5 (17) Oct 01, 2010
Nuclear, and the problems that come with it, are now unnecessary.
What problems do new stage recyclable thorium and uranium breeder reactors have? Creation of too much fuel? Clean way to destroy nuclear waste and nuclear weaponry?

I'd hardly call either of those problems.
Sanescience
3.8 / 5 (9) Oct 01, 2010
Way to go India, hopefully they will still be an
American ally when we realize how far behind we are in closed fuel cycle nuclear power technology and need help.
DKoncewicz
3.9 / 5 (7) Oct 01, 2010
I'd like to see solar power even try to trump nuclear fusion once that gets going in the next few decades. It's like saying that sunlight on the earth is more powerful than the process that created that sunlight in the first place on the sun.
Sanescience
2.8 / 5 (11) Oct 01, 2010
Um, James, you need to do some research into what the energy needs of heavy industry is.

BECAUSE IGNORANCE JUST CAUSES MORE COAL POWER PLANTS TO BE BUILT!

Just putting your head in the sand and refusing to accept that solar and wind will never be suitable for a reliable base load supply of electricity. And geo-thermal is still a long ways off.
Quantum_Conundrum
2.7 / 5 (9) Oct 01, 2010
Just putting your head in the sand and refusing to accept that solar and wind will never be suitable for a reliable base load supply of electricity. And geo-thermal is still a long ways off.


do you...know...how much solar energy hits the surface of the earth every year? or how much power the solar constant is? It's 1352watts/meter^2.

It is ~190 petawatts for the upper atmosphere, but about 1/3 of that gets deflected. About 120 petawatts hits the surface of the earth, and about half of that gets reflected.

Nevertheless, there is about 120 petawatts of solar power hitting the surface. The entire human civilizatin currently uses 16 terawatts.

If we had 33% efficient solar panels we would need on average 53m^2 of solar panels per person on earth to power all human needs, which is 53,333km^2.

This is a "large" number, but is less than 3 hundredths of a percent of the surface area of the earth, or about 1 percent of the surface area of the continents alone.
ormondotvos
1 / 5 (1) Oct 01, 2010
Stop making sense! It's gone out of fashion.
MatthiasF
3.6 / 5 (10) Oct 01, 2010
Quantum_Conundrum: Unless you intend to fight a war on weather and make the planet flat, your numbers are incredibly misleading.
eachus
5 / 5 (1) Oct 01, 2010
There is a reaction here and in the general public that I just can't understand. It is possible, if you are careful, to split the various types of fossil fuel power plants: internal combustion engines, fuel cell, coal, oil, and gas fired steam, gas turbine, MHD, and so on. They are very different power plants.

But once someone reads the word nuclear, they think they know everything about the plant, or proposed plant even though there are differences between nuclear plants that make say, fuel cells and MHD look identical.

In this case, India is the only country using thorium fueled pressurized heavy water reactors. The initial heavy water load is expensive, but it is more of a catalyst than a fuel--some refining is required, but a heavy water reactor can be designed to produce excess heavy water to use in new reactors.

I certainly can't show the math here, but the Indian nuclear plan is designed for very low long-term costs, quite a different financial pattern from US reactors.
Husky
3 / 5 (2) Oct 02, 2010
in 30 years we would have concluded that china and india made the right choice, given the demand, they HAVE NO OPTION, if solar and wind would have provided their future needs, they would have chosen it, its pure necessity that leads us the way
plasticpower
5 / 5 (2) Oct 02, 2010
Am I reading this correctly? They are recycling fuel several times over until it just can't be used anymore, or they can recycle it indefinitely? Either way, seems like a huge step forward. Nuclear waste that can't power SOME sort of a reactor is obviously NOT as radioactive as the waste that comes out of "modern" reactors - especially Russian reactors, notorious for generating extreme amounts of waste. Ask me how I know - I was born 60 miles away from one and experienced the joy of acid rain, mysterious bi-weekly "dust dumps" and yellow/orange colored snow. Something I took for granted as a teenager growing up, until I moved to the States and realized how effed up that was. Go India! Recycle that waste.
Skeptic_Heretic
3.3 / 5 (4) Oct 02, 2010
do you...know...how much solar energy hits the surface of the earth every year? or how much power the solar constant is? It's 1352watts/meter^2.
There is no solar constant. It's the solar average, which varies quite a bit from location to location, and over time.
kuro
2.6 / 5 (5) Oct 02, 2010
India a nuclear giant? India has been daydreaming about that since 1950s, but the results are unimpressive.

Most of India's reactors were built by foreigners before the Indian bomb, and have been running as-is since then.

The "indigenous" reactors have cost many times their projected budgets, and typically run on lower capacity than projected, because of various defects.

All of India's reactors run on imported uranium. The current "revival" is also based on importing newer tech from the West.

Despite the huge cost, India's reactors generate only 3-4% of the energy needs. New plans are there, but no private money to finance them.

The talk of thorium reactors with Indian tech has been here since what -- the 80s? How many thorium reactors are there in India after several decades of trying? How much money was spent on them? How much energy was gotten back?

The delusion of nuclear energy is strong here, but where is the evidence that the costs make sense for India?
Bonkers
3 / 5 (1) Oct 03, 2010
sorry guys, really can't trust anyone, let alone india, to be melting down nuclear fuels. the risks of contamination and proliferation are too great. whats wrong with pebble bed technology? or solar? Gearing the entire effort onto Thorium rather than globally abundant Uranium seems crazy - the fuel cost is peanuts.
Skeptic_Heretic
3.7 / 5 (6) Oct 03, 2010
Gearing the entire effort onto Thorium rather than globally abundant Uranium seems crazy - the fuel cost is peanuts.
There's more thorium energy in a shovel full of dirt from your back yard than in a barrel of oil, unless you live in the desert. Thorium is one of the most abundant radioactive elements.
yyz
5 / 5 (2) Oct 03, 2010
I came across a promo video from the Thorium Alliance touting all kinds of benefits from LiFTeR technology: http://www.youtub...cUssuz-U (I can't vouch for all their claims, but it is a promo vid, after all)
kuro
1 / 5 (4) Oct 03, 2010
"There's more thorium energy in a shovel full of dirt from your back yard than in a barrel of oil"

Yes, and fusion was just about to produce "energy too cheap to measure" in 1950. Too bad by the looks of it none of these fantasies are coming true anytime soon.
rbrtwjohnson
3 / 5 (2) Oct 04, 2010
I think thorium-based nuclear power plants will be a throwback regarding mankind's aspiration for cleaner and safer energy. Aneutronic nuclear fusion reactions have the capability of being safer and generate less radioactive waste than uranium, plutonium, or thorium fission.
http://www.crossf...iew.html
Skeptic_Heretic
2.6 / 5 (5) Oct 04, 2010
"There's more thorium energy in a shovel full of dirt from your back yard than in a barrel of oil"

Yes, and fusion was just about to produce "energy too cheap to measure" in 1950. Too bad by the looks of it none of these fantasies are coming true anytime soon.

Difference is, we've constructed working thorium reactors as far back as 1957 in America. The Detroit Molten Salt reactor was thorium based and utilized for destruction of nuclear ordinance.

1 Ton of Thorium produces as much energy as 200 tons of Uranium. It's 3 times more abundant in the Earth's crust, and it's a currently functional and cheap technology. Thanks for playing.
kuro
2 / 5 (4) Oct 04, 2010
"Difference is, we've constructed working thorium reactors as far back as 1957 in America."

So? You're repeating this straw man as a mantra, but, as the typical nuclear nut drivel, it doesn't even near my argument.

See my post above on India -- unlike yours, it is full of facts. India's nuclear industry, thorium or no thorium, is there only because those who ordered it don't pay for it, the Indian taxpayer does.

As everywhere else, nuclear energy is a financial fantasy, more so than wind-solar-and-whatnot.

The expensive prototypes are toys. Wake me up when "you" construct a working, money-making, privately financed industry of them and they break even.

So far, there's been no such thing in the world. Every single nuclear plant was at least partially government financed, first because of a daydream of "offsetting" the costs of weapons development, then because nuclear power has a powerful lobby dumping a lot of tax money on your representatives.

And brainwashing your lot.
Skeptic_Heretic
3.7 / 5 (3) Oct 05, 2010
So far, there's been no such thing in the world. Every single nuclear plant was at least partially government financed, first because of a daydream of "offsetting" the costs of weapons development, then because nuclear power has a powerful lobby dumping a lot of tax money on your representatives.

Remove the NRC regulations against them and I will. Your arguments provide nothing even close to a prohibitive reason. Breeder reactors become a money generator, and if you're concerned about jobs, there's one sure way to massively increase the working populace of engineers, laborers, welders, and other skills that are currently suffering in the US.
kuro
1 / 5 (3) Oct 05, 2010
Remove safety regulations? You're not even trying. Successful trolling requires at least some modicum of plausibility.
Skeptic_Heretic
3.7 / 5 (3) Oct 05, 2010
Remove safety regulations? You're not even trying. Successful trolling requires at least some modicum of plausibility.

The NRC didn't apply safety regulations to breeder reactors, they banned them for commercial use. Try to actually be informed on the topic before you make false accusations. Also, you may want to be a bit more informed on the issues that India has had with Thorium tech before you spout nonsense on the topic.

Anti-nuclear agents are typically misinformed or illinformed. As so far, you appear no different. Please correct me if that is not the case.
georgeb1962
1 / 5 (1) Oct 05, 2010
The person(s) advocating using solar and wind power generation schemes located on the spot of demand has a valid point. RIDICULING and DISMISSING that altogether is not just wrong, it represents ALL THAT IS WRONG with the unsustainable paradigm in place today that's destroying the oceans ability to support life, poisoning our food supply, contaminating our waters, and will eventually choke us all.
eachus
5 / 5 (2) Oct 06, 2010
On Thorium vs. Uranium or Plutonium as a nuclear fuel supply. I'll try to stay with facts here. Th first, it is simple.

Th-232 (all natural Thorium) + slow n ---> U-233 Another neutron then causes fission. You need to add U-235 or Pu-239 to start the reaction, from then on just add thorium.

U-235 + fast or slow n --> fission
U-238 + fast n --> Pu-239 or fission
U-238 + slow n --> Pu-239
Pu-239 + fast n --> fission
Pu-239 + slow n --> Pu-240 (nasty waste)

Uranium as mined is mostly U-238 with about 0.7% U-235. Enriching this to about 3.5% produces usable reactor fuel. Or you can add Pu-239. But the problem with Pu-239 is that a moderator will produce slow neutrons which will turn the Pu-239 into Pu-240 (waste -- doesn't absorb neutrons but will fission spontaneously). Thus the fast in fast breeder reactors. It also changes the speed with which things can go wonky, from hours to minutes.

If you want to see why cycles that produce Pu-240 are bad look in a table of isotopes.
eachus
5 / 5 (4) Oct 06, 2010
So why aren't all nuclear reactors thorium fueled today? A very, very nasty trick played on citizens by their governments. If you want nuclear weapons, thorium fueled reactors will not do. U-233 does not reach prompt criticality, at least no feasible bomb designs have been developed. (You can mix it with U-235 or Pu-239 to produce a weapon, but U-238 will do just as well in that role.)

This brings us to lots of spent fuel rods from enriched uranium reactors. Why haven't they been converted to a permanent storage mode and buried? The plutonium sitting there can be recovered later. In fact as it ages the Pu-239/Pu-240 ratio increases (very slowly).

So if those who think that more atomic weapons means a safer country are highly satisfied with the current status quo.

Incidentally fusion triggers for thermonuclear weapons require a small amount of tritium. Tritium can't be stockpiled though, since its half-life is ten years.