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Let's hope this 'silver bullet' blows your mind

Sep 23, 2010

One ton of this element can produce as much energy as 200 tons of uranium and 3.5 m tons of coal, according to the former director of CERN (European Organization for Nuclear Research). It is called the "silver bullet". It is also 3-4 times more abundant in nature than uranium. So, before you think that we are giving you a recipe for the next weapon of mass destruction, here is a cautionary note. It is low cost, clean and perfectly safe. And, now to top it all. India is one of the top 5 holders of this important resource. For many years, our country has been the only sponsor of major research initiatives on how to use this element.

What is this energy source that everyone is talking about? And why do most of us still not know anything about it?

The mystery element is 'Thorium'. According to the World Nuclear Association (WNA), Thorium is a naturally-occurring, slightly radioactive metal. It was discovered in 1828 by the Swedish chemist Jons Jakob Berzelius, who named it after Thor, the Norse god of thunder. It is found in small amounts in most rocks and soils. Soil commonly contains an average of around 6 parts per million of thorium.

Advantages of using Thorium as an energy source

  • It is 3-4 times more readily available in nature than uranium, which is currently used in most nuclear reactors. Even though it is not a renewable energy source, it can still be used for many years due to its abundance.

  • Natural thorium is more usable than natural uranium as a fuel. Mined uranium needs to be highly refined before it can be used. All of the mined thorium is potentially useable in a reactor, compared to just 0.7% of natural uranium.

  • Less fuel is required to produce energy through this source; and therefore less radioactive waste is produced. Thorium also has the ability to reabsorb the radioactive wastes it produces.

  • It can help decompose plutonium left by uranium nuclear reactors. This makes it act like an eco-cleanser. Plutonium is one of the dangerous elements that can be used for making nuclear bombs.

  • Post the nuclear disaster at Chernoby, nuclear power has received a bad reputation for being dangerous. The chance of a nuclear meltdown through thorium is negligible.

  • If it is used as a fuel, energy can be generated without producing carbon dioxide, reducing the negative effects of coal/oil as fuels.

One of the main reasons why uranium was used as a fuel source in the past was because it produced plutonium which could be used to make nuclear weapons. During the arms race of the 20th century it was important to have a stockpile of weapons for your safety. But now in a world, with terrorism and global uncertainty, not giving anyone access to this dangerous material is of paramount importance. Enter, Thorium. Unfortunately converting existing uranium plants and developing new technology may prove expensive.

India and Thorium
According to WNA, India has a successful and largely home-grown nuclear power program. The country expects to have 20,000 MW (mega watt) of nuclear capacity by 2020, and 63,000 MW by 2032. It aims to supply 25% of electricity from nuclear power by 2050.

India has almost six times more thorium than uranium. India has thus made utilisation of thorium for energy production a major goal in its nuclear power programme. We have around 12% of the estimated world reserves of thorium.

Source: World Nuclear Association, 2010
Note: these are estimated resources

India was outside the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (treaty to limit the spread of nuclear weapons) for around 34 years. This was due to its weapons program. Due to trade bans and low uranium reserves, India has been developing a nuclear fuel cycle to utilise its thorium reserves.

Now, post the signing of the Nuclear Liability Bill, foreign technology is expected to boost India's nuclear power plans in a large way.

Considering the advantages of using the element, if the thorium movement does eventually take off, India could definitely be one of the global super-'powers'.

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