A fascinating study
Dr R Balashankar
Superfuel Thorium: The Green Energy Source for the Future, Richard Martin, Palgrave Macmillan, St. Martin’s Press, Pp 262 (HB), $27.00
THORIUM is the cleanest, safest, most abundantly available ‘unending’ fuel. And yet it has been ignored in favour of its more dangerous, abusable cousin uranium. Why? The answers to that question are not simple. In his Superfuel Thorium: The Green Energy Source for the Future Richard Martin, a longtime thorium campaigner, looks at all sides of this complicated issue thoroughly.
One aspect that makes thorium most attractive is that it is impossible to make a bomb from thorium. Fluid-fueled reactors known as liquid fluoride thorium reactors (LFTRs) can act as breeders, producing as much fuel as they consume.
There is a huge India subtext in the thorium story. India has the largest deposit of thorium in the world. The future of the element in fact is in our hands. “India … is the only country in the world with a detailed, funded government-approved plan to base its nuclear power industry on thorium-fueled reactors. If there’s a best hope for thorium power, it’s in India. But there are significant institutional, social, and technological barriers to the Indian program that raise serious doubts as to whether the country’s grand thorium plans will ever be realized.” This doubt is supported by statistics. In the 1960s Homi Bhabha predicted that by 1987 India would produce 18,000 to 20,000 megawatts of nuclear power; the real figure turned out to be 512 megawatts, less than 3 per cent of Bhabha’s forecast.
Richard Martin says there are two major obstacles to India’s thorium power programme – political and technical. The political barrier comes in the form of the 46-nation Nuclear Suppliers Group (NSG). It has been extracting what India perceives as stringent conditions to transfer technology. There is a committed group in India, which advocates following a indigenous way to nuclear power path. Then there is a group which is all for getting foreign technology, investing huge money. Accusations and counter accusations fly thick in the air. Vitiating the atmosphere are the NGOs, religious groups and local interests as evidenced in Koodankulam where the church is at the forefront of the anti-project movement. Then there are the technical issues that need to be resolved, without ambiguity before India can take the lead in the field.
Why exactly did thorium lose the competition with uranium? The latter gained over the former essentially because the superpowers, in an nuclear arms race, had more use for uranium than thorium. Despite its proven character as a nuclear fuel, thorium was put to various industrial uses—as catalyst in chemical processes, “including, ironically, the cracking of petroleum products”, making of refractive glass used in high-end camera lenses. “All of which is akin to using a Ferrari to dive to the corner market for milk,” says Martin.
There was a time when thorium was in demand as it was used in the gas lanterns. Though popularly thorium’s discovery is attributed to Marie Curie, a few months before her (in 1898) a German chemist Gerhard Carl Schmidt had reported the finding in a scientific journal.
Martin has done exhaustive research trying to arrive at one or a couple of answers to explain the mystery of lack of interest in thorium. It mainly is because of the lack of availability of thorium in abundance in those nations which are ahead in technological developments. And also these nations had no use for a fuel that cannot be converted into weapons. The industry which had oriented itself to uranium is loathe to make the change. Probably somewhere in between, though Martin does not state explicitly, is the influence of the oil lobby almost all over the world.
Martin also has quoted an article from the Organiser on thorium. The weekly has published several articles in support of the thorium technology and its particular benefits to India.
The author has narrated the story of thorium in great detail, going into its origin, its characteristics, comparing and contrasting it with other material, and as an alternative to our hydrocarbon sources. His conclusion is this: “The choices we have to make are not easy ones. Thorium is no panacea, but of all the energy sources on Earth, it is the most abundant, most readily available, cleanest, and safest. We can’t afford not to develop it.” He has argued the case thorium well. But the question posed first, on why thorium lost continues to puzzle. Is it only because the big powers wanted it to remain so?
It is a timely and important book, at a time when India is going through a power crisis and is looking for cheap, clean fuel. Policy makers, energy managers and NGO activists should definitely read this book.
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