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Thorium - An Overview from Indian Perspective

Thorium is an extremely important element for India, it can help to meet the ever growing energy requirements of the nation. Thorium by itself is not a fissile material (a material that can sustain fission reaction in nuclear reactors to produce energy). It is a fertile material that can transmute into fissile material Uranium (U-233). With rampant climate change there is a strong pressure to shift to renewable energy sources. Currently, India is heavily dependent on Thermal power to meet its energy requirements. Hence Nuclear energy can be a good substitute for thermal energy. One of the most highly developed nations in the World, France, meets 80% of its energy requirements through nuclear energy. 

Aspirants would find this topic very helpful while preparing for the IAS Exam.

Thorium – Huge Reserves in India

Uranium is the fuel used in Nuclear reactors to produce energy. However India has only 2% of the world’s Uranium reserves. On the other hand India has 25% of the World’s Thorium reserves. Thorium reserves in India goes up to the tune of 400 thousand tonnes. Since India was not part of International Nuclear trade, India had to rely on developing technologies that would utilise Thorium to produce the energy in Nuclear reactors. Hence father of Indian Nuclear Program Homi J Bhabha envisaged developing a 3 Stage Nuclear Power Program in 1954, by utilising India’s vast Thorium reserves.

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3 – Stage Nuclear Power Program – Important Role of Thorium

The below details will help one briefly understand the 3 – stage nuclear power program of India, which focuses on utilising Thorium due to shortage of Uranium reserves.

Stage 1

Reactor: The Reactor used in this stage is Pressurised Heavy Water Reactor (PHWR).

Process: PHWR uses natural uranium. The byproduct Plutonium-239 from this process will be used in Stage 2.

Stage 2

Reactor: The Reactor used in this stage would be Fast Breeder Reactor (FBR).

Process: This stage will help in producing excess Plutonium-239, by using natural uranium and plutonium obtained in the first stage.This process which will help in converting fertile material Thorium (Th-232) into fissile material Uranium (U-233).

Stage 3

Reactor: Plans to use Thorium based Nuclear Reactors called Breeder Reactors

Process: In this stage, they have envisaged to use Uranium (U-233) in advanced self-sustaining thorium based reactors. Here Thorium will be introduced in the fuel cycle to convert it into fissile material U-233. 

Lots of research has been going on at Bhabha Atomic Research Centre (BARC) to develop technologies that will help in utilization of Thorium. Some of the research activities are mentioned below.

  1. Experience of the entire Thorium fuel cycle has been generated.
  2. Experimental irradiation of different Thorium based fuels in research reactors.
  3. Using bundles of thoria in a restricted manner in Pressurised Heavy Water Reactors (PHWR).
  4. Studies on reprocessing and fuel fabrication.
  5. KAMINI Reactor – It is currently the only reactor in the world operating on U-233 fuel. It is a reactor built for experimentation.
  6. Work is going on Advanced Heavy Water Reactor (AHWR), to scale up thorium fuel cycle experience.

Uses of Thorium

Some of the uses of Thorium are mentioned below.

  1. Can be used in nuclear reactors to meet the energy requirements of a nation.
  2. Radiometric dating
  3. Used as alloying element in magnesium
  4. Coat tungsten wire which is used in electrical equipment

FAQ about Thorium and Nuclear Reactors

How many nuclear reactors are in India?

At present, there are 22 reactors with a total capacity of 6780 MW in operation and one reactor, Kakrapar Atomic Power Project (KAPP-3) whose capacity is 700 MW has been connected to the grid on January 10, 2021. In addition, there are 8 reactors (including 500 MW Prototype Fast Breeder Reactor (PFBR) being implemented by BHAVINI) totalling to 6000 MW under construction at various stages.

What is the difference between thorium and uranium reactors?

Thorium-based reactors are safer because the reaction can easily be stopped and because the operation does not have to take place under extreme pressures. Compared to uranium reactors, thorium reactors produce far less waste and the waste that is generated is much less radioactive and much shorter-lived. Meanwhile, the similarity between these two elements is that both can absorb neutrons and transmute into fissile elements.

The above details would help candidates prepare for UPSC 2021.

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