Monday, November 05, 2007

'Thorium to give India an edge'

Thorium Power is a privately-held, Washington DC-based company funded primarily through private equity investments. It develops proliferation-resistant nuclear fuel technologies. Seth Grae, president, Thorium Power, talks to ET about why thorium is the way forward for India.

Besides the fact that India has the second largest reserves of thorium, are there any other advantages for opting for thorium-based nuclear reactors rather than the uranium-based plants?
There are two major concerns when we talk of nuclear power — the first is that of safety and the second is the proliferation issue. On the aspect of safety, major nuclear companies like GE, Westinghouse, and Areva have addressed this issue. It is the proliferation angle that now needs to be addressed. For India, which has the largest thorium reserves in terms of quality, opting for thorium-based reactors is the logical step.

It is not merely an issue of fuel self-sufficiency but the fact is that it will also address the proliferation issue. Nuclear waste at a thorium-based reactor is minimal, and the plutonium from the process is used for further generation. It would make sense for India to opt for thorium rather than uranium.

Are there any other advantages for India to opt for the thorium fuel cycle?

Given India’s vast reserves of thorium, harnessing technologies that would use thorium-based nuclear fuels would give India an edge. The country could emerge as an exporter of thorium material or fuels made out of thorium. Also, given India’s massive power generating capacity expansion programme, opting for a thorium fuel cycle would make sense.

There are two types of thorium-based nuclear fuels — thorium and uranium and the other, thorium and plutonium. With the first, uranium, will come at a cost while plutonium comes free as it is a by-product of the process. The most dramatic savings happen if you use plutonium. However, fuel accounts for only 6% of costs of a nuclear plant. Indian scientists have already done work on thorium, that puts India in a favourable position.
Given thorium’s obvious advantages what accounts for its lack of popularity as a nuclear fuel?
The fact is that there has been little research and development in the nuclear fuel field. R&D in this area has been somewhere between flat and dead in the past 25 years. Thorium Power has an advantage as developing anything in the nuclear sector requires a long-time. Thorium Power’s work in the past will give it an edge over companies that are just about starting to explore this field.

What are your plans in India?

Thorium Power is the leading developer of proliferation-resistant nuclear fuel technologies. While working with Thorium Power designs will put India in a favourable position, we too stand to benefit from scientists in India to develop nuclear fuel for domestic consumption as well as for export.

What is the nature of association that you are looking at in India?

India has the potential to build at least 60 reactors of 1,000 megawatts each. India is already working on a plan to build dozens of new reactors in the coming years and the vast majority of them will be designed to use thorium fuels. We have found a lot of interest among all segments of the nuclear community here in the proliferation resistant, low-waste fuel technology that Thorium Power offers.

We are still exploring options, it could be in the nature of a technology transfer partnership or a joint venture. However, in international transactions things can develop fast. We may be in a position to announce a joint venture by the middle of next year. We are in dialogue with the Nuclear Power Corporation of India and NTPC as well as some major private sector companies.

How big do you estimate the Indian market to be?

Indian efforts in the nuclear power sector could lead to the award of contracts worth at least $100 billion. As I said, India has the potential to build at least 60 reactors of 1,000 megawatts each. At an estimated $2 billion per reactor, the potential for business crosses $100 billion.

Over and above this, there are business opportunities arising out of fuel supply and servicing contracts. Consider that 60% of business generated by new plants involves construction and equipment contracts and the balance to fuel processing technologies and safety services.
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