Revive R&D in thorium, says India

March 09, 2010 01:53 am | Updated 01:53 am IST - PARIS:

India struck a different tone at the ongoing global meet on nuclear energy, drawing attention to the pitfalls of relying solely on uranium fuel for atomic reactors. It said the world must revive research in utilising thorium and join hands with India, only country engaged in this endeavour, to ensure that energy is sustainable for the next few centuries.

Warning that the reliance on uranium will not be sustainable beyond this century, Atomic Energy Commission Chairman Srikumar Banerjee said the “world must wake up” and support India's three-stage nuclear programme. “The constraint in relying only on uranium was never addressed in this conference. The world has to pay attention to uranium 238 using plutonium in a closed fuel cycle — this transition is essential for the whole world. But this is not enough. Unless thorium is used, it will not be possible to have sustainable energy on this planet. Only with thorium will it be possible for the whole world to get enough energy for several centuries. This was discussed in the 1950s and 1960s but the world has since forgotten it,” Dr. Banerjee pointed out, speaking at a roundtable session on “Nuclear power and the energy mix in a sustainable development perspective” here on Monday.

The AEC chief said the entire nuclear energy projections were based on the Western Europe-U.S. type of one to two per cent growth in requirement. On the other hand, developing countries needed to step up their energy needs by 10 per cent which would not be met with the current emphasis on relying only on uranium 235.

Dr. Banerjee said the present available reserves of 5.469 million tonnes of uranium could support 570 gigawatts of electricity till 2025 and not beyond. Taking the total identified and undiscovered reserves of 16 million tonnes would extend availability till the end of the century. He also called for new reactor designs that were proliferation-proof, and asked developed countries to ease restrictions on enrichment and reprocessing as a medium-term measure.

Providing India as a case study, he pointed out that the nine per cent growth pattern was based on a small section of 300 million people participating in the economy. Thus 10 per cent growth in energy requirement was possible to sustain on a per capita basis — per capita energy consumption was currently 700 kw/hour, whereas reasonable human development required at least seven times more.

Can renewable energy tackle it? Dr. Banerjee felt, “We can try as much as possible,” but suggested that it was impossible for this segment to fill the gap. If India resorted to coal to achieve this goal, it would need to burn 4.7 billion tonnes of coal per year or over four times the consumption in the U.S. This would load the environment with 7.7 billion giga tonnes of carbon dioxide emissions that “would be shared by all of you.”

“The world always felt there would be a miracle. Unfortunately, we have not seen any miracle for the last 40 years. Unless we wake up, humans won't be able to exist beyond this century,” he observed.

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