Since 1951, the Indian government has somehow managed to fail in every single attempt to reach its annual target of increasing the nation’s electricity production capacity. But while the nation continues to struggle with crippling blackouts and power shortages till today, an energy plan, conceived during the 1950s, may fundamentally alter the nation’s, and quite possibly the world’s, energy future.
Thorium, like its Norse god and Marvel superhero namesake, is expected to change the world.
Late last month, India suffered two consecutive power grid failures, which crippled the nation’s social and economic infrastructure: On July 30th, nearly 300 million Indians were affected by a massive blackout; and on the very next day, more than half of the population had no access to electricity after three of the nation's five power grids failed at lunchtime.
As engineers struggled to fix the world’s worst blackout in history, many analysts questioned whether the Indian government could meet the nation's increasing appetite for energy.
“The turmoil caused by the back-to-back grid failures is almost at the scale of a national emergency,” wrote Times of India journalist Ranjan Roy in an op-ed piece.
“A power crisis has been staring us at the face . . . and successive governments have failed to prevent a disaster,” he later noted.
According to a report by Bloomberg, India has missed every annual target to add electricity production capacity since 1951. India also faced a deficit of 8.5 percent on its base electricity load from 2010-2011; and many Indians now feel that government’s general inaction has compounded the nation’s energy problems.
“This is a telling commentary on the situation of the power sector in the country,” told Chandrajit Banerjee, Director General of the Confederation of Indian Industry, to Arab News. “Losses to businesses have been in hundreds of millions of US dollars, which pales into insignificance when compared to the difficulty that the people of the country have had to face."
"As one of the emerging economies of the world, which is home to almost a sixth of the world population, it is imperative that our basic infrastructure requirements are in keeping with India's aspirations," Banerjee added.
But, the Indian government insists that they are doing their best. In a report by the Economic Times, the Indian government blamed three states – namely, Punjab, Haryana and Uttar Pradesh – for the blackouts – as they had drawn power in excess of their allotted quota all through June and July. Then-Minister of Power Sushil Kumar Shinde, who has since been replaced by Veerappa Moily, also initially boasted about how quickly India managed to recover its power – comparing it to the 2008 power grid failure in the United States, which took four days to restore.
Still, interestingly enough, on August 22nd, the Indian government announced that they would restructure $35 billion of loans held by its utilities in order to boost their ability to supply electricity and avert another blackout.
And the biggest news for India’s energy future actually came earlier this year – before the blackouts even occurred – when the Indian parliament declared, in collaboration with its Atomic Energy Commission (AEC), that the nation would commence on the construction of its first-ever 300 MW (megawatt) thorium reactor by 2016-17.
Thorium is a naturally occurring radioactive chemical element that is named after the Norse god of thunder, Thor. Discovered in 1828 by Swedish chemist Jons Jakob Berzelius, the 90th element on the periodic table has been described by Forbes as possibly “the biggest energy breakthrough since fire.”
According to Greentech Media, Thorium the potential to replace uranium as a ultra-cheap and ultra-safe nuclear energy source. Not only is the metal approximately three times as abundant as uranium in the earth’s crust, but it also contains up to 200 times the energy density.
“So why on earth are we using uranium?” asked Marin Katusa of Forbes. “As you may recall, research into the mechanization of nuclear reactions was initially driven not by the desire to make energy, but by the desire to make bombs.”
“The $2 billion Manhattan Project that produced the atomic bomb sparked a worldwide surge in nuclear research, most of it funded by governments embroiled in the Cold War. And here we come to it: Thorium reactors do not produce plutonium, which is what you need to make a nuke.”
After decades of relative obscurity however, Thorium is finally attracting increasing interest as an energy source from around the world. Apart from India, China has also announced its intentions to develop a thorium nuclear reactor, while Canada, Germany, Netherlands, the United Kingdom and the United States have all experimented with using thorium as a substitute nuclear fuel in existing nuclear reactors.
India’s thorium plans though are possibly the most well known and most promising of them all.
“With 40 percent of its population not yet connected to the electricity grid and an economy growing by about 8 percent each year, India’s need for a bold energy strategy is apparent,” wrote Phys.org. As early as the 1950s, Indian physicist Homi Bhabha had laid out a three-stage vision for the country’s nuclear programme, which would exploit the country's vast reserves of thorium – about 25-30 percent of the world’s total supply.
The nuclear plan experienced a hiccup post-1974, after the U.S. placed embargos on India for detonating its first nuclear bomb, but R K Sinha, the chairman of the AEC, now believes that his country is ready and capable of fulfilling Bhabha’s 60-year old vision.
“The basic physics and engineering of the thorium-fuelled Advanced Heavy Water Reactor (AHWR) are in place, and the design is ready," told Sinha, in an interview with the Guardian.
“Once the six-month search for a site is completed – probably next to an existing nuclear power plant – it will take another 18 months to obtain regulatory and environmental impact clearances before building work on the site can begin.”
The first thorium reactor, to be located either in Tarapur in Maharashtra or Kudankulam in Tamil Nadu, is expected to be a mainly research-based project that will lead the way for commercial ventures in the future. According to the Deccan Herald, the reactor will require 52 tonnes of fuel in its core initially – and just 4.7 tonnes of fuel per annum after – meaning that India can sustain on its thorium reserves for hundreds of years.
Sinha further noted that once India is able to complete to technology, it can beginning exporting similar reactors to smaller developing countries in the Middle East and East Asia.
"Many countries with small power grids of up to 5,000 MW are looking for 300MW reactors," he said. "Our reactors are smaller, cheaper, and very price competitive."
Most importantly however, India wants to supply a quarter of the nation’s energy needs from nuclear power by 2050, up from around three percent today.
According to the World Nuclear Association, the limited and environmentally harmful Coal still provides up to 68 percent of the nation’s electricity. India’s per capita electricity consumption figure is expected to double by 2020, and reach 5000-6000 kWh by 2050, and the nation’s supply of coal is unlikely to be able to match the demand.
"Due to past trade bans and lack of indigenous uranium, India has uniquely been developing a nuclear fuel cycle to exploit its reserves of thorium,” wrote the World Nuclear Association.
“Now, foreign technology and fuel are expected to boost India's nuclear power plants considerably. All plants will have high indigenous engineering content," the organisation added.
Still, sceptics– of Both India’s and thorium’s future – remain.
Writing for OpenDemocracy.net, Jayita Sarkar, a PhD candidate at the Graduate Institute of International and Development Studies in Geneva, said:
“The Indian atomic energy programme however, although operating on a grand scale, has till now fallen short of falling into place, and the AEC has not yet succeeded in meeting its own estimates of electricity production.”
“A former chairperson of the Atomic Energy Commission in a personal interview once described the Indian strategic culture as characterized by jugaad, which is the colloquial Hindi for stop-gap solutions... Jugaad depicts not merely a practice of over-reliance on stop-gap solutions but also the stark absence of an operational strategy to deal with crises and managing risks. Sadly this pervades all aspects of Indian political, economic and social life,” she added.
According to Dr. Arjun Makhijani, the president of the Institute for Energy and Environmental Research, Thorium may also not exactly be the “best bet for the future” of the world, especially when compared to renewable energy sources such as solar.
“Proponents of thorium are right in the sense that the liquid fuel reactor has a number of safety advantages, but it also has a number of disadvantages,” Makhijani said. “It doesn't solve the proliferation problem. It doesn't solve the waste problem, either. So every nuclear reactor, no matter what type, creates fission products, which are highly radioactive materials, some short-lived, some long-lived, to make energy.”
Germany’s “going to have a completely renewable system maybe by the time thorium reactors become commercial,” he noted.
India’s Energy Future
But despite what the sceptics say, "given India's abundant supply of thorium it makes sense for her to develop thorium reactors," noted Baroness Worthington of the Weinberg Foundation, which promotes thorium-fuelled nuclear power.
Science writer Matthew Chalmers of Physics World also believes that India’s energy future is unlikely to end at just thorium.
“In a modern context, Bhabha’s nuclear vision is part of a wider goal for clean, affordable energy also in form of solar, wind and hydroelectricity - all of which India is investing in heavily,” he wrote.
India has the world's largest thorium deposits and with a world hungry for low-carbon energy, thorium can prove to be India’s making.
Angela Saini, author of Geek Nation: How Indian Science Is Taking Over The World believes that “no story quite captures India's remarkable power to think long-term quite like that of thorium.”
“Quietly researching this fuel for decades, Indian scientists have waited for just the right moment to build their first thorium-powered nuclear reactor,” she said, in a piece for the Huffington Post.
“If the rest of the world believes India to be a sleeping elephant that is finally rising, then this tale reveals just how much more there will be to see when the elephant is fully awake.”
By Raymond Tham, EconomyWatch.com