he then Prime Minister Manmohan Singh followed an unwritten policy of severely downsizing both the Fast Breeder Reactor (FBT) as well as the thorium-based technology programme, thereby making India dependent on foreign countries for advanced nuclear technology, key scientists claim on the condition of anonymity. The scientists say that by 2003, the Department of Atomic Energy (DAE) — which comes directly under the Prime Minister — was within four years of mastering the 1 Gigawatt nuclear power plant technology now being supplied by China to Pakistan.
However, "from 2005 onwards, the PM turned his attention towards signing a nuclear deal, which would make India one of the top three global markets for nuclear power companies in the US and Europe rather than a competitor of companies based in these locations" in the lucrative nuclear power technology market. At the same time, "no serious effort was made to clear the legal and other obstacles to mining extra quantities of uranium in Andhra Pradesh and the Northeast".
Instead, the (foreign-funded) NGOs behind the agitation against uranium mining "were given privileged access, including in the Ministry of Environment". According to them, "The attention given to the Fast Breeder Reactor and Thorium programmes were reduced still further by 2008, when discussions began with international companies about supply of reactors to India". If this had not been done, scientists say that by 2013 at the latest, India may have been able to develop the technology for 1 Gigawatt reactors, thereby creating an export market with a potential for sales of $4 billion initially. This advantage was handed over to China "because of the lack of interest and attention given by Prime Minister Manmohan Singh to indigenous nuclear technology". Incidentally, scientists warn that China is now on the cusp of mastering the technology of 2 Gigawatt reactors, while India is now forced to rely on overseas suppliers for 1 Gigawatt (or 1,000 Megawatt) nuclear power plants.
Now that Narendra Modi is Prime Minister, the scientists are hopeful of a return to the level of interest shown by Indira Gandhi towards the indigenous nuclear programme, in place of Manmohan Singh's policy of relying instead on foreign technology and manufacturers for developing such energy sources. A scientist claimed that in case the Indian private sector too partners the DAE, within the next five years, "India can become one of the top three nuclear power plant exporters globally and the top destination for space launches". He and his colleagues repeated that the Manmohan Singh government's "lack of interest in developing Indian resources and technology was clear from each of the small number of interactions which the PM had with the scientific establishment". Rather than "Make in India", the watchword was "Export to India".
Alarmingly, the scientists warned that rare earths as well as thorium deposits were being exported out of the country to unknown destinations, and named a clutch of Tamil Nadu-based companies as being the worst offenders. In one such instance, in 2007, a case got registered by the DAE against V.V. Minerals for quarrying and exporting sands rich in precious minerals from Tirunelveli. The company, together with Indian Port Terminals, Kilburn Chemicals and Transworld Garnet (all based in Tamil Nadu), has also been accused of exporting restricted minerals in the guise of sand mining in Tuticorin, Tirunelveli and Kanyakumari. Although reports of such mining multiplied, "the central authorities took no cognizance". Finally, on 6 August 2013, the collector of Thoothukui district warned in writing that certain companies had illegally quarried as much as 239,712 MT of precious minerals from beaches in the state, only to get transferred for his pains. As a consequence, precious minerals such as garnet, rutile, ilmenite and monazite (which contains thorium) continue to get exported as ordinary sand, without any effort by the authorities to prevent such a denuding of India's indigenous stock of rare earths and precious minerals.
A scientist pointed out that in 2006, the Manmohan Singh government removed rare minerals such as rutile, zircon, garnet and ilmenite from the Atomic Minerals List, thereby giving the precious sand mafias operating in the country carte blanche to take away such minerals for export to unknown destinations. "This decision, which harmed the country's interests significantly, was carried out by the Department of Atomic Energy under pressure from the Prime Minister's Office", a scientist claimed. "Such a decision was in line with others degrading domestic capacities for the benefit of foreign entities", the scientist added.
It may be mentioned that a single company, V.V. Minerals, controls over 15 kilometres of beach area in three districts of Tamil Nadu, while also having control (through lease deeds) of several thousand acres of land rich in precious minerals.
Monazite is an important feedstock for thorium, cerium and lanthanum, and scientists say that the casual manner in which its (thinly disguised) export was treated by Prime Minister Manmohan Singh "has no parallel anywhere in the world". An intelligence analyst claimed that key executives of companies involved in illicit mining "frequented Bangkok and Kuala Lumpur, and met up with ISI officials there". He claimed that the Pakistan nuclear establishment is building up a stock of thorium for its own research, all of which comes from minerals illegally exported from India. He warned that "ports on both the coasts are riddled with officers acting under the influence of the ISI, which has spent decades cultivating such individuals". Scientists say that there has been a "Decade of Neglect" under Manmohan Singh of the Fast Breeder and Thorium programmes, despite the fact that "when Manmohan Singh took charge as PM in 2004, India was the world leader" in both technologies. The scientists say that the country can "change from a dumping ground for foreign equipment into an exporter of even 1 Gigawatt reactors", once Manmohan Singh's legacy of neglect of domestic capacities in favour of foreign imports gets reversed.