Monday 20 June 2011

UPA sabotages India’s thorium energy quest (Org.)

M D Nalapat

Over the past decades, despite severe international sanctions led by the US and China, Indian nuclear scientists such as Dr P K Iyengar and Dr Anil Kakodkar have ensured that this country secures the capability of becoming a major player in the energy market, provided that the Three Stage Programme devised by Homi Jehangir Bhabha in the 1960s gets implemented. However, over the past four years, the UPA has quietly sought to abandon the Three Stage Programme in favour of a massive programme of purchasing foreign reactors that give zero benefit to local technology and very little to local industry.

Interestingly, each time an effort is made to recover sufficient uranium for the nuclear industry, a slew of NGOs emerge that block mining. Although the Manmohan Singh government has evidence that many of these are funded by interests hostile to the indigenous nuclear industry, yet—clearly under pressure from 10 Janpath—it has succumbed to blackmail and refused to mine uranium, especially in Meghalaya. As a result, the PHWR reactors of the Department of Atomic Energy have for long been forced to operate at below 70 per cent of capacity, thereby depriving the country of energy.

Sadly, since 2001, the establishment in India has slowed down the Indian reprocessing programme, the result being that vast pools of irradiated natural uranium have built up,that are a safety hazard and which—once processed—can serve as feedstock for a nuclear energy programme. Because of a tendency of successive governments to succumb to US-China pressure, the Fast Breeder reactor has not yet been fully operationalised, mainly because of lack of fuel. Incidentally, the US, China and the EU are using every means of pressure at their disposal to prevent India from mastering the Fast Breeder Reactor technology, because they know that once such a Rubicon gets passed, India would become one of the key countries in international nuclear commerce. What is a mystery is why governmernts in India have agreed to such anti-Indian diktats for so long, and now appear poised to even scrap the Three Stage Programme altogether.

For the past fifteen years, the Department of Atomic Energy has been working on Advanced Heavy Water Reactors(AHWR) and Compact High Temperature Reactor (CHTR), both being thorium-based. Once these get operationalised, the country would be able to do without costly imports of nuclear plants as well as petro-product feedstock. Of course, this would cut into several Swiss bank accounts held by VVIPs in India, which is why the indigenous AWHR and CHTR programmes are being sabotaged by the Sonia-led UPA.

Recent articles in the media have appeared, proclaiming that the AHWR has undergone design changes “to increase proliferation resistance, safety and security”. This change in design is represented as a safety response to the Fukushima disasters. Left unstated in these deliberately misleading accounts is the fact that this significant modification of the AHWR actually amounts to a paradigm shift for the DEA in that it represents the first concerted move away from Homi Jehangir Bhabha’s brilliant three stage programme for thorium utilisation—a pillar on which the entire atomic energy programme of the country was created. The move away from India’s unique three stage programme is to stealthily satisfy externally imposed “non-proliferation” goals on a country which has emerged as a major nuclear power in the face of vicious, arbitrary and unjust sanctions imposed by the US, China and the EU since the 1970s.

It will be recalled that the original stated aim of the AHWR (Advanced Heavy Water Reactor) was to operationalise the closed Th-U-233 cycle on a commercial scale, with its very attractive passive safety features. The original plan was to master the closed fuel cycle with the use of a Plutonium-Thorium (Pu-Th) fuel combination, and convert thorium to uranium-233 as a crucial step for this “technology demonstrator”. These plans had been reviewed by the Atomic Energy Regulatory Board (AERB) as part of the domestic programme to expand India’s experience with thorium and U-233 believed to be a necessary stepping stone for future stages. While some plutonium would always be required in the fissile feed, U-233 can be separated and reused (thus “closing” the fuel cycle) provided the country is ready to assert its independence and embark on the required R&D for fuel reprocessing (possibly even three way reprocessing) and fuel fabrication involving sophisticated remote handling. Indeed, India would take the lead in safer, closed Th-fuel cycle technology in a new generation of reactors for which indigenous fuel is abundant.

Unfortunately, as these technologies continue to be vigorously denied to India by the US, France and Medvedev’s Russia, despite the UPA’s frequent proclamations to the contrary, the Sonia-led government has meekly opted out of the race, some six decades after the blueprint was first proposed. A race that was run with distinction under the grandfather-in-law, mother-in-law and husband of UPA chairperson Sonia Gandhi. What is noteworthy is the surreptitious manner in which the end-game of sabotaging indigenous nuclear technology is being pursued. The surreptitious steps taken by the UPA since 2008 will have the effect of denying India the immense energy benefits of its huge reserves of thorium.

In a turn-around that raises more questions than it answers, a new fissile fuel combination for the AHWR involving 20 per cent Low Enriched Uranium (LEU)—Thorium fuel instead of Plutonium—Thorium has been proposed as a safe, proliferation resistant alternative. That this is being done to the exclusion of a parallel fissile fuel combination more appropriate as a “technology demonstrator” and an eventual thorium-based technology has extremely far reaching consequences. The least of these is that India will become a non weapons state despite having a separation plan, in that it will cease to be able to rely on its own technologies and—in future—feedstock

It needs to be noted that the proposed (light enriched uranium) LEU—Th fuel will show only a MOX (mixed oxide, Th-20 per cent LEU) fuel fabrication capability which does not fall under the definition of a “technology demonstrator” for the three stage programme and has ability to ensure that we achieve the future stages.

Secondly, since India has limited supplies of Uranium, it is likely that all LEU for commercial reactors will be imported under comprehensive safeguards. Indeed, the DAE has gone on record to state that “we will be using 20 per cent low enriched uranium (safeguarded or imported) and 80 per cent of Thorium for the conversion to U233 as planned for India’s third stage programme of thorium utilisation”. The statement seems self-contradictory. Safeguarded fuel cannot be re-cycled in India and it will not be possible to separate U-233 from spent LEU let alone providing a stepping stone to the third stage when the “technology demonstrator” itself will not see the light of day. Even if this were possible, it is patently unrealistic to suggest that the processed derivatives of safeguarded fuel, including thorium oxide, could be stored for future use in unsafeguarded facilities such as those developed to realise the three stage programme.

Furthermore, this change in technique implies that the fuel cycle will be “once through” (rather than “closed”) as is the case with reactor technology of a by-gone era. And the hazards associated with storing increasing quantities of spent fuel were well known even in the last century. This assumes significance as we are promised the widespread deployment of AHWRs to suit non-proliferation objectives. How such an accumulation of spent fuel is compatible with such an objective is a question that does not seem to have been asked by a UPA in a healong rush to put paid to the indigenous three-stage programme nurtured under Indira Gandhi and Rajiv Gandhi, but which is being shelved under Sonia Maino?

Even as the “technology demonstrator” (which in time is expected to become a fully viable technology) is relegated to the dust bin while the establishment pats itself on the back for responding in a “mature” manner to proliferation resistant objectives, a more insidious but equally disastrous outcome appears to have been ignored or overlooked.

One reason for the separation plan was to ensure that indigenous science and technology stayed safe from prying eyes and was allowed to develop without external interference and endless bureaucratic tangles. Every technologically advanced country still pursues this path and there is no reason why India as a sovereign nation, should not. It was thus promised that only imported reactors would attract safeguards. Sadly, the confused official position would imply otherwise. If our unique AHWR’s are provided with safeguarded fuel, the entire design, so painstakingly developed under a technology denial regime continuing till today, with its novel passive safety features such as natural circulation for removing the total heat, passive containment isolation, passive ECCS injection etc, will now lie exposed in exquisite detail to technology theft and worse, as a consequence of downstream safeguards.

Despite the many concerns, the new AHWR ground-breaking is expected to start within the next two years and a site has been selected awaiting final approval. As the sun sets on India’s ambitious third stage programme, we are being told that only one PHWR served up to international safeguards as a result of imported LEU fuel will be sufficient for potential technology theft and commercial misuse. As in past eras,will India once again be rendered helpless before strong enemies? Will we forever have to depend on outside feedstock for our energy sources? Will we abandon a three-stage programme that can give the country abundant energy? Instead of sabotaging the vision of Homi Bhabha, the UPA needs to continue with the programme through the ensuring of suitable feedstock for it. After so many decades of resisting pressure from the US and China to disarm, it seems as though this duo are on the cusp of success. We need a full national debate into the UPA acting as Ekalavya, cutting off India’s nuclear thumb to meet the commands of the US and China.

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