Friday, November 23, 2012

SINCE India began its nuclear programme in the 1950s, it has aimed to tap the ample thorium reserves that lie within its borders. Construction is finally set to begin on a reactor that will produce electricity from India’s most convenient fuel for the first time. But with a checkered past on the subject, the country’s promises of a new dawn for nuclear rest on shaky ground.
Last week, the Nuclear Power Corporation of India (NPCIL) put out statements to the Indian press touting the safety of its new Advanced Heavy Water Reactor (AHWR), which could break ground near one of the country’s conventional reactors next year. Once operational, they claim it will fulfil the vision of India’s 60-year-old blueprint for thorium-based nuclear energy production, generating 300 megawatts of power from thorium more safely than nuclear energy has ever done. NPCIL’s technical director, Shiv Abhilash Bhardwaj, told the press that such reactors will be so safe they can be built right inside major cities like Mumbai.
The rhetoric is familiar: for decades, thorium has been repeatedly held up as a cheap, clean way forward for nuclear power. Compared with the uranium-based fuel cycles, thorium produces far smaller amounts of radioactive waste elements – including plutonium, which remains dangerous for tens of thousands of years.
But the reality is that there’s nothing new about the AHWR, says Craig Smith, a nuclear engineer at the US Naval Postgraduate School in Monterey, California. Smith says Bhardwaj’s claims that the reactor will be safe enough to build in urban areas simply do not stand up. The reactor will convert thorium to uranium-233, which then splits to produce heat and other elements with short half-lives. If an accident were to occur, this dangerous mix of chemicals could be released into the environment.

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