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As diwan of Travancore, Sir C.P. Ramaswami Iyer struggled desperately with the departing colonial rulers to prevent the kingdom’s riches, including its thorium deposits, from falling into the hands of the Congress Party whose leadership he did not trust. Thorium’s importance has been known since the early twentieth century when a German chemist scouted it for the gas mantles industry. The French also knew its worth and bought beach sand from Kerala. In fairness, Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru banned the export of thorium after setting up the Department of Atomic Energy. Since then, many rare minerals have been found in Indian beach sands – ilmenite, rutile, garnet, zircon and sillimanite.
Thorium is critical to our nuclear energy security and strategic deterrence policy. India’s huge reserves are in the form of placer sand complexes along both southern coasts. Manavalakurichi at Kanyakumari, Tamil Nadu, has 30% of the world’s known reserves. Other important sites are Aluva and Chavara (Kerala), Sand Complex (Orissa), Vishakhapatnam and Bhimunipatnam (Andhra Pradesh). These can be accessed with bare hands; most other nations’ reserves are embedded in rocks and involve costly and laborious extraction.
Thorium from monazite sand can be converted into an isotope of uranium and used to feed nuclear reactors; it can be used multiple times to generate electricity, thus creating an endless cycle of fuel availability. Thorium cycles are feasible in existing thermal and fast reactors without major changes in engineering systems, reactor control and reactivity devices. A publication of the International Atomic Energy Agency, 2005, says the thorium fuel cycle can complement uranium fuels and produce long term nuclear energy with low radio-toxicity waste. The transition to thorium can be done through incineration of weapons grade plutonium or civilian plutonium.
As more countries follow Japan in shutting down uranium power plants after the Fukushima disaster, thorium is being seen as the route to safer nuclear energy. Japan is researching new thorium-based hydride fuels for advanced Minor Actinides and plutonium burners with high-safety features, and has just concluded a 15-year agreement with India for supply of the rare mineral. Washington’s Nuclear Energy Research Initiative project has developed an innovative fuel matrix comprising thorium, and is buying all available thorium from India.
Recent reports suggest that from 2004 onwards, over two million tonnes of monazite, equivalent to 195,300 tonnes of thorium at 9.3 per cent recovery, has vanished from the Tamil Nadu and Kerala coasts. At a conservative estimate of $100/tonne, the scam exceeds Rs. 48 lakh crore. Under public pressure, Tamil Nadu police have registered a case of lifting sand from temple land controlled by the Dept. of Hindu Religious & Charitable Endowment.
Officially, the beach placer mining sector was opened to the private sector in 1998, and beach sand export escalated after 2005. Even radioactive minerals were allowed to be exported unchecked. In 2006, the UPA delisted heavy minerals like monazite and ilmenite from the proscribed substances list vide SO 61 (E), to facilitate export by private companies, with the proviso that they comply with the Atomic Energy Rules of 1984. But the key officer overseeing the process is reportedly close to some private placer mineral industrialists, and thereby hangs a tale. Despite this, last year when RTI activist Kodikunnel Suresh asked if monazite export violated the Atomic Energy Regulatory Board rules, Minister of State, PMO, V. Narayanaswamy said beach sands with heavy minerals were exported, but monazite and thorium were proscribed for export under the Atomic Energy Act.
The Bhaba Atomic Research Centre produced the world’s first thorium nuclear reactor, Kakrapar-1 (Surat, Gujarat), in 1993, using thorium rather than depleted uranium to achieve power flattening across the reactor core. This was part of a three-stage fuel cycle plan with the ultimate goal of using thorium-based reactors to meet 30% of our energy demands by 2050. Thorium can theoretically generate 40 times the energy per unit mass compared to uranium; this fuel cycle is slated to begin in 2016.
Post-Pokharan, BARC scientists developed a fast breeder reactor using thorium – the Indira Gandhi Centre for Atomic Research, Kalpakkam; later a 500 MW fast breeder reactor was started at Kalpakkam. This means the bred plutonium has dual use as nuclear fuel for another reactor, or for nuclear-tipped weapons as part of our strategic deterrence. As India ranks among only four nations with thorium nuclear technology competence (after USA, France, Japan), and can potentially export fast-breeder thorium-based N-reactors, it should immediately declare its thorium reserves as a strategic asset, not for export.
The Centre should ban private sector mining of thorium-producing placer minerals like monazite, ilmenite, rutile, zircon, and mineral complexes such as thorite, thorianite, and uranium minerals under the Mines and Minerals (Development and Regulation) Act, 1957, and Indian Atomic Energy Act 1948. These should form part of the Central List of Part XI of the Constitution. These minerals should be mined exclusively under the control of the Atomic Energy Commission. This will not only protect the fragile coastlines from erosion triggered by reckless mining, but prevent illegal mining in government lands beyond the area specified in the licenses. Existing private leases for mining ilmenite and monazite lack controls to ensure that the thorium contained in such extractions is deposited with the AEC.
A startling fact brought to light by this controversy is that Indian Rare Earths Ltd has been allocated very limited areas for conserving and extracting thorium-rich minerals from placer deposits of Kerala and Tamil Nadu, while private parties have been permitted to exploit vast areas. In fact, government officials and agencies have facilitated certain individuals and companies to develop virtual monopolies in the mining of valuable mineral resources like ilmenite and monazite. And as in the telecom and coal sectors, no auctions were held while bestowing such valuable national resources on crony capitalists.
Worse, reports suggest that in some of the thorium sand containing areas, the private operators have set up a virtual parallel regime where their writ alone runs and the law and order machinery is kept at bay, as happened with iron ore mining. Most of these areas are currently inaccessible to scientists and researchers. This is a grim confirmation that minerals or areas not covered in the lease contracts are being mined and exported. We urgently need a national policy that treats all natural resources as sovereign national wealth, not to be indiscriminately exploited by the private sector.
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