With the technology hurdle no longer in the way,India is readying thorium supplies to fuel its pilot advanced heavy water reactor (AHWR) that is currently in the works.
On July 7,the Department of Atomic Energy (DAE) proposed amendments to the 1998 Policy on Exploitation of Beach Sand Minerals so that state-run Indian Rare Earths (IREL) would get access to monazite tailings from private firms that process beach sands to extract rare earth minerals.
Monazite is a constituent mineral in beach sands and holds up to 10.5 per cent thorium oxide and 0.35 per cent uranium. Private firms are allowed to extract and sell rare ores such as garnet and ilmenite from the sands but not radioactive monazite leftovers,which is a prescribed substance under the Atomic Energy Act.
Instead,the firms are compelled to store it at their own cost: in trenches topped with silica-rich sand if monazite content is higher than 5 per cent or mixed with silica-rich sand and filled back into the mine if content is lower.
Sources said the DAE proposal to the Atomic Energy Regulatory Board asks for monazite tailings to be handed over to IREL for extracting thorium and if viable,uranium. It also suggests an incentive payment to operators that produce tailings containing 10 per cent or more of monazite.
The DAE expects to gather at least a million tonnes of thorium from the beaches of Kerala and Orissa,which hold 70 per cent-plus of Indias estimated monazite reserve of 18 million tonnes.
Considering that a 300 MW reactor requires 52 tonnes of fuel in its core initially and 4.7 tonnes subsequently each year,India could sustain its nuclear power on these beach deposits for years,sources said. These sands contain monazite,ilmenite,zircon,rutile,garnet and sillimanite whose mining and production was reserved for the public sector but the 1998 policy resolution allowed selective entry of the private sector.
IREL,as per the DAE proposal,would also be made the nodal agency for devising norms to determine the concentration of monazite accounting system so as to enforce beach sand mineral operators to submit their stored volumes.
The DAE move on sourcing thorium for AHWRs comes a fortnight after the Atomic Energy Commission announced plans to establish a 300-MW power plant either at Tarapur in Maharashtra or Kudankulam in Tamil Nadu.