Thorium's Potential in Nuclear Power Development
Due to increased demand for carbon-free energy, accelerated growth of nuclear power is foreseen in several countries, especially in China and India. This has made the sustainable use of fuel resources such as uranium and thorium very important. Today, uranium is the main-stay of the present generation of nuclear power plants. However, the anticipated growth in nuclear energy may require introducing thorium as a fuel in future.
The IAEA, in cooperation with Indian Rare Earths Limited (IREL) organised an international Technical Meeting on ‘World Thorium Resources’ on 17 – 21 October 2011, in Thiruvananthapuram, India. The meeting was supported by Atomic Minerals Directorate for Exploration and Research, Hyderabad, and the University of Kerala, Thiruvananthapuram.
"Thorium has a large potential to extend the global reach and volume of deployment of nuclear power" said Dr R.K. Sinha, Director of the Bhabha Atomic Research Centre (BARC) in his opening address on international experience in thorium fuel utilization. "Technological developments pertaining to the thorium fuel cycle are generally in a sufficiently mature stage to permit their early deployment based on technical considerations", he added.
Over 50 experts from 20 IAEA Member States including India participated in the meeting. Over 32 presentations highlighted latest developments of exploration, resources and production of thorium and its utilization in the nuclear fuel cycle. Special focus was given to discussions on environmental studies, health, safety, economics and social licensing aspects related to the development of thorium resources.
The IAEA Technical Meeting was held in Thiruvananthapuram, the capital of Kerala State, which is home to the largest and richest resources of thorium in the world. "India has more than a third of the world resources of thorium estimated around 800 000 tonnes", remarked Dr R.N. Patra, Chairman of IREL, who also chaired the five day meeting.
"The meeting very pertinently brought into focus the technical, health and environmental issues related to the co-production of Rare Earth Elements (REE) and thorium resources" remarked Harikrishnan Tulsidas, IAEA Scientific Secretary of the meeting. The importance of conserving this valuable energy resource and the need for defining good practices in the storage of thorium compounds for future use were emphasized by the participants.
A technical tour took the participants to the thorium deposit of Manavalakurichi, 65 Km south of Thiruvananthapuram. The Manavalakuruchi mining operation started in 1911 and is still continuing as centre for production of monazite (a REE – thorium – uranium mineral) and other heavy minerals. The minerals mined are continuously replenished by the wave action on the beach, which provides an almost inexhaustible supply of resources. The visit of the international delegation coincided with the 100th anniversary celebration of this unique thorium mineral production centre.
Background on Thorium
Several experimental and prototype nuclear power reactors were successfully operated during the mid-1950s to 1970s. As the estimated uranium resources turned out to be more than sufficient for the present fleet of nuclear reactors, the interest in thorium dwindled in 1980s. With growth in energy requirements, especially nuclear energy, interest in thorium has been re-kindled in many countries.
Geochemically thorium is four times more abundant than uranium on the crust of earth and economical concentrations of thorium are found in a number of countries. Major resources of thorium are seen in Australia, Brazil, Canada, India, Norway, South Africa and USA.
The present production of thorium is mainly as a by-product of processing of heavy mineral sand deposits for REE, titanium, zirconium and tin. Thorium is usually closely associated with REE deposits. With the recent shortage in REE supplies and subsequent boom in development of REE projects, thorium as a by-product from REE industries has become important.
Contact: H. Tulsidas