Kerala is perhaps the first state to moot the idea of a low-capacity small modular reactor running on thorium.
That’s two birds at one shot: Nuclear energy is a zero-emission alternative to conventional energy based on fossil fuels. India has the most extensive supply of thorium, abundantly available in Kerala.
State Power Minister K Krishnankutty recently discussed the proposal with Union Power Minister RK Singh. That’s a turnaround for the communists who were at the vanguard of the movement against nuclear plants.
It won’t be easy for the LDF government to persuade people in the Alappuzha-Kollam coastal regions not to resist mining the thorium deposits or convince the state’s people that technological upgrades and using thorium can prevent a Fukushima repeat. But that is another story.
The Kerala initiative, approached scientifically and with the Union government cooperating, can prove to be a model for all the states.
The initiative also comes at the right time when nuclear research in the world’s laboratories focuses on two areas.
One is experimenting with alternatives like thorium in nuclear energy production by irradiating it for uranium-233, the fissile material that can be burned up as fuel in nuclear reactors. Other technologies, like thorium-molten salt technology, are undergoing tests.
Two, work is on to commercialise small modular reactors (SMR) with a power capacity of 30-300MW each.
Issues around India and thorium-based reactors
Among a handful of countries conducting the experiments, India is said to be way ahead on both counts. The Kalpakkam Mini Reactor is the world’s only thorium-based experimental reactor, and many more are on the anvil.
The government told Parliament last November it is “exploring options of collaborating with other countries” to take up “indigenous development” of SMRs of up to 300 MW.
Thorium and SMRs answer most security concerns following the Fukushima disaster.
Despite questions about the cost and scalability of thorium-based nuclear energy, SMRs running on thorium-based fuel are more environmental-friendly than their uranium counterparts. They do not emit greenhouse gases and produce less long-living nuclear waste (though a recent study claims otherwise).
SMRs are easy to manufacture and assemble on-site, with appropriate and upgraded safety standards. So, there is a lower possibility of time and cost overruns in completing a project. They can reduce capital costs over time with long years of operating capacity.
Change people’s mindset over N-power
India must keep itself abreast of global experiments with applications of thorium-based SMRs. Apart from the conventional role of energy producers, they are being tested for use in hybrid energy systems, heating, steam for industrial use, and water desalination.
Given the general suspicion about things nuclear, it is incumbent on the Union and state governments to change the public perception about nuclear reactors for civilian use and discourage violation of the concerned mining and nuclear energy laws by private parties.
There is also the need to embrace the federal spirit for a Centre-State collaboration on such projects should they prove safe, cheap and viable routes for clean energy generation.
In the context of Kerala’s latest proposal, one recalls the case — mentioned in a communique in 2018 — of the Union government giving administrative approval and financial sanction for 12 nuclear reactors in BJP-friendly states.
At the same time, the government informed the Rajya Sabha that “there is no proposal currently to locate a nuclear power plant in the state of Kerala”.
That attitude must be discarded for the Union and states governments to jointly help India shift to clean energy based on indigenously extracted nuclear fuel as part of its commitments under the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals.