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Coastal key to energy needs

New Delhi, Aug. 16: India may need to import nuclear reactors to meet its short-term energy needs, but the only way to gain long-term energy independence is to exploit the vast thorium reserves on Kerala’s coastal sands, experts said.

In their Independence Day messages to the nation, President A.P.J. Abdul Kalam and Prime Minister Manmohan Singh touched on nuclear power. Kalam spoke of the need to continue efforts to harness thorium, while Singh said India could generate an extra 40,000 mw of nuclear power in the next 10 years.

Nuclear experts said that given the current pace of India’s nuclear power programme and its limited uranium reserves, the 40,000 mw target could only be achieved through the import of nuclear reactors.

One expert expressed concern that a shift in focus towards massive import of nuclear reactors might harm the indigenous three-stage nuclear programme aimed at ultimately converting thorium to uranium for power reactors.

“India has to strike a balance between reactor imports and the vigorous pursuit of the indigenous programme,” said Dr A.N. Prasad, a nuclear engineer and former director of the Bhabha Atomic Research Centre.

“For long-term energy security, we’ll have to ensure that economic and human resources continue to be available for the indigenous programme. The import of reactors would only meet energy needs in the near future,” he said.

India currently has 14 operating nuclear reactors and eight more under construction, all of which would lead to an installed nuclear power capacity of 8,000 mw by the year 2010.

The 10th plan mid-term appraisal document has said that given its limited resources of indigenous uranium, India must seek 20,000 mw of additional nuclear power “on a turnkey basis” to be built over the next 10 to 12 years.

But experts have said that imported nuclear reactors will not in any way contribute to the indigenous programme, which is based on a combination of natural uranium, plutonium extracted from spent fuel and, eventually, thorium.

“If we manage to exploit thorium in a big way, we’ll be sitting on top of the world,” Prasad said. India has vast reserves of thorium on the coast of Kerala that can be converted through special reactors into uranium for power generation.

“No one else is pursuing thorium anywhere else in the world,” said Ratan Sinha, head of the reactor engineering division at the Bhabha Atomic Research Centre.

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