Here is a remarkably perceptive article by Ramtanu Maitra. The link of thorium to Rama Setu has been elaborated elsewhere on many notes on this website. A stretch of 150 kms. south of Rama Setu is nuclear zone of the world, with enormous concentrations and thorium placer deposits of monazite sands. (See notes on thorium loot through sand godowns which have sprung up south of Rama Setu). It is imperative that this resource be safeguarded at any cost and that the waters around Rama Setu should NOT be allowed to become an international hotbed of conspiracy and global hegemony under US diktat.
Let me cite from Maitra’s article to underscore the importance of thorium for Bharatam’s energy independence and the need to save Rama Setu as the cyclotron participating with ocean currents in creating these placer deposits of the nuclear zone of the world: ” India‘s Thorium Program Is the Issue.. Indian scientists have made their views known about the inadequacy of the Hyde Act, citing two specific areas. First, the bill says categorically that India cannot reprocess spent fuel from its reactors. it demands this because the United States claims that the “no reprocessing” clause would prevent India from getting plutonium, which could be used later for making nuclear weapons…India already began the construction of the Advanced Heavy Water Reactor (AHWR) in 2005. The AHWR will use thorium, the “fuel of the future,” to generate 300 MW of electricity—up from its original design output of 235 MW. The fuel for the AHWR will be a hybrid core, partly thorium-uranium 233 and partly thorium-plutonium. In other words, if India cannot reprocess the spent fuel to secure plutonium for the sake of converting thorium into fuel, the thorium reactors will never take off. Separation of plutonium is essential for the eventual use of thorium as a nuclear fuel. India therefore expects that reprocessing will be an important activity of its nuclear energy program This is what has put the Indian atomic scientists on a warpath against the Singh government’s willingness to accept the bill. “
This article appears in the January 5, 2007 issue of Executive Intelligence Review.
Why Indian Scientists Oppose the U.S.-India Nuclear Agreement
by Ramtanu Maitra
At a ceremony in the White House on Dec. 18, U.S. President George W. Bush signed the U.S.-India nuclear agreement, otherwise known as the Henry J. Hyde U.S.-India Peaceful Atomic Energy Cooperation Act. The bill would enable American nuclear transfers to India to take place in the future, following a 32-year moratorium.
In India, however, the opposition to the bill remains strong within the scientific community, which believes that it would stymie India’s indigenous and hard-earned thorium fuel-based nuclear program. As a result of their pointed arguments, the Manmohan Singh government has yielded to the parliamentary opposition’s demand for a full discussion of the bill in India’s Parliament. Although the opposition to the bill stems from two major segments of Indian society—the military and the scientific community—to the chagrin of the government, it is now actively discussed by political leaders.
On the American side, three other approvals—by the 45-nation Nuclear Suppliers Group (NSG), the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), and the U.S. Congress—are still needed before American nuclear transfers to India can take place. Although the U.S. Congress voted overwhelmingly on Dec.9 to approve the bill, amidst strong resistance put up by the nuclear non-proliferation lobby, Congress still needs to approve the technical details of nuclear trade in a so-called 123 agreement—a peaceful nuclear cooperation pact with a foreign country, under the conditions outlined in Section 123 of the U.S. Atomic Energy Act.
There is little doubt that the White House, helped by a massive lobbying team mobilized on Capitol Hill by the Indian Embassy and non-resident Indians, considers passing the bill in a relatively short period of time as a great success in bringing U.S.-Indian relations closer in the near future.
The opposition to the bill within the United States was epitomized by a letter sent to the U.S. Senate in mid-November by 18 arms-control advocates. They said that without amendments, the proposed legislation “would have far-reaching and adverse effects on U.S. nonproliferation and security objectives.” Signers included Robert Einhorn, former assistant secretary of state for nonproliferation; Lawrence Korb, former assistant secretary of defense; Prof. Frank von Hippel of Princeton University; Daryl Kimball of the Arms Control Association; and John Isaacs of the Council for a Livable World.
Their concerns center around India’s alleged unwillingness to curb its nuclear weapons program, India’s lack of transparency in non-proliferation efforts, and its close ties with Iran. A new report by the Congressional Research Service, which examines policy issues for Congress, found that while India does not want Iran to have nuclear weapons, New Delhi’s “views of the Iranian threat and appropriate responses [to that threat] differ significantly from U.S. views.” In 2004, Washington imposed sanctions on two Indian scientists for nuclear-related transfers to Iran, and in 2005 and 2006, four Indian companies were sanctioned for chemical-related transfers to Iran, the report noted.
In India, the opposition to the bill is based on an entirely different perspective. India has remained a non-signatory of the Nuclear-Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT) since the Treaty entered into force in 1970, following U.S. ratification. Staying outside of the NPT-regime, India has tested its nuclear devices on three occasions—once in 1974 and twice in 1998. In other words, India has developed nuclear weapons, but it is not recognized as a nuclear weapons state by the five official Nuclear Weapons States (NWS)—United States, Russia, Britain, France, and China—which had all tested their nuclear devices prior to the existnce of the NPT.
Atomic Scientists and Military
The issue of future nuclear tests is important to the opponents of the bill in India, because they consider that such tests are necessary in order to upgrade India’s nuclear weapons to match nuclear developments elsewhere, and provide security to the nation. The Hyde Act that President Bush signed categorically demands that India ban all nuclear explosive tests in the future. It, however, does not address the fact that the United States itself is working on the design of a “Reliable Replacement Weapon” (RRW) to modernize its nuclear arsenal, and may indeed carry out a test in the future!
Moreover, in the “Definitions” section of the contested bill, it is clearly stated that the “Additional Protocol” is to be based on the Model Additional protocol of the IAEA applicable to non-nuclear-weapon states, which is highly intrusive, as pointed out by India’s former Atomic Energy Commission (AEC) chairman, M.R. Srinivasan, in a recent article in the English news daily The Hindu.
He also pointed out that the Hyde Act makes it clear that the U.S. President has to satisfy himself that India is working actively on an early conclusion of the Fissile Material Control regime (FMCT); that India is supporting the United States in preventing the spread of enrichment and reprocessing technologies; and that India adheres to the Misssile Test Control Regime (MTCR) and NSG guidelines (without actually being invited to be a member of these bodies). These actions which India is obliged to take are not consistent with what “a strategic partner” (which Washington wishes India to be) should be taking. Neither are they consistent with what India—described as a “responsible state with advanced technology”—should be mandated to take, Srinivasan affirmed.
What also concerns India’s defense planners about the bill, is the way it has been formulated. The Hyde Act calls for achieving a moratorium on the production of fissile material for explosive purposes by India, Pakistan, and the People’s Republic of China. It may be recalled that China has been producing fissile material for weapons purposes for a long time, while India was not allowed to by the NWS. Therefore, stopping production of fissile material at the same point of time would lead to a serious imbalance. The statement of policy goes on to say that the United States shall “seek to halt the increase of nuclear weapon arsenals in South Asia and to promote their reduction and eventual elimination.”
India’s Thorium Program Is the Issue
Indian scientists have made their views known about the inadequacy of the Hyde Act, citing two specific areas. First, the bill says categorically that India cannot reprocess spent fuel from its reactors. it demands this because the United States claims that the “no reprocessing” clause would prevent India from getting plutonium, which could be used later for making nuclear weapons. However, there is more to the clause than meets the eye, Indian atomic scientists point out.
India decided on a three-stage nuclear program back in the 1950s, when India’s nuclear power generation program was set up. In the first stage, natural uranium (U-238) was used in pressurized heavy water reactors (PHWRs). In the second stage, the plutonium extracted through reprocessing from the used fuel of the PHWRs was scheduled to be used to run fast-breeder reactors (FBRs). The plutonium was used in the FBRs in 70% mixed oxide (MOX)-fuel, to breed uranium-233 in a thorium-232 blanket around the core. In the final stage, the FBRs use thorium-232 and produce uranium-233 for use in the third stage reactors. (See Ramtanu Maitra, “Thorium: Preferred Nuclear Fuel of the Future,” EIR, Nov. 18, 2005.)
To a certain extent, India has completed the first stage, although it has realized a dozen nuclear power plants so far. The second stage is only realized by a small experimental fast breeder reactor (13 MW), at Kalpakkam. Meanwhile, the Indian authorities have cleared the Department of Atomic Energy’s proposal to set up a 500 MW prototype of the next-generation fast-breeder nuclear power reactor at Kalpakkam, thereby setting the stage for the commercial exploitation of thorium as a fuel source.
One reason for India’s commitment to switch over to thorium, is its large indigenous supply. With estimated thorium reserves of some 290,000 tons, it ranks second only to Australia. Further, the nation’s pursuit of thorium helps to bring independence from overseas uranium sources. Since India is a non-signatory of the NPT, its leaders foresaw that its civil nuclear-energy-generation program would be constrained in the long term by the provisions laid down by the commercial uranium suppliers. The 45-member Nuclear Suppliers Group demand that purchasers sign the NPT and thereby allow enough oversight to ensure that the fuel (or the plutonium spawned from it) is not used for making nuclear weapons. A non-signatory of the NPT is prevented from receiving any nuclear-related technology and nuclear fuel.
India already began the construction of the Advanced Heavy Water Reactor (AHWR) in 2005. The AHWR will use thorium, the “fuel of the future,” to generate 300 MW of electricity—up from its original design output of 235 MW. The fuel for the AHWR will be a hybrid core, partly thorium-uranium 233 and partly thorium-plutonium.
In other words, if India cannot reprocess the spent fuel to secure plutonium for the sake of converting thorium into fuel, the thorium reactors will never take off. Separation of plutonium is essential for the eventual use of thorium as a nuclear fuel. India therefore expects that reprocessing will be an important activity of its nuclear energy program This is what has put the Indian atomic scientists on a warpath against the Singh government’s willingness to accept the bill.
Natural uranium contains about 99.3% of the isotope uranium-238 and 0.7% of the fissionable isotope uranium-235. Although uranium-235 is the rarer of the uranium isotopes, it is the one that most readily undergoes nuclear fission, and is thus the most useful for common nuclear applications. Therefore, to use uranium, the proportion of the uranium-235 isotope found in natural uranium must be increased. This process of increasing the fraction of uranium-235 in natural uranium is called enrichment. At the same time, one must note that while uranium-235 is present in natural uranium in small amounts, uranium-233 does not exist in nature. Therefore, thorium-232 must be converted to uranium-233 in order to generate nuclear power.
Not an Easy 123
The second concern of the Indian scientists is the scope of “full civilian nuclear energy cooperation” (Section 123 of the U.S. Atomic Energy Act) that was promised to India in July 2005. India had assumed that this term encompassed the fuel cycle, namely enrichment of uranium and reprocessing of spent fuel. In the discussions leading to the adoption of the Hyde Act, U.S. legislators argued that the U.S. Atomic Energy Act of 1954 specifically forbids export of these technologies, as also heavy water production technology, to other countries. India has developed its own technologies in these three important areas.
According to an English news daily, The Times of India, India’s top atomic scientists have spelled out some of the key points to be incorporated in the 123 agreement are:
- India should not be asked to participate in international non-proliferation efforts with a policy congruent to that of the United States.
- There should be full-scale civilian nuclear cooperation, with an assurance of constant fuel supply.
- India should be free to carry out more nuclear weapons tests.
Although the Bush Administration has shown a great deal of interest in seeing that the nuclear agreement goes through, it is highly unlikely that it would bow to the Indian atomic scientists’ demands. At a Dec. 16 pow-wow in Mumbai, organized by India’s present AEC chairman, Anil Kakodkar, and attended by former six top atomic czars, The Times of India reported a scientist saying: “We hope the voice of the former nuke chiefs will now resound in those areas where the 123 agreement will be negotiated.”
This could spell danger for the bill, as well as for the Manmohan Singh government, which has made the bill the centerpiece of its foreign policy initiatives. These top scientists and administrators of the country’s nuclear establishment told The Times of India that since July 2005, bureaucrats in the External Affairs Ministry were calling the shots, either in New Delhi or in Washington. However, there is now an indication that for the first time, these informed critics of the deal cannot be kept out of the country’s nuclear diplomacy.
See also: http://www.worldaffairsjournal.com/paypalintigration.aspx?Id=A67.pdf Thorium: preferred nuclear fuel of the future, Ramtanu Maitrahttp://www.atimes.com/atimes/South_Asia/GH27Df01.htmlTaking India’s fight to the Hill
By Ramtanu MaitraRecent reports indicate that the Indian Embassy in Washington, following consultations with New Delhi, has appointed Washington’s lobbying heavyweight, Barbour Griffith & Rogers International (BG&R), which could get down to business as early as next month.
The news should not come as a complete surprise to Asia Times Online readers. This author, in an article The man who oils India’s wheels, dated January 25, informed readers that soon after his resignation from the State Department, former US ambassador to India, Robert Blackwill, was hired as president by BG&R in November 2004.
According to BG&R’s web site, its clients include the Republic of China (Taiwan).
His appointment was not only a “Good Samaritan” act by Blackwill’s friends; it also enhanced BG&R’s prestige and made it a potent competitor for a host of contracts in Iraq, India and
elsewhere, the author predicted. It is apparent that the auspicious moment has arrived and the appointment could not be delayed any further. The article indicated that BG&R was going to be hired by the Indian Embassy as lobbyists.
What triggered the appointment is the India-US nuclear deal, which is expected to be discussed in the US Congress next month. The July 18 agreement between US President George W Bush and the visiting Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh called for nuclear cooperation between the two nations. The Bush administration indicated readiness to embark on full civilian nuclear energy cooperation, amending its domestic laws and policies while adjusting international regimes to achieve this.
This will not only secure fuel for India’s Tarapur atomic power plants 1 & 2 (TAPP 1 & 2) supplied by GE in the 1960s, but will also open up the possibility of fuel supply for other safeguarded reactors. Bush also got the US to refrain from vetoing fuel supplies by other countries (Russia, France) as it had in the past.
In return, India agreed to identify and separate civilian and military facilities in a phased manner, placing its civilian facilities under International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) safeguards and signing an IAEA Additional Protocol. A number of existing policies were also reiterated by India, among them a unilateral moratorium on nuclear testing, working toward conclusion of a multilateral Fissile Material Cut-off Treaty, non-transfer of enrichment and reprocessing technologies, securing nuclear materials and technology through export control and harmonization with the Missile Test Control Regime and the Nuclear Suppliers Group guidelines.
The India-US nuclear agreement, often cited by New Delhi as “historic”, is by no means a done deal. A very cursory look indicates that the accord on civilian nuclear energy cooperation will contravene the control guidelines laid down by the nuclear suppliers group, according to a study prepared for the US Congress.
Referring to the agreement of July 18, a Congressional Research Service (CRS) report said if implemented, the cooperation between the US and India for civilian nuclear energy “would dramatically shift US non-proliferation policy and practice towards India”.
“Such cooperation would also contravene multilateral support control guidelines of the Nuclear Suppliers Group, which was formed in response to India’s proliferation,” the report suggested.
Beside the report’s apparent misgivings about the agreement, it is also evident from the rumblings heard on Capitol Hill that the agreement will face serious opposition from both sides of the aisle. It is almost a certainty that the minority Democrats will oppose the agreement more in unison than their opponents.
The first salvo was issued by none other than Strobe Talbott, a close associate of the pro-India former president, Bill Clinton, in his July 21 piece in the magazine, Yale Global. Calling it the “Good Day for India, Bad for Non-Proliferation”, Talbott pointed out that the Bush administration gave up on all tradeoffs and granted India the privileges of a nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) signatory member with very little in return. He said the US had, for much of the past seven years, tried to work out an agreement that would give India more access to technology necessary for its civilian nuclear energy program in exchange for meaningful constraints on its weapons program, consistent with its own declared policy of wanting to have only a “credible minimum deterrent”.
Talbott argues against
Talbott says the Indians have received more leniency than the five established nuclear “haves” had asked for themselves: The US, Britain, France, Russia and China say they have halted the production of the fissile material that goes into nuclear bombs, while India has only promised to join a universal ban that would include Pakistan – if such a thing ever materializes. Yet that pledge, in the future conditional tense, was apparently enough for the Bush administration.
What seems to worry some Democrats is that both India, historically, and the US, under the Bush administration, have shown a penchant for going it alone – India in defying the international community (including the US) with its tests, the Bush administration in attacking Iraq over the objections of the United Nations and many of its own closest allies. If the Indian and American versions of unilateralism reinforce one another, it will work to the detriment of institutions such as the United Nations and risk turning treaties like the NPT from imperfect but useful mechanisms into increasingly ineffectual ones, Talbott argued.
In short, Talbott, who was engaged in long-winding negotiations with the then-Indian external affairs minister, Jaswant Singh, in the aftermath of the second round of Indian testing of nuclear explosives in 1998 to eventually ease the Clinton administration’s relations with India, is making it plain that the Bush-Manmohan agreement is detrimental to the NPT and the UN as a whole. It is likely that Talbott is speaking on behalf of a large number of members of the US Congress, particularly those who belong to the Democratic Party.
The CRS report
The CRS report said: “Observers note that US-India cooperation could have wide-ranging implications for the international nuclear non-proliferation regime, and could prompt other suppliers, like China, to justify their supplying other non-nuclear-weapon states (as defined by NPT), like Pakistan … There are no measures in this global partnership to restrain India’s nuclear weapons program. India has a self-imposed nuclear test moratorium but continues to produce fissile material for its nuclear weapon program, despite support for the Fissile Material Cut off Treaty (FMCT).”
From a technical verification perspective, the report contends, “The existence of India’s nuclear weapons program negates potential non-proliferation assurances that nuclear safeguards on civil facilities might provide. A significant question is how India, in the absence of full-scope safeguards (ie IAEA safeguards on every nuclear establishment, military and civil), can provide adequate confidence that US peaceful nuclear technology will not be diverted to nuclear weapons purposes.”
The report, however, concedes that unlike Pakistan, there is little evidence to suggest that India has transferred sensitive nuclear technologies to other non-nuclear weapon states. There is no doubt that those in the US Congress who would support the agreement would consider this as an anchor.
Arms sales in progress
In addition to the nuclear agreement, the new India-US relationship also includes arms purchases by New Delhi. Reports indicate Indian and US officials are preparing to discuss the possible sale to New Delhi of US weaponry – including Aegis missile systems, an amphibious platform dock ship, anti-submarine patrol aircraft and Patriot Advanced Capability (PAC)-3 air defense systems. These could be concluded when Lieutenant-General Jeffrey Kohler, the Pentagon’s Defense Cooperation Security Agency chief, visits New Delhi next month.
Asia Times Online has reported that the Indian Defense Ministry is negotiating the purchase of the USS Trenton, a decommissioned Austin-class amphibious transport dock, built in 1971 and used in transporting large numbers of troops over long distances.
The Indian navy also wants to buy US Aegis combat systems for its ships. One navy official said the system could monitor large areas of the Indian Ocean, keeping an eye on Chinese ships and submarines. The Aegis system can defend Indian sea-based assets from short- and long-range missiles, added the navy official, who strongly advocated the purchase of this system, news reports claim.
Nonetheless, since so much is at stake, New Delhi cannot afford to sit by quietly and leave the lobbying at the Hill entirely to the Bush administration. This is the reason the big guns were hired to punch some holes in the opposition battery.
By recruiting BG&R, India has hired a number of powerful people linked to the Bush administration. There is no question that Blackwill has a special service to offer BG&R with regard to India. Considered a highly successful ambassador, Blackwill mesmerized Indians with his pro-India and pro-Israel policies.
Serving in Delhi at a time when the anti-Muslim and pro-Israel Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) was leading the National Democratic Alliance, Blackwill seized on the deep involvement of Islamic militants in the September 11 attacks to push Washington closer to New Delhi.
New Delhi, for its part, found this a great opportunity as well to move closer to Israel and the US. India hoped to influence Washington to accept India’s nuclear weaponization and its unquestionable importance in the region. To that effect, Blackwill played a very important role for India during the period 2001-2003.
Power on the Hill
In addition to the presence of Blackwill as president, BG&R is partnered by Haley Barbour, now the Republican Governor of Mississippi. Beyond that, Barbour was chairman of the Republican National Committee (RNC) from 1993-1996. Barbour served as executive director of the Mississippi Republican Party from 1973 to 1976 and as a top political adviser in the Reagan White House in the mid-1980s before becoming RNC chairman.
Barbour is now chairman and CEO of BG&R, one of Washington’s top-ranked lobbying firms, and is part-owner of the Caucus Room, a Washington restaurant that caters to the political set. His role as a prominent Washington lobbyist – representing corporate giants such as Lockheed Martin and Microsoft – helped make Barbour a millionaire.
In essence, Barbour is an extremely powerful backroom player in Washington DC. He put together something called the National Policy Forum (NPF) in 1993. Barbour called NPF a “think-tank” and compared it to the Heritage Foundation. But the NPF was anything but a think-tank – it got its money from big corporate contributors, including several foreign sources, by promising their executives a role in Republican Party policy development, critics say.
Washington’s insiders point out that BG&R also has its eyes on the huge budgets allocated for the Iraq war. It is only natural that it would gear up to mobilize around the new business opportunities popping up in Baghdad. One of the most conspicuous newcomers is New Bridge Strategies, which was created for this purpose. Its vice chair is Ed Rogers, a founding partner in BG&R.
Another BG&R principal, Jennifer Larkin, ran the House Conservative Action Team, now called the Republican Study Committee, which their website calls “the largest, most influential Republican member organization in Congress”. Yet another BG&R officer, Keith Schuette, helped start and run the International Republican Institute, which represents the party’s interests overseas and was named in helping some of “color” revolutions that took place in Central Asia recently.
New Bridge’s chairman is Joe Allbaugh, who was often referred to as the third point, with Karl Rove and Karen Hughes, in the president’s “iron triangle”. Allbaugh served as national campaign manager for Bush-Cheney 2000. Since then, he has trained for Iraq’s reconstruction as head of FEMA, the Federal Emergency Management Agency.
All in all, New Delhi has decided to hire the heavy duty Republican guns to push the agreement through Congress, where Republicans enjoy a definite majority. It is a sound strategy, but it still may run into heavy weathers.
April 16, 2007 http://intellibriefs.blogspot.com/2007/04/india-russia-working-on-thorium-breeder.html
India, Russia Working on Thorium Breeder Reactors
India Needs Thorium Breeder Reactors
by Ramtanu Maitra
An effort is afoot in India and Russia to initiate research on developing small, sealed thorium breeder reactors for a wide range of uses throughout the world. The most interested party in this development is India, the most obvious reason being that India is a power-starved nation that has developed the entire nuclear-fuel cycle, including the thorium-fuel cycle, and while India is low in uranium reserves, it probably has the largest thorium reserves in the world.
But the plan to develop these reactors is not simply developing nuclear-based power sources. Large nuclear power plants are available all over the world, and even the Indian nuclear industry, under pressure from the industrial and urban sectors, is in the process of developing nuclear reactors with capacity upwards of 500MW.
Small Reactors in Clusters
But, 80% of India’s population lives in rural areas, and almost 60% of the workforce depends on agriculture. A vast majority of India’s water consumption is in the agricultural sector, and the entire population depends very heavily on annual monsoon rains, which can be extremely irregular, causing devastating droughts, which threaten India’s food security. At the same time, India’s coastline stretches about 3,570 miles on the mainland, from the border of Bangladesh in the Northeast to Gujarat in the Northwest. More than 600 million people live, bounded by an ocean on one side or the other. And, yet the vast majority of them lack safe, clean water.
The lack of power, massive shortfall of water, and the potential to pull millions out of poverty within the span of a generation, are the primary motivations behind the research on thorium reactors. These small thorium-fueled reactors, which would breed uranium-233 to generate power, can be placed all across power-short and water-short nations, and bring about a surge in economic development not seen before. The power from these small reactors will provide the power requirement for agriculture, small and medium-size industries, desalination of seawater and brackish water to make clean potable water, and also to meet the requirement of all commercial and domestic uses. The beauty of these reactors is that when power demands would grow, another one of these reactors can be placed to form a cluster.
The list of benefits of developing these small reactors by no means ends here. There are other benefits of significant dimensions. For instance, to set up these small reactors would require a reasonably small infrastructure, and since the power output will be commensurate with the local population and their activities, power generated from these reactors would be consumed locally. This would eliminate the 12-15% line losses that occur regularly when power is put on large and long grids, and prevent the instability produced in a crucial national electrical power grid, that results when a huge amount of power is dumped, or withdrawn, from that grid. Equally important is the fact that since these reactors are small, their construction and operation would not disrupt people’s lives the way large infrastructure-based power plants do. The population living in the rural areas would be able to maintain their way of life, traditions, and environment, and at the same time, have a quality of life they could not have because of endemic shortfall of power and water.
But these reactors, now in the concept stage, are even more interesting. Since these reactors would be sealed “for life,” removal of fissile material from the reactor core, enclosed within a tamper-proof cask, will not be possible. The whole system would be protected by a network of security alarms. These reactors generate power without requiring either refueling or maintenance. In contrast, conventional nuclear reactors are under constant attack of the anti-nuclear groupies who point at the potential threat of proliferation because these reactors must be charged periodically with new fuel, which later has to be removed for replenishment: both steps allow an opportunity for fissile material to be diverted to weapons programs.
The basic objective of the research is to develop a sealed reactor which will have a lifespan of about 30 years. At the end of this life span, the reactor would be buried in the same sealed condition. For these reactors to generate power without any outside intervention, the sealed reactor would need to be of the fast-breeder type. Thorium-232, a non-fissile material breeds fissile uranium-233, which is the desired breeder-fuel.
It is not clear at this early stage what exactly the overall configuration of these reactors would be. It is expected that the reactors would be small, about 10-15 feet in girth and about 45-50 feet in height. The weight could be as little as 200 tons. These reactors, once they become operational, would produce power uninterrupted for a generation. There will be no down time, since there will be no refueling involved. At Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory in Northern California, a similar project, using uranium-238 as fuel, is in progress. Known as the small, sealed, transportable, autonomous reactor (SSTAR), the machine will generate power without needing refueling or maintenance. To extend the reactor’s life, the cylindrical core of the SSTAR will be engineered to sustain fission only when surrounded by a metal cylinder that reflects neutrons back into the fuel. This metal mirror will start at one end of the core, and over the course of the reactor’s lifetime, move slowly along to the opposite end, consuming the fuel as it goes.
Clearly, the challenge in developing the thorium-fueled reactors would lie in getting the breeder to breed fissile uranium-233 continuously in such a way that it meets the power demand for three decades or so. The added challenge, of course, will be to compartmentalize the fuel so that uranium-233 becomes always available. To produce uranium-233, atoms of thorium-232 are exposed to neutrons. Thorium-233 forms when thorium-232 absorbs a neutron. Thorium-233 has a half-life of about 22 minutes and decays into protactinium-233 through beta decay. Protactinium-233 has a half-life of about 27 days and decays into uranium-233, also through beta decay. If completely burnt up through fission, one pound (0.45 kilograms) of uranium-233 will provide the same amount of energy as burning 1,500 tons (1,350,000 kilograms) of coal.