The Metal of the Gods: Is Thorium Energy the Future of India?

By Lake Dodson

Prime Minister Narendra Modi of India is seen backstage Sunday, Sept. 22, 2019, at a rally in honor of Prime Minister Modi at NRG Stadium in Houston, Texas. (Official White House Photo by Shealah Craighead)

In 2009, Srikumar Banerjee, the chairman of the Indian Atomic Energy Commission, said that India has a “long-term objective goal of becoming energy-independent based on its vast natural resources to meet India’s economic ambitions.” 

Considering India ranks second in the world under gross population and fourth in economic standing, energy independence without sacrificing economic ambitions is a lofty goal. To serve its massive population of 1.38 billion across twenty-eight states, India needs a reliable energy source with a desirable crude-to-megawatts yield that cuts out the middleman of foreign trading, making the market completely national. 

For them and six of the world’s wealthiest nations, the answer is simple: Thorium Oxide. 

What Is Thorium Oxide?

This Rare Earth Metal, sandwiched inside the Actinide Series within the periodic table, has shown itself to be three times more abundant than Uranium, naturally occurring in various amounts in every nation on Earth. This metallic chemical element also produces more energy per metric tonne than Uranium by two-hundred-fold. 

To put that much power into perspective, one metric tonne of thorium produces 1000 Megawatts of energy, enough to power a city of one million for one year. This power generation means thorium could power recognizable cities around the world containing a population of one million or under, such as Bordeaux, Fort Worth, Jerusalem, and Liverpool, for a whole year with a yield that weighs four times less than a civilian SUV. 

As for sustainability and prediction on how long Thorium could be a reliable power source for some of the world’s most prominent nations, it is the thirty-ninth most abundant crustal element, meaning it is fairly common to obtain and mine. As for the select countries that choose to utilize Thorium energy over renewable or nonrenewable energy sources, experts predict that it could run the whole of the United States at its current energy consumption rate for over 1,000 years. With governments enforcing a lower carbon footprint, switching to Thorium would aid large emitter states such as China, India, Canada, Germany, and the United States in their visions of carbon-neutrality in as little as forty years in some cases.

Can It Be India’s Carbon Neutral Savior?

This kind of cap on carbon emissions without the risk of relying on an undependable energy source would be a literal lifesaver for India. India’s overall carbon emissions nearly doubled from 2005 to 2016, negatively affecting two enormous national industries that directly impact the health of the Earth: agriculture and fishing. 

Not to mention India’s heavy reliance on foreign oil, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi alluded to his nation’s 84 percent reliance on foreign oil to meet its energy needs as a worrying precedent in 2019. In the world of international relations, capitalizing this heavily on an external power’s imports has shown to lead to economic impotence, something the nation of India must avoid if it wishes to become a more affluent and more prominent nation on the world stage. 

The question now is: after promises of action by several government figures in the mid to late 2000s, has Thorium power been implemented properly? Has it proven successful, reliable, and most importantly, beneficial? Truly, it depends on who you ask. 

There exists a drastic divide in Indian society today relating to the debate of implementing forms of nuclear energy, albeit from a completely different material than was used in the past. 

Experts in the field continue to agree that Thorium holds undeniable advantages for India. M. V. Ramana, Director of the Liu Institute of Asian Affairs at the University of British Colombia, and Ramamurti Rajaraman, co-Chairman of the International Panel on Fissile Materials, assert Thorium is worth the financial cost as well as safer for humans to handle.

However, many of the Indian public does not share these warm sentiments. In 2012, as construction began on a nuclear plant in Kudankulam, a coastal town in the Indian state of Tamil Nadu, over 1,500 protestersfrom the surrounding area arrived at the site of the beachside building zone in opposition to the project. Many demonstrators buried themselves in the sand up to their necks as a sign of vehement rejection of any nuclear progress. 

Moreover, this act by the protesters burying themselves in the sand carries a specific symbolic gesture of defiance, as Indian geochemical surveys show that Thorium is found most presently in sandy and sand-like soils. They even found that Indian coasts have a higher concentration and density of Thorium in coastal sands than any other nation.

“If India believes in democracy, the government should listen to the people,” said an anonymous villager attending the protest. “If Japan could have a Fukushima disaster, imagine what could happen in India, which was also hit by a tsunami not long ago.” 

In more recent news, Indian anti-nuclear activists point toward other examples of industrial failures within India, such as the Bhopal disaster of 1984where a sudden containment breach inside the Union Carbide India Limited Insecticide plant led to the leaking of harmful chemicals into the city of Bhopal. An estimated 3,000 people died.

Modern disasters such as these cling to the minds of the Indian public, and this only works in tandem with the Indian public’s current wave of government distrust in the wake of the 2020-2021 Indian Farmers’ Protests

Looking Ahead

Amongst the powder keg of tension that currently constricts the nation of India, the Government of India informed Parliament about building ten new Thorium-powered reactors last December, and government-funded researchers continue to conduct studies on Thorium’s effects and chemical properties. However, no Indian cities or states have implemented large-scale power commitments, leaving Thorium’s future in India in a state of limbo.

As painstaking as it is to wait for bureaucratic action, the world can only look on and observe India as the forerunner in Thorium-based innovations. With that said, there exists one pertinent question to be answered, one that the future of this new energy source relies upon. Is the fate of Thorium sealed if India turns its back on progress, or is the fate of India sealed without the progress of Thorium? 

Lake Dodson is one of the Review’s newest contributors. He studies Political Science and Global Security at the University of Mississippi.


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