EDITORIAL: by Peter WestmoreNews Weekly
India: Australia's strategic partner
, November 26, 2011
India, one of the fastest-growing economies in the world, recently announced it was embarking on a program to develop thorium-based nuclear power stations as an alternative to existing reactors which use enriched uranium or plutonium as their primary fuels.
This ambitious plan is driven by a number of factors. As urbanisation and industrialisation develop, India requires rapidly increasing quantities of low-cost energy, particularly base-load electrical power. It is estimated that some 400 million Indians currently do not have access to electricity, and redressing this is a central challenge facing the new India.
Additionally, the traditional source of energy in India, coal, is plentiful but dirty, and is the least efficient of all the means of generating base-load power. In a country which already has major pollution problems, reliance on coal can only worsen this situation.
It will surprise many people to know that India already has a well-developed nuclear power industry. Dr Ian Duncan, a fellow of the Australian Academy of Technological Sciences and Engineering, last year gave a paper which listed the existing number of reactors operating in a number of developing countries, including India.
He said that India has 17 reactors in operation — six more than China — is building six more, and has a further 25 on the drawing board or under consideration. We don’t hear about that in the media.
Because it is not a signatory to the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (which it claims is biased against non-nuclear powers), India has difficulty acquiring nuclear fuels from abroad, and is interested in exploring alternative sources of nuclear power generation, including thorium.
The Gillard Government has refused to permit the sale of yellow-cake (uranium oxide) to India, despite requests from India to purchase it.
For some 50 years, it has been known that thorium, a plentiful and low-cost element, provides a theoretical alternative to enriched uranium and plutonium to fuel nuclear reactors. It is also potentially safer.
Additionally, it is cheaper to produce, as it does not require the costly and elaborate machinery needed to enrich uranium. Another benefit is that it does not produce nuclear weapons-grade by-products, like some other reactors.
The United States Atomic Energy Commission ran a small experimental molten-salt reactor, using thorium fuel, from 1965 to 1969, at the Oak Ridge National Laboratory, Tennessee, which operated entirely successfully.
However, no country has developed thorium reactors to commercial levels, because previously-developed technologies are well established and promoted by both governments and nuclear-energy corporations such as General Electric.
India, which has some 12.8 per cent of the world’s known thorium deposits, has just announced that it intends to build a 300MW commercial thorium reactor, to prove the feasibility of the concept.
Potentially, this provides Australia, which has around 18.1 per cent of known thorium deposits, with a wonderful opportunity to work with India to build this new industry.
Because of political obstacles — including fears of the environmental consequences and the danger of nuclear weapons proliferation — successive governments in Australia have refused to support the development of a nuclear power industry in this country.
The result is that Australia has been left behind while many other countries, including India, Japan, South Korea and Taiwan, have developed substantial nuclear research and development facilities.
Australia currently provides educational facilities for tens of thousands of students from India, most of whom are at the lowest tertiary level.
India’s thorium plan gives Australia an opportunity to seek to work with India to develop this new field of nuclear expertise, and to rejoin an area of high-technology research.
Coincidentally, there is a push from within the scientific community to build Australian expertise in this area.
The director of the Institute of Nuclear Science at Sydney University, Dr Reza Hashemi-Nezhad, recently told the Sydney Morning Herald that Australia could be a world-leader in developing thorium for a new generation of nuclear power plants.
He said, “You cannot have an accident similar to Chernobyl. It does not produce weapon-grade materials. And the nuclear waste is much less toxic than from a standard reactor.”
It is completely proven and feasible, he said. “The only thing required here is government acceptance.” (Sydney Morning Herald, November 7, 2011).
At a time when Australia’s traditional allies in Western Europe and the United States are beset by economic crises, and China is emerging as the next global superpower, Australia risks being detached from the Western alliance.
By co-operating with India, the world’s largest democracy, Australia would be laying the foundation for a strategic partnership which would recognise the increasing importance India will play in Asia and the world, as well as protecting Australia’s own future.
Peter Westmore is national president of the National Civic Council.