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India's Thorium-Fuelled Dreams

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Thorium is to nuclear power what the fifth Beatle was to pop music. It's the nuclear fuel that showed glorious promise in the early days of atomic energy but somehow, somewhere along the way, got forgotten.

I first learned about India's plans to revive thorium power in 2009 when I started writing Geek Nation, a book that explores India's apparent ambitions to become a scientific superpower. I was given rare access to the sprawling hub for the country's civilian nuclear program, the Bhabha Atomic Research Centre, not far from Bombay. Research into thorium-fuelled reactors has been happening on this site since 1955 (a fact made obvious by the feeling of stepping into a time-warp when you pass through the security barriers) and is finally approaching its zenith. It's a project that encapsulates India's dreams to become a global technological leader.

Thorium is the original nuclear fuel. It powered the world's first full-scale atomic power station, built in 1954 in Shippingport in Pennsylvania. And at the time, it seemed ideal: more energy is released by thorium than by the same amount of uranium fuel, which means it creates less waste. It also has fewer long-lived waste elements, which don't need to be stored under such tight conditions or for so long. But after Shippingport was proven to work, uranium became the favored nuclear fuel instead, partly because the properties of thorium meant it couldn't be refined to make weapons.

Today, as the availability and price of uranium becomes a possible barrier to the growth of nuclear power and as nations begin the search for cleaner and safer fuels, thorium is making a comeback, with India leading the way.

"In India, the supply of thorium is at least eight times that of uranium," I was told by Dr. Ratan Kumar Sinha, the director of the reactor design and development group at the Bhabha Atomic Research Centre. Indeed, there are millions of tons of monazite -- the ore from which thorium is extracted -- lying on Indian beaches. His team is now working on an Advanced Heavy Water Reactor, powered by thorium, designed to have a lifespan of a hundred years. It is slated to be up and running within the next couple of years. And if it's successful, the government plans to roll it out as one of India's next-generation power sources.

But these thorium reactors represent something more than simply India's ambitions to expand its energy infrastructure. Like China, this nation of geeks is building a formidable expertise in indigenous nuclear technology.

According to the World Nuclear Association, India wants to supply a quarter of its electricity from nuclear power by 2050, up from around three percent now. Sinha's hope is that it might eventually supply half. The civilian nuclear power program also has one eye on the export market -- selling smaller nuclear reactors to developing nations that are desperate for more carbon-free energy.

The country's space program is another example of India's long-term thinking when it comes to science and engineering. Launched in the same year as NASA's first moon landings, the Indian Space Research Organization has gone from a modest satellite-launching project to sending a probe to the moon in 2008. Now, it is planning its first manned mission. G. Madhavan Nair, a rocket scientist and the Indian Space Research Organisation's former Chairman, told me in 2010, "The presence of man in the outer space is going to be one of the major requirements for the future space community." Another veteran space scientist suggested to me that India might also one day need to mine resources on other planets.

It's easy to be skeptical about the achievements of Indian scientists. They haven't made nearly as much of a mark as the Chinese have, and in terms of patents and publications, they still lag behind Europe, the U.S., Australia and Japan. But by the end of my research for Geek Nation, it became clear that this was a nation planning for the far future. And not just any future: a technological one.

For all of the cheap generic pharmaceutical labs, unimaginative IT outsourcing companies and charges of mediocrity against Indian scientific institutions over the last two decades, there is a growing resolve to invest in the long-term growth of science and technology. The government is building hundreds of new universities and engineering colleges, with the aim of more than doubling student numbers. There are also plans for a $250 million neutrino observatory, which would boost India's international standing in particle physics.

Yet no story quite captures India's remarkable power to think long-term quite like that of thorium. Quietly researching this fuel for decades, Indian scientists have waited for just the right moment to build their first thorium-powered nuclear reactor. If the rest of the world believes India to be a sleeping elephant that is finally rising, then this tale reveals just how much more there will be to see when the elephant is fully awake.

There is a quote that Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh has borrowed twice from the legendary wartime British Prime Minister, Winston Churchill (both times in speeches to the Indian Science Congress, the nation's biggest annual science meet), which sums up his country's ambitions quite neatly: "The empires of the future are going to be the empires of the mind."

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