We’ve noted in separate posts recently how two countries, India and Australia, could help the world shape a carbon light energy future built on nuclear power, and in particular, alternative nuclear power.
So it made complete sense to us today when news broke that those two heavily coal-reliant nations announced plans to discuss joint nuclear development.
“India and Australia have decided to begin talks in March on civil nuclear cooperation,” the Wall Street Journal reported from New Delhi, where foreign ministers Salman Khurshid and Bob Carr met. The two government ministers will participate in the talks in March, the Journal states.
The article interprets the discussions as a step toward Australia allowing uranium exports to India, a country that most of the world until recently had for over three decades shut off from uranium supply and nuclear trade due to India’s nuclear weapons testing. Those restrictions have been slowly loosening over the last few years.
A source of uranium from Australia would be a huge boost to India’s plans to increase nuclear electricity’s percentage from a slim 2.2 percent of the country’s mix today according to the CIA. India generates 69.9 percent of its electricity today using fossil fuels – basically coal, the environmentally worst fossil fuel - putting it right up there near China’s 74.3 percent and the U.S.’s 75.5 percent, to compare it to other large countries.
Australia trounces all other countries for proven uranium reserves, with 31 percent of the world’s supply compared to number two Kazakhstan’s 12 percent, according to the World Nuclear Association (WNA). Australia’s uranium companies like Paladin Energy have been suffering financially amid a slump in uranium prices following a post-Fukushima nuclear industry slowdowns, so a pick-up in India would bring welcomed relief.
And here’s where an Indian/Australian hookup gets even more interesting from a nuclear perspective: That uranium could help feed the molten salt reactors (MSR) of which our guest blogger David LeBlanc wrote so convincingly last week. As Dr. LeBlanc noted, India is conducting substantial development in MSRs, which offer benefits over conventional reactors including improved efficiency and an ability to breed fuel.
With India and Australia cooperating, that MSR expertise could then circulate back to Australia, which is easing a longstanding taboo against nuclear power in its own country. As we noted in November, if Australia is going to seriously cut its own 75 percent reliance on coal-fired electricity and introduce nuclear (it currently has none), it has a golden opportunity to now skip a long generation of conventional nuclear and shift to superior alternative nuclear.
AND THORIUM TOO
That would not just mean MSRs, but it could also entail deploying thorium fuel rather than uranium. Thorium – especially thorium in an MSR – offers the efficiency and breeding advantages that LeBlanc noted. It also supports failsafe operations, leaves behind less long-lived nuclear waste than uranium, and makes things more difficult for bomb builders.
When you throw thorium into the nuclear future along with MSRs, the India-Australia connection starts to look something like a virtuous circle (okay, nothing’s perfect, but this combination looks damn good). Australia has thorium mining and processing expertise. For instance, Sydney-based Lynas Corp. mines rare earth minerals that contain thorium, and is expert at processing out the throium. It already has a stash of thorium from such operations.
And India is arguably more connected to thorium than any other country (as long as we’re arguing, you could say the same thing about China, Norway and South Africa). It has huge reserves, including on the beach sands of Kerala. As LeBlanc noted, the country of 1.2 billion people has had a plan since the 1960s to rely on thorium nuclear. It also plans to start construction in 2016 or 2017 of a heavy water-cooled solid fuel thorium reactor.
The WNA says that India wants nuclear to provide 25 percent of the country’s electricity by 2050. With the right push into alternatives, I don’t see why the proportion couldn’t be higher.
Photo of Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh and others at 2007 G8 summit in Heiligendamm, Germany from Gryffindor via Wikimedia.