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U.S. and India need a grand Thorium Partnership
October, 2010, by Robinder Sachdev

This memo is proposed for urgent consideration by President Barrack Obama on the course ahead in U.S.-India relations. Today, when machineries of both governments are whirring to engineer a big bang from the upcoming Obama-Singh summit in Delhi in November, it is recommended that top class horsepower must immediately be allocated to the cold calculus and implementation of a Thorium Partnership between the United States and India.

Thorium Partnership

A Thorium Partnership between the U.S. and India shall yield pioneering benefits and fast-track a technology path towards radical energy security of both countries, as well as for global needs. It is inflexion time in global search to get off fossil fuel dependency and to identify an alternative source that can deliver gigantic scale of energy generation. Thorium fuel is the answer.

Nuclear energy can be generated by using uranium or thorium as fuel in the reactors – however thus far it is only uranium that is being used worldwide, while the technology to exploit thorium as a fuel is many years away. Though there has been some research and development on thorium in a few countries, India is the only country which has invested major research into this technology, and today is a world leader. 

Importantly, using thorium as fuel for generating nuclear energy is the only technology path that will hugely reduce the growing risk of nuclear waste management and proliferation – a renaissance of nuclear energy now looms all over the world and it will create large pools of nuclear waste with which no one knows what to do, including in security-risk prone countries. The problem of thorium based waste management will be initially about the same as it is at present.  However, when recycling and closed fuel cycle is implemented in terms of their full potential the thorium based waste will make the problem virtually disappear. This will bring a huge relief to both countries and to global community.

A Thorium Partnership with India will give the United States access to the resulting industrial grade technology, and assured supply of a benign and potent fuel (thorium) for its domestic needs for next hundreds of years from a stable, democratic country – India holds 30% of world reserves of thorium; while the partnership will help India to significantly accelerate its energy and food security. Also in the long term, world supplies of uranium are expected to last no more than 50 – 80 years by various estimates, and thereafter thorium fuel shall be the only route to generate nuclear energy.

India has a substantial technical lead in the development of thorium based nuclear power and has the only operating power plant based on thorium in the world.  However, it might still take another 15-20 years for India to reach mass implementation for power generation based on this technology. A strategic partnership with U.S. will cut this time to technology maturation in half or more and thus the benefits to India’s economic development will be immense.  

While it doggedly continues on its R&D path to develop thorium based solutions, in order to fast track development of thorium based technologies India needs large scale research labs set in remote areas since the radioactivity levels in such labs are high. At present India does not have any such facilities – whereas the United States does have infrastructure where such experiments and trials can be carried out. Additionally, the U.S. has a huge problem of nuclear waste at its hands which is ticking like a time bomb – the partnership shall bring a solution to this dilemma also, since thorium based power plants will use this nuclear waste material to generate power.

Upon industrial grade readiness of thorium based reactors, the two countries can jointly export and market a complete bundled technology and fuel solution to other third countries – thereby reducing threats of nuclear proliferation, weaning global communities away from fossil fuel dependency, aiding rapid scaling of energy capacities, and alleviating dangers to climate change – and thus rendering a historic shift in global energy, geopolitics, and food security.

In long term, the scale of technology and economic benefits reaped by the U.S. and India from this partnership may rival the scope of what DARPA enabled in technology and economic benefits to the U.S. by sponsoring and fast tracking R&D of the Internet. This partnership shall help to create high technology and green energy jobs in the U.S. and India, and bring technology spillover benefits to various other sectors in domestic economies of both countries resulting from the fast track R&D initiative in a most complicated technology.  

Thus, the partnership is not about money or scientific assistance to either party, but is primarily born out of recognition of core competencies, assets, and needs of each party. With an aggressive can-do attitude this partnership shall bring a true revolution for the energy, food, and geopolitical security needs of this century.

Towards such objective, it is therefore proposed that India and the United States immediately establish a partnership for research, development, commercial planning, strengthening the educational and human resource expertise and implementation of thorium based power plants and energy solutions in India and the United States, and third countries.

Various details of the partnership – the mechanism, the policy, the physics, the engineering, the IPR, and several such matters, and protection of sovereign interest will of course be fiercely negotiated and addressed by each country during discussions on this partnership, along with the scientific assessment of mutual roles. Ours is only to lob this road-map in the public sphere – and to push for an assessment of acute national, and mutual domestic and global interests.

On November 7, 8, or 9, 2010, in the Indian parliament when President Obama addresses over a billion Indians via their elected representatives, or when Prime Minister Dr. Manmohan Singh hosts a joint press conference with President Obama, with a megaphone to the world that addresses the global six billion, both countries must announce this bold and visionary partnership.

Robinder Sachdev
The author is president of the Imagindia Institute.

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