MONDAY, 08 OCTOBER 2012 00:29 KUMAR CHELLAPPAN | CHENNAI
Has V Narayanasamy, Minister of State in the Prime Minister’s Office (PMO) lied to the Parliament? It looks like he did. While answering an unstarred question (No. 1531) on November 30, 2011, Narayanasamy said: “Monazite is being exported only by the Indian Rare Earths Ltd (IREL), a public sector undertaking under the Department of Atomic Energy.
The quantum of monazite exported by the IREL in the last three years is as follows: Five tonnes in 2010-2011; two tonnes in 2009-2010; five tonnes in 2008-2009.
“Ilmenite, rutile, leucoxene, garnet, sillimanite and zircon are separated from beach sands and are being exported. As per the latest notification of the Department of Atomic Energy vide ref. SO.61(E) dated January 20, 2006, these heavy minerals are de-listed from the prescribed substances list and hence, for the handling of these minerals, licence from the Department of Atomic Energy under the Atomic Energy (Working of the Mines, Minerals and Handling of Prescribed Substance) Rules, 1984 is not required. However, licence under the Atomic Energy Act is still required for handling/export of monazite and thorium, which are prescribed substances. This Department has not given any licences for export of beach sand as such,” said the Minister.
He further stated that consequent to de-listing of ilmenite, rutile, zircon etc. from the list of prescribed substances, no licences or permission is required from DAE for these substances. “However, under the guidelines framed by the Atomic Energy Regulatory Board (AERB), individual processors of beach sand have to separate and safely keep the monazite content of such sand. No individual or entity is permitted to process monazite in any manner without a licence from DAE. Further no licences have been given to any private party to process monazite and separate thorium,” said V Narayanasamy.
But the Minister has been found wrong. Customers in India as well as foreign countries are being offered monazite of all kinds by a number of companies with bases in Andhra Pradesh, Tamil Nadu and Chhattisgarh. Finding it difficult to believe? A casual search on the Internet threw out details of at least six companies which sell monazite of any kind, ilmenite and zircon. A website by the name Alibaba.com has listed Hindusthan Mica Mart, Swarnim Metals Pvt. Ltd (Secunderabad), VSR Trading Private Ltd (Hyderabad),SN Industries Pvt Ltd (Visakhapatnam), SJ Enterprises (Chennai), Vivekananda Group (Tadipatri, AP), and Kalyan International with contact persons and their telephone/cell phone numbers. According to one of the contact persons, monazite (any quantity) would be delivered anywhere in the world.
In the words of the Minister himself, Andhra Pradesh has the highest monazite deposit in the country (3.74 million tonnes). No wonder, more and more mining companies are setting up base in Andhra Pradesh. Are you listening, Mr Narayanasamy? India, which proclaims from the rooftops that it follows the regulations prescribed by the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), has thrown all caution to the wind when it comes to the mining and processing of monazite. Who are the customers of these companies? There were reports that China is seriously building Fast Breeder Reactors. “The chances are that by the time they complete the construction of the reactors, the thorium-rich monazite sand from India would have shifted its base to China,” said a metallurgical engineer from BARC, who played a crucial role in the Peaceful Nuclear Explosions (PNEs) at Pokhran in May 1998. He described thorium as the fuel of the future and said many developed countries are in the process of procuring monazite from all available sources and storing the same in silos for future use.
All private companies involved in the extraction of minerals from beach sands openly claim about the state-of-the-art machineries installed by them to extract and supply high quality ilmenite, garnet, rutile and monazite. You will find any number of retired DAE and IREL scientists on their payrolls. Prof OP Varma, the octogenarian geologist, pointed out that no royalty is being paid by these companies. “The natural resources belong to no individual or family. We are the custodians of these minerals. Mining without paying royalty to the Government or community is tantamount to looting,” he said.
According to V Sundaram, general secretary, Public Grievances Redressal Forum, Indian Rare Earths Ltd, which controls 2,700 hectares of mining land, earned `2,322 crore during the period 2006 to 2012. But VV Mineral, a private company in Tamil Nadu, which owns just 186 hectares of mining land earned of `10,000 crore during the same period,” said Sundaram.
The International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) and the Nuclear Suppliers Group have listed all source materials used as nuclear fuel. “Monazite too comes under this list and it could not be sold without the concurrence of the IAEA. Though India is not a member of the NSG, we are bound by international guidelines in nuclear material trade. Private companies should not be allowed to handle the mineral-rich sands,” said Dr S Kalyanaraman, former Asian Development Bank executive.
Though Minister Narayansamy told Lok Sabha that the Acts dealing with the mining of prescribed substances was amended on January 20, 2006 to de-list heavy minerals, private companies have been mining and exporting the mineral-rich sand for years. One of the companies in Tamil Nadu has been exporting 2,0,5354 tonnes ilmenite since 2000. While Narayanasamy says that IREL is not separating thorium from monazite since 2002, a top IREL official said the company stopped the process in 2000 itself. So, where is the thorium, Mr Narayanasamy?
V Rajasekharan Nair, former chief general manager of the IRE told The Pioneer that no monazite is being exported by the private companies. “We don’t allow them to touch the monazite. So no need for you to worry about it,” he told this writer. But further probe led to an interesting fact. Nair is consultant to many companies extracting and exporting monazite. IREL officials agreed that private companies have till date not returned “even a grain of monazite” to the DAE.
People like V Sundaram, Dr Kalyanaraman, Prof OP Varma and Prof Rajamanickam who grew up in an era of honesty, integrity and nationalistic fervor may sound eccentric to modern-day businessmen, politicians and bureaucrats. But there is nothing wrong in considering their suggestion. “Nationalise the entire mineral wealth of the country including the beach sands. Entrust the ownership and command of the beach sand to the Indian Army. Let them chalk out a strategy for separation of the precious minerals from the sand,” demand Sundaram and Dr Kalyanaraman.
In the words of Prof Varma, Prof Rajamanickam, Prof KT Damodaran, and the young geologist Ajith Nair: “The thorium content in the monazite in India is more precious than all the gold, platinum and diamond mines in the world put together. This thorium content is sufficient to help India to walk straight into the Security Council as a permanent member. We will not be at the mercy of countries like USA or Russia but they will look towards us before any decisions are made.”
Thorium a game changer for India’s power needs?
What is the significance of Thorium and why it is important to the country? Engineers of the Indira Gandhi Centre For Atomic Research (IGCAR) , Kalpakkam, 60 km from Chennai, are busy building a Thorium based 500 MW Fast Breeder Reactor. The commissioning of this reactor, expected in 2013, is going to be a game changer for India’s energy requirements.
The Fast Breeder Reactor uses a mixture of Plutonium and Uranium as fuel. A blanket of Thorium will be used inside the reactor to facilitate the fission of Plutonium and Uranium. When Uranium gets bombarded inside the reactor with neutrons, it gets converted into Uranium 233 (U-233) which is a fissile material. The Thorium blanket too transforms itself into Uranium 233 and Plutonium 239, again fissile materials. The Uranium and Plutonium formed inside the fast breeder reactor could be unloaded and used as fuel in another reactor. “We have designed a reactor which breeds more and more fuel that what it consumes,” said SC Chetal, director, IGCAR and the master brain who designed the 500 MW Fast Breeder Reactor.
“It is similar to you filling your car with 20 litres of petrol and start a drive to Chandigarh from Delhi. As you keep on driving, more and more petrol will be generated inside the tank and you need not bother about filling it again,” Chetal explained it in a layman’s language.
With the commissioning of the FBR at Kalpakkam, India needs to build a series of FBRs across the country so that the fuel generated in this reactor could be used effectively. That is why they have been termed breeding reactors. “Fuel is bred in these reactors and used in other FBRs,” said Dr Baldev Raj, former IGCAR director who has been designated as distinguished scientist by the union government. Above all, Thorium is rated as a clean fuel because of its less toxicity.
The FBR at Kalpakkam would require two tonnes of fuel which will last for two years. When the reactor crew refuel the reactor, they also remove used fuel from the reactor vessel which is sent to other reactors. “The objective is to bring down the coat of power produced in this kind of reactors to Rs 2 per unit. Once the Fast Breeder Reactors are in place, we can set up many desalination plants to take care of our water shortage,” said a senior reactor engineer.
With the Fast Breeder Reactors in place, India need not go to countries like USA, France and Russia with begging bowl for fuel to run its existing 17 reactors which are all dependent on imported Uranium. The country has no worthwhile resources of Uranium. The Uranium mined form Jharkhand, Chattisgargh and Andhra Pradesh contains only 0.7 per cent of the fuel material and it’s separation is a cumbersome and uneconomical process.
It was the severe shortage of Uranium which made India sign the infamous Indo-US civil nuclear deal with which Manmohan Singh forfeited India’s right to test any nuclear device in the future. The moment India undertakes a peaceful nuclear explosion like the one which was ordered by the Vajpayee government in May 1998 at Pokhran desert in Rajasthan, the US and other members of the Nuclear Suppliers Group will pull the rug from India’s feet and all nuclear reactors in the country will come to a grinding halt.
A series of Thorium based Fast Breeder Reactor would save the country from such an embarrassment. In addition to this, a group of scientists in Bhabha Atomic Research Centre at Trombay are busy developing a reactor which uses Thorium as fuel. Once commissioned, this Thorium based reactor would catapult India as the undisputed leader of the world in the field of nuclear reactors.
There is still more which does not meet the eyes. The Plutonium which is bred in FBRs and Thorium reactors could be used for defence purposes which will bestow India with strategic advantage over the comity of nations.
The coast along Andhra Pradesh, Tamil Naduand Kerala has the largest deposit of Thorium-rich Monazite. By exporting this Monazite , the Tirunelveli based company is squandering away the country’s precious natural resources, more precious than the gold, diamond and platinum mines in the world put together, according to Dr Rajamanickam.
Immediately after the signing of the Indo-US civil nuclear deal in 2007, Government of India amended the Mines and Mineral (Development and Regulation) Act by a government order , probably under pressure from a foreign country, to facilitate the export of the mineral-rich sand. Till then private companies were not allowed mining of monazite because of the presence of Thorium. But there is no system in place to prevent the export of the Thorium-rich sand.
By 2005 itself France and USA had accorded India the status of Global Leader in Fast Breeder Reactors. This was because scientists like Chetal and Baldev Raj had perfected the FBR technology which was discarded by both following frequent failures.