Why India Wants to Turn Its Beaches into Nuclear Fuel

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Supporters of India's main opposition Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) attend a rally being addressed by Gujarat's chief minister and Hindu nationalist Narendra Modi, the prime ministerial candidate for BJP, ahead of the 2014 general elections, at Guwahati in the northeastern Indian state of Assam February 8, 2014. REUTERS/Utpal Baruah (INDIA - Tags: POLITICS) - RTX18ER4

The tropical beaches of India probably bring to mind sun-dappled palms, fiery fish curries and dreadlocked backpackers, but they also hold a surprising secret. Their sands are rich in thorium – often hailed as a cleaner, safer alternative to conventional nuclear fuels.

The country has long been eager to exploit its estimated 300,000 to 850,000 tonnes of thorium – quite probably the world’s largest reserves – but progress has been slow.  Their effort is coming back into focus amid renewed interest in the technology. Last year Dutch scientists fired up the first new experimental thorium reactor in decades, start-ups are promoting the technology in the West and last year China pledged to spend $3.3bn to develop reactors that could eventually run on thorium.

Proponents say it promises carbon-free power with less dangerous waste, lower risk of meltdowns and a much harder route to weaponisation than conventional nuclear. But rapid advances in renewables, a costly development path and question marks over how safe and clean future plants would really be mean its journey to commercialisation looks uncertain.

Learn more about India’s quest for carbon-free energy here.