Mumbai: India's department of atomic energy Friday said it has not given licence to any private party for production of monazite, a beach sand mineral which contains thorium, one of the components used in nuclear plants.
"DAE has not issued any licence to any private entity either for production of monazite, or for its downstream processing for extracting thorium, or the export of either monazite or thorium," the DAE said in a statement.
The Indian Rare Earths Ltd (IREL), a public sector undertaking under the DAE, is the only company which is allowed to produce and process monazite and handle it for domestic uses and exports.
Exports of beach sand minerals other than monazite fall under the open general licence and do not require any authorization from the DAE.
The DAE's statement followed some media reports claiming that private companies have been allowed to export millions of tonnes of monazite, whereby India has lost large quantities of thorium worth lakhs of crores of rupees.
Dismissing these reports are false, the DAE explained that Indian coastal region contains economically important minerals like monazite, garnet, ilmenite, leucoxene, rutile, sillimanite and zircon, commonly referred to as beach sand minerals.
Among these, monazite is a "prescribed substance" under the various Indian atomic laws and the DAE's Atomic Minerals Directorate for Exploration and Research has surveyed the coastal regions extensively to assess its distribution along with other beach sand minerals.
A licence from the DAE is compulsory for exporting monazite and its violation is a criminal offence attracting five years imprisonment and fine or both, the DAE said.
Since beach sand minerals and monazite occur together, companies handling beach sand minerals have to get a licence under the Atomic Energy (Radiation Protection) Rules, 2004 and Atomic Energy Regulatory Board (AERB).
According to the licensing conditions, the licensee must separate the beach sand minerals and dispose of the tailings containing the monazite within its company premises or as backfill, depending on the monazite content.
"These institutions are under strict regulatory control. They send quarterly reports to AERB stating the amount of tailings disposed off safely either in the premises or as backfill," the DAE said.
Besides, AERB conducts regular inspections to ascertain that the licensing conditions are being adhered to especially since export of monazite without a proper license is a violation of Indian laws.
The DAE said that apart from thorium, monazite contains other rare earths. However, on account of its radioactivity and other characteristics, extracting rare earths from monazite is "commercially not attractive" unless the mixed rare earths are separated as a by-product following thorium extraction.
The annual requirements of thorium-oxide for the 300 MWe Indian Advanced Heavy Water Reactors would be around five tonnes, with a one-time requirement of less than 60 tonnes for the initial core.
As per information available with the IAEA about the national nuclear programmes of different countries, no country except India is planning a significant use of thorium either in existing or future reactors.
"Hence, it is unlikely that there is a demand overseas for large amounts of thorium," the DAE pointed out.