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Baroda Heavy Water plant: Image Courtesy HWB
 
The Department of Atomic Energy (DEA) has embarked on a slew of projects to reduce the country’s dependence on import of strategic materials required by the nuclear power and defence industries.
 
The projects include a nuclear-grade sodium metal plant (SMP); a Magnesium Recyclying Technology Development & Demonstration Faciltiy (MRTDDF); a commercial-scale uranium extraction plant (UEP) for segregating this nuclear fuel from fertilizer-grade phosphoric acid and a Technology Demonstration Plant (TDP) for production of 4N pure Titanium Dioxide & 4N pure Zirconium oxy-chloride. 4N or 4 nines is an indicator of purity of a metal. It means a metal is 99.99% pure. 
These and other such strategic projects might serve as a setback to certain foreign-funded entities that have been working againt India’s energy and territorial security under the garb of opposition to nuclear energy and  environmental degradation. 
The country currently meets its entire requirement for sodium and magnesium metals from abroad. Import liberalization, high power tariff and certain other factors forced four sodium and magnesium plants to stop production several years back.
The Prime Minister Narendra Modi should commission a case study on the closure of factories by dominant or monopoly producers in all sectors before reiterating his call all investors to set up manufacturing facilities in the country. 
As sodium is used as a coolant in fast breeder reactors, DAE’s Heavy Water Board (HWB) has decided to set up a 600 tonnes per annum (tpa) plant at Baroda. 
Says HWB’s pre-feasibility report (PFR) on the plant, “this project is of national importance for generation of clean energy without producing any greenhouse gases.”
According to PFR, in the eighties, the country had two commercial-grade sodium metal plants which proved to be less efficient and had lower safety standards. Both the plants, which were based on open cell technology, could not bear the onslaught of cheaper imports and ultimately had to call it a day. 
It says: “HWB is (thus) mandated to develop closed cell design and set up industrial-scale sodium metal production plant.”
Industry sources say that the two companies that produced sodium metal, Alkali Metals Limited and Sodium Metals Private Limited, have survived. They transformed themselves into specialty chemicals and pharmaceuticals intermediates producers.  
As regards MRTDDF, this plant would be set up at Zirconium Complex in Tuticorin in Tamilnadu. It would be implmented as a joint project of HWB,  Nuclear Fuel Complex (NFC) which owns Tuticorin facility and Defence Metallurgical Research Laboratory (DMRL), which is the technology developer under the aegis of Defence Research & Development Organisation (DRDO).
Magnesium is used in the manufacture of zirconium and titanium metals, which have strategic applications in nuclear, defence and aerospace industries. The production processes for both titanium and zirconium sponge generate magnesium chloride as by-product.
According to HWB’s PFR on MRTDDF, DMRL focussed on recycling of magnesium while developing titanium technology. 
It says: “this technology is 4-R (Recycle, Recover, Reuse and Recharge) concept incoporation to zironium/titanium production. This concept endorses utilization of by-products to the extent possible by recycling (by-product MgCl2 to Mg).”
DMRL has developed electrolytic cells and other related metallurgical process technologies. As a first venture, the electrolytic cell of industrial scale has to be tested and later adopted for commercial use. For this purpose, Zirconium Complex has been selected as it generates magnesium chloride as by-product of zirconium production.
MRTDDF would produce 260 kg/day of magnesium from magnesium chloride. The primary objective of the facility is to optimize the production process and scale it up for setting up a commercial plant.
As put by PFR, “This technology once matured/fully established can be installed at zirconium sponge plants and titanium sponge plants resulting in reduction in manufacturing cost significantly.” The creation of recycle loop would reduce the requirement for expensive magnesium in such plants. 
It adds: “The technology to be demonstrated is the fruition of more than 20 years intense research done by DMRL.”
Indigenous manufacture of magnesium was discontinued several years back. Of the two manufacturers, Tamil Nadu Magnesium & Marine Chemicals Ltd, stopped production in 1992. This State Government enterprise is currently under liquidation. The other producer, Southern Magnesium & Chemicals Ltd, stopped production due to dumping from China. It currently manufactures downstream  products such as magnesium power, turnings and metal ingots.
As for extraction of uranium from wet phosphoric acid (WPA), HWB secured environmental clearance in May 2014 to set up a 85-tpa UEP with investment of Rs 285 crore. This plant would be  adjacent to Indian Farmers Fertiliser Cooperative Limited (IFFCO)’s phosphatic fertilizers complex at Paradeep in Odisha.
HWB currently operates a Technology Demonstration Plant (TDP) for recovery of uranium from WPA produced by Rashtriya Chemicals & Fertilizers (RCF) in Mumbai. This plant was commissioned in 2009. 
HWB has also evaluated WPA sourced from different fertilizer plants at a test facility located at its Talcher heavy water Plant in Odisha. 
Installation of a string of UEPs at all phosphoric acid plants in the fertilizers sector can help India create an alternative source of uranium for nuclear reactors that are out of the ambit of International Atomic Energy Agency (IEEA) monitoring. 
Uranium mining projects in India have been plagued by multiple issues including NGOs-engineered agitations. 
Answering a question of uranium mining delays in Rajya Sabhya on 31st July 2014, the Minister of State in Prime Minister’s Office, Dr. Jitendra Singh, admitted that two such mining projects in Andhra Pradesh and Meghalaya have been held-up due to delay in securing approvals and due to opposition from activists. With regards to Meghalaya project, he identified “Negative public perception on uranium mining by anti-nuclear NGOs in that area,” as a major constraint.
As for TDP for production of 4N pure Titanium Dioxide and 4N pure Zirconium oxy-chloride, this project would be implemented by Indian Rare Earths Limited, a DAE enterprise, at its Orissa Sands Complex (OSCOM) in Ganjam district of Odisha.
Both titanium dioxide and zirconium oxy-chloride have several industrial applications, with the latter also serving as feedstock for manufacture zircon metal, which is used to produce certain core components of nuclear power plants.
IREL has developed the technology to produce ultra pure Titanium Dioxide from Ilmenite, a beach sand mineral, & ultra pure Zirconium oxy-chloride from another such mineral Zircon.
TDP would have capacity to produce 3416 tpa of zirconium oxychloride, 1672 tpa of titanium oxide and 1038 tpa of Iron oxide. 
Outside the DAE domain, Kerala Minerals and Metals Limited (KMML) is also making notable contribution to India’s quest to reduce dependence on import of strategic materials.
KMML, a Kerala Government enterprise, has plans to double the capacity of the country’s only titanium sponge plant to 1000 tpa. This DMRL technology-based plant was commissioned in 2011 with entire funding by Indian Space Research Organisation. 
In April 2013, KMML had signed an MOU with Steel Authority of India Limited (SAIL) for setting up a joint venture for producing titanium sponge and metal, which finds applications in defence, space and atomic and certain other sectors.    
KMML is also considering setting up a semi-commercial magnesium recovery plant based on DMRL technology.
It remains to be seen when Mr. Modi would provide all the requisite support to the country’s core sector entities to accelerate the march towards self-reliance in strategic materials. He should reverse the setback to the country’s strategic interests that happened during the NGOs-pampering UPA regime.  
NDA Government should fast-track all strategic projects by putting them under mission mode that may be dubbbed as National Mission for Strategic Materials. 
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