Ban export of beach sand minerals: BJP MP Hansraj Ahir

Chennai, May 2 (IANS) Member of Parliament Hansraj Gangaram Ahir Thursday demanded an immediate ban on export of beach sand minerals (BSM) like monazite that contain thorium.

“Allowing the export of beach sand minerals under the OGL (open general licence) is wrong. The precious minerals are shipped to countries that are not very friendly with India,” Ahir told IANS.

Not satisfied with the reply from the Department of Atomic Energy (DAE) to his letter to Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, the BJP MP said the party leaders will be briefed in detail on the subject and a committee of experts will be set up to look into the issue.

Ahir, who represents Chandrapur in Maharashtra, was the key person in bringing to light the coal mine allocation scam that has put the Congress-led United Progressive Alliance (UPA) government in a tight spot.

Thorium-powered nuclear reactors form the third phase of India’s three-phase atomic power programme: The first two being pressurised heavy water reactor (PHWR) and the second being the fast breeder reactor — a reactor that breeds more fuel while it is operational.

Thorium has to be separated from monazite through processing. As per rules, export of monazite with thorium content of less than 25 percent is allowed.

In his letter to the prime minister last October, Ahir had said: “The allegations are that nearly 21 lakh tonnes of monazite have been stolen and exported, which is equal to 195,300 tonnes of thorium.

“There is fear that the encashment of these precious minerals by the enemies of India can also create threat to the very safety, security and integrity of the nation and there is dire need to look into the matter on a priority and take action against the people who are engaged in the illegal business and also stop the heavy loss to the government coffers.”

According to him, monazite is found on the shores of Chhatrapur in Odisha, Manavalakurichi in Tamil Nadu and Aluwa-Chawara in Kerala and only Indian Rare Earths Ltd (IREL) is allowed to process the precious minerals.

In reply to Ahir’s letter, the DAE in its April 10 letter said monazite is still listed as prescribed substance under the Atomic Energy Act 1962 and no licence has been issued for its export to any private entity.

“India’s total monazite reserves are currently estimated at about 10 million tonnes of which about 30 percent in mineable,” DAE’s additional secretary C.B.S. Venkataramana wrote to Ahir.

According to DAE, thorium is not available as such in nature but obtained by processing monazite which co-exists with six other minerals — rutile, ilmenite, zircon, leucoxene, sillimanite and garnet.

The DAE said only IREL and Kerala Minerals and Metals Ltd were exploiting the BSM (excluding garnet and sillimanite) till 1998 when the entire BSM sector (excluding monazite) were opened up to private sector.

In 2007, certain BSMs – titanium bearing minerals (ilmenite, rutile, leucoxene) and zircon- were delisted from the list of prescribed substances under the Atomic Energy Act and are now under OGL.

The DAE said till 1.1.2007 samples of export consignments of BSM were tested and were issued Monazite Test Certificate. This certificate was dispensed when titanium-bearing minerals and zircon were removed from the list of prescribed substances.

Citing the 2011-12 annual report of Chemical and Allied Products Export Promotion Council (CAPEXIL), the DAE official said the total export of BSM during 2010-11, excluding five tonnes of monazite exported by IREL is estimated at Rs.1,034.45 crore.

The DAE also told Ahir that no overseas demand existed for thorium for generation of atomic power.

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