Mineral deposits

Titanium connection

Print edition : July 24, 2015

The beach on the Periyathalai coast in Tuticorin district, Tamil Nadu, takes on a hue characteristic of the presence of garnet, a non-atomic mineral that can be mined with the permission of the State government. The mined sand also contains atomic minerals such as ilmenite, leucoxene and rutile, which on processing yield titanium, and they can be exported under the Open General Licence without requiring the permission of the Union Ministry of Mines. Photo: N. Rajesh

It is the ore ilmenite, and not thorium, that the “mining mafia” is after in the beach sands of Odisha, Tamil Nadu and Kerala. Titanium, a strategic metal in demand in the nuclear power sector and the aerospace industry, is extracted from it.

IT WAS evening and we were on the road, covering the campaigns of various political parties in Tamil Nadu’s Kanyakumari district during the Lok Sabha elections in April 2009. Near Manavalakurichi, a coastal village, this correspondent and the reporter accompanying him noticed a board a few hundred metres from the sea. It said: “Indian Rare Earths Limited” (IREL). The IREL is a public sector undertaking of the Department of Atomic Energy (DAE) and is engaged in mining monazite and other atomic minerals from the beach sands at Manavalakurichi. A little distance away, groups of men were shovelling beach sand into trucks, and we struck up a conversation with them about the election trends. After a few minutes, when this correspondent told the photographer, A. Shaikmohideen, to take pictures of the men at work, the men turned hostile and threatened to beat us up. It was a nasty situation we were in, surrounded by well-built men.

The reasons for their belligerence were immediately apparent. With Tamil magazines and newspapers periodically going to town about mining sharks in Tuticorin, Tirunelveli and Kanyakumari districts illegally mining monazite, the labourers were apprehensive about losing their livelihood. Stories in the press in Tamil Nadu assumed that beach sand everywhere in these three districts contained monazite, from which thorium can be processed for use as fuel in nuclear reactors in the third stage of India’s three-stage nuclear power strategy. The stories alleged that monazite was being illegally exported in big quantities.

The reality is that in the beaches in the coastal regions of Kerala, Odisha and Tamil Nadu, only some pockets contain economically important minerals such as garnet, ilmenite, leucoxene, monazite, rutile, sillimanite and zircon, collectively known as beach sand minerals. Only the IREL is permitted to excavate and process monazite for both domestic use and export.

A DAE press release dated October 19, 2012, which is still valid, says: “The DAE has not issued any licence to any private entity either for production of monazite, or for its downstream processing for extracting thorium, or for the export of either monazite or thorium.” So the private sector cannot mine monazite, process it into thorium and sell it in India or abroad.

Monazite holds no attraction for mining companies because there is no market for monazite/thorium now, top DAE officials said. There is no operating reactor anywhere in the world now that uses thorium as fuel. India has designed a 300 MWe Advanced Heavy Water Reactor (AHWR) which will use thorium as fuel, but its construction, which was to begin in 2006, has been delayed and will begin only in 2018. Besides, a site is yet to be chosen for the AHWR. According to a Guardian News Service story by Jennifer Duggan, dated March 20, 2014, the Chinese Academy of Sciences set up an advanced research centre in January 2014 aimed at developing an industrial reactor using thorium molten salt technology. So there is no demand for monazite or thorium now.

However, officials acknowledged that “a mafia” is engaged in “illegally exporting” big quantities of ilmenite tailings (waste material), which contain titanium, a strategic metal. Titanium is obtained from beach sand minerals such as ilmenite, rutile and leucoxene and illegally shipped by the “mining mafia” to other countries, officials said. There is a big demand for titanium across the world for use in making components for fighter aircraft, missiles and civilian launch vehicles by the aerospace industry and for use in nuclear power reactors. Informed officials said the miners, under the guise of excavating garnet, a non-atomic mineral, also extracted ilmenite, leucoxene, rutile, sillimanite, and so on from the beach sands they mined in Tuticorin and Kanyakumari districts.

Under open licence

Private miners in Tamil Nadu seem to be having a blast because export of beach sand containing minerals such as garnet, ilmenite, leucoxene, rutile, sillimanite and zircon, with the exception of monazite, falls under the Open General Licence (OGL) category and does not require authorisation from the DAE. Permission for mining garnet is given by the State government. For excavating leucoxene, rutile, sillimanite and zircon, which are atomic minerals, private companies need permission from the Union Ministry of Mines, said the DAE officials.

In some coastal pockets in Kerala, Odisha and Tamil Nadu, particularly where rivers discharge into the sea, valuable minerals, including garnet, ilmenite, leucoxene, monazite, rutile, sillimanite and zircon, occur in beach sand. Of these, monazite is defined as a “prescribed substance” under the Atomic Energy Act, 1962, as amended in 2006 (notified in the Gazette of India (57), dated January 20, 2006). The beach sand in these areas contains only a fraction of monazite, varying from 0 per cent to 3 per cent. The Atomic Minerals Directorate (AMD) for Exploration and Research, a unit of the DAE, prospects for these beach sand minerals in the coastal regions to assess their distribution. The AMD also prospects for uranium all over India.

The attraction for the private sector is in mining garnet, ilmenite, leucoxene and rutile because of the titanium link. Private mining companies obtain the State government’s permission under the OGL to excavate these beach sand minerals other than monazite.

The DAE press release of October 19, 2012, says: “A licence from the DAE under the Atomic Energy (Working of the Mines, Minerals and Handling of Prescribed Substances) Rules, 1984, promulgated under the Atomic Energy Act, 1962, is necessary for exporting monazite. Violation of provision is a cognisable offence under the Code of Criminal Procedure and is punishable with imprisonment for a term, which may extend to five years or with fine or with both. The 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. Export of the beach sand minerals (not monazite) falls under the Open General Licence and does not require any authorisation from the DAE.

“Since the other beach sand minerals and monazite (which contains thorium) occur together, companies handling beach sand minerals have to get a licence under the Atomic Energy (Radiation Protection) Rules, 2004, from the Atomic Energy Regulatory Board (AERB). As per the licensing conditions, the licensee, after separating the beach sand minerals, has to dispose of the tailings, which contain monazite, within the company premises or as backfill, depending on the monazite content. These companies are under strict regulatory control. They send quarterly reports to the AERB stating the amount of tailings disposed of safely either in the premises or as backfill. Inspectors from the AERB survey these areas to ensure that the licensing conditions are met. Export of monazite without a licence from the AERB is a violation of the Atomic Energy (Radiation Protection) Rules, 2004.”

Thus, only the IREL can mine and export monazite. It also mines other non-atomic and atomic minerals occurring in beach sands. The IREL has a big division called Orissa Sands Complex (OSCOM) at Chatrapur, another unit at Chavara in Kerala and a third one at Manavalakurichi (MK). These three units excavate and sell garnet, ilmenite, monazite, rutile, sillimanite and zircon. According to the IREL website, “[A]t MK, all the raw sand required to operate the plant at its full capacity is collected by the fishermen of surrounding villages from nearby beaches and supplied to the unit at a cost….”

The DAE officials brushed aside claims that monazite has been “delisted” from the purview of the IREL and that the private sector can mine it. “Monazite has never been delisted,” DAE officials asserted. “The DAE has never provided any NOC [no objection certificate] in respect of any proposal, coming from the private sector, for mining monazite,” they added.

In fact, there is a big disincentive for the private sector to export monazite containing thorium because thorium is a radioactive element. An authoritative DAE official, who played a key role in designing the AHWR, said: “Shipment of monazite will attract several precautions and it will invite attention at international ports because thorium is radioactive. While the main attraction for export is the other beach sand minerals, monazite per se cannot be the attraction. Thorium as fuel is not required for any nuclear power reactor anywhere in the world. The annual requirement of thorium oxide for our 300 MWe AHWR will be about five tonnes, with a one-time requirement of less than 60 tonnes for the initial core. So, the issue of illegal mining of beach sands needs to be seen in this context.”

The floodgates for the private sector to mine leucoxene, rutile, sillimanite and zircon were thrown open from January 1, 2007. A Gazette notification, Part II, Section 3, Subsection (ii), dated January 20, 2006, from the Government of India dated January 20, 2006, said the Central government had notified titanium ores and concentrates (ilmenite, rutile and leucoxene) and zirconium, its alloys and compounds and minerals/concentrates, including zircon, as prescribed substances.

However, the Gazette stated that these items shall remain prescribed substances only until such time the Policy on Exploitation of Beach Sand Minerals dated October 6, 1998, is adopted/revised/modified by the Union Ministry of Mines on or until January 2007 whichever occurs earlier and shall cease to be so thereafter. Since the Union Ministry of Mines did not say that these beach sand minerals would continue to be on the list of prescribed substances after January 1, 2007, they ceased to be on the prescribed substances’ list from that date. So the private sector began to have access to mine them.

Private companies get the licence from the State government to mine garnet, but this also gives them access to rutile, ilmenite, leucoxene and other beach sand minerals because all of them occur together. Since ilmenite is a major ore of titanium, which is in high demand in many countries, the mining “mafia” illegally ships out ilmenite tailings. Said an informed DAE official: “Monazite is not a story. It is the illegal export of titanium by shipping out ilmenite tailings which is the big story.”

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