Disposal of UK plutonium stocks with a climate change focus

In the 1950s, following World War II, the United Kingdom and a handful of other nations developed a nuclear weapons arsenal. This required the production of plutonium metal (or highly enriched uranium) purpose-built facilities. ‘Civil’ plutonium was also produced, since the facilities for separation existed and it was thought that this fissile material would prove useful in further nuclear power development.

Fifty years on, the question of what to do with the UK’s separated plutonium stocks is an important one. Should it, for instance, be downblended with uranium to produce mixed oxide fuel in thermal reactors, and then disposed of in a geological repository when it has been ‘spiked’ by fission products and higher actinide isotopes? Or is, perhaps, there an alternative, which would be of far greater medium- to long-term benefit to the UK, because it treats the plutonium not as waste, but as a major resource to capitalise on?

In the piece below, Tom Blees explores these questions. This was written as a formal submission to a paper “Management of the UK’s Plutonium Stocks: A consultation on the long-term management of UK owned separated civil plutonium”. Click on the picture to the left to read the background paper (which is interesting and not all that long).

This is the final in the current series of three Brave New Climate posts which has advocated SCGI’s position on the need for the IFR: (i) to provide abundant low-carbon energy and (ii) as a highly effective means of nuclear waste management and fuel extension for sustainable (inexhaustible) nuclear fission. For more information on SCGI’s mission and objectives, read this BNC post.

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Response to a consultation on the management of the UK’s plutonium stocks

Tom Blees, President, of The Science Council for Global Initiatives

Do you agree that it is not realistic for the Government to wait until fast breeder reactor technology is commercially available before taking a decision on how to manage plutonium stocks?

I strongly disagree, and I hope that you’ll take the time to read this and consider the fact that the fast reactor option is far more imminent than you might have heretofore believed. Not only that, but it is arguably the best option by far.

Current Fast Reactor Development

Worldwide there are well over 300 reactor-years of experience with fast reactors. Russia’s BN-600 fast reactor has been producing commercial electricity for over 30 years, and Russia is beginning to build BN-800 reactors both for their own use and for China. India’s first commercial-scale fast reactor is about to be finished within a year or two. South Korea has already built a sizeable pyroprocessing facility to convert their spent LWR fuel into metal fuel for fast reactors, and have only refrained from starting it up because of diplomatic agreements with the USA that are due to be renegotiated in the near future. China is building a copy of the Experimental Breeder Reactor II (EBR-II) that was the mainstay of the Integral Fast Reactor (IFR) development program at Argonne National Laboratory in the USA. Japan has reopened their Monju fast reactor to continue that research, though it should be noted that Toshiba and Hitachi contested the wisdom of that decision, favoring instead the metal-fueled fast reactor design as exemplified by the EBR-II.


The advantages of metal fuel in fast reactors is difficult to overstate. Rather than attempt to explicate the details here, I would refer the reader to the following URL: http://tinyurl.com/cwvn8n This is a chapter from a book that deals at length with the Integral Fast Reactor (IFR). The advantages of this system in safety, economics, fuel utilization, proliferation resistance and plutonium breeding or burning far outstrip any of the other options mentioned in the consultation document.

While fast breeders are mentioned as a future option, the rest of the document seems to have been unduly influenced by those who favor either MOX fabrication or long-term disposal. Both of these are mistakes that the USA has already made to one degree or another, mistakes that I would hope the UK will avoid when presented with the facts.

A Little History

In 1993, Presidents Yeltsin and Clinton signed nuclear disarmament agreements that would result in each country possessing 34 tons of excess weapons-grade plutonium. Since proliferation concerns would warrant safe disposal of this material, each president asked for the advice of one of their prominent scientists as to how to get rid of it. Yeltsin asked Dr. Evgeny Velikhov, one of the most prominent scientists in Russia to this day, who had been intimately involved in Russia’s military and civilian nuclear programs and was, in fact, in charge of the Chernobyl cleanup. Clinton asked Dr. John Holdren, who is now the director of the White House Office of Science & Technology Policy—President Obama’s top science advisor.

In July of 2009 I arranged for a meeting with Dr. Velikhov and Dr. Holdren in Washington, D.C. At that meeting we discussed what had happened when those two had met to decide on what advice to give to their respective presidents regarding the disposition of 68 tons of weapons-grade plutonium. Velikhov’s position was that it should be burned in fast reactors to generate electricity. Holdren disagreed. He contended that each country should build a MOX plant to dispose of it. That advice led to the construction that is now being done in South Carolina by Areva of a MOX plant that is expected to cost as much as ten billion dollars by the time all is said and done. And the processing of that plutonium into MOX fuel will take until the year 2030 at the very least.

Dr. Velikhov wasn’t buying it, nor was Yeltsin. But Holdren was in a tough position. Clinton had already signaled his lack of support for the IFR project that had been ongoing for nine years and was now in its final stages. It would be shut down the very next year by a duped Congress that had no idea of its importance and was manipulated into cutting off its funding for purely political reasons. Clinton wanted Russia’s solution for disposal of the excess plutonium to be the same as the USA’s, but Yeltsin said that he wasn’t prepared to spend the money. If Clinton wanted Russia to build a MOX plant, then America could pay for it. Needless to say, that never happened. And after 17 years of indecision, last spring the USA finally agreed that Russia should go ahead and dispose of their 34 tons in fast reactors.

By this time, the USA had contracted with Areva to build the South Carolina MOX plant, now under construction. That boondoggle will be a painfully slow and inefficient method of disposing of the plutonium compared to using fast reactors. Doctor Holdren made it clear at that meeting that he fully comprehends the wisdom of using IFRs to dispose of plutonium.

Salesmanship

Areva has not only talked the USA into building a horrendously expensive MOX plant, but judging by the tone of this consultation document they have apparently convinced some of the policymakers in the UK to do the same. This is as wrong now as it was when Holdren advised Clinton in 1993. Yet the South Carolina MOX plant’s construction is well underway and, like most big government-funded projects, would be about as hard to cancel at this point as turning a supertanker in the Thames. But the UK needn’t go down that road.

Areva touts its MOX technology as the greatest thing since sliced baguettes, yet in reality it only increases the utilization of the energy in uranium from about 0.6% to 0.8%. Metal-fueled fast reactors, on the other hand, can recover virtually 100% of that energy. Ironically, when discussing the ultimate shortcomings of Areva’s MOX policies with one of their own representatives, those unpleasant details were dismissed with the assurance that all that will be dealt with when we make the transition to fast reactors. Yet with billions of dollars tied up in MOX technology, Areva is anything but anxious to see that transition happen anytime soon. And the more countries they can convince to adopt MOX technology, the slower that transition will happen, for each of those countries will then have a large investment sunk into the same inferior technology.

A Pox on MOX

MOX is not only expensive, but it results in the separation of plutonium (though of course that’s not the issue in this case since the plutonium is already separated). That being said, the issue of proliferation from reactor-grade plutonium is quite overblown in general, since its isotopic composition makes it nearly impossible to fashion a nuclear weapon out of it. But regardless of its actual risk in that regard, its perception by the scientifically uninformed makes it politically radioactive, and international agreements to limit the spread of fissile material treats it as if it were weapons-grade. So any plans for the disposition of any sort of plutonium—whatever its composition—must take the politics into account.

If the UK would decide to spend five billion pounds or so on a MOX plant, it would end up with a lot of overpriced fuel that would have to be given away at a loss, since any utility company would surely choose to buy cheaper fuel from enriched virgin uranium. You would have a horrendously expensive single-purpose facility that would have to operate at a substantial loss for decades to consume the vast supplies of plutonium in question. And you would still end up with vast amounts of long-lived spent fuel that would ultimately, hopefully, be converted and used in fast reactors. Why not skip the MOX step altogether?

Given that the plutonium contains an almost unimaginable amount of energy within it, opting for long-term disposal via vitrification and burial would be unconscionable. The world will surely be in need of vast amounts of clean energy in the 21st century as the burgeoning population will demand not only energy for personal and industrial use, but will require energy-hungry desalination projects on a stunning scale. The deployment of fast reactors using the plutonium that earlier policymakers in the UK wisely decided to stockpile is a realistic solution to the world’s fast-approaching energy crisis.

Sellafield Nuclear Plant, UK

But this consultation report questions whether fast reactors can be deployed in the near future on a commercial scale. They can.

The PRISM Project

While the scientists and engineers were perfecting the many revolutionary features of the IFR at the EBR-II site in the Eighties and early Nineties, a consortium of major American firms collaborated with them to design a commercial-scale fast reactor based on that research. General Electric led that group, which included companies like Bechtel, Raytheon and Westinghouse, among others. The result was a modular reactor design intended for mass production in factories, called the PRISM (Power Reactor Innovative Small Module). A later iteration, the S-PRISM, would be slightly larger at about 300 MWe, while still retaining the features of the somewhat smaller PRISM. For purposes of simplicity I will refer hereinafter to the S-PRISM as simply the PRISM.

After the closure of the IFR project, GE continued to refine the PRISM design and is in a position to pursue the building of these advanced reactors as soon as the necessary political will can be found. Unfortunately for those who would like to see America’s fast reactor be built in America, nuclear politics in the USA is nearly as dysfunctional as it is in Germany. The incident at Fukushima has only made matters worse.

The suggestion in this report that fast reactors are thirty years away is far from accurate. GE-Hitachi plans to submit the PRISM design to the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) next year for certification. But that time-consuming process, while certainly not taking thirty years, may well be in process even as the first PRISM is built in another country.

This is far from unprecedented. In the early Nineties, GE submitted its Advanced Boiling Water Reactor (ABWR) design to the NRC for certification. GE then approached Toshiba and Hitachi and arranged for each of those companies to build one in Japan. Those two companies proceeded to get the design approved by their own NRC counterpart, built the first two ABWRs in just 36 and 39 months, fueled and tested them, then operated them for a year before the NRC in the US finally certified the design.

International Partners

On March 24th an event was held at the Russian embassy in Washington, D.C., attended by a small number of members of the nuclear industry and its regulatory agencies, both foreign and domestic, as well as representatives of NGOs concerned with nuclear issues. Sergei Kirienko, the director-general of Rosatom, Russia’s nuclear power agency, was joined by Dan Poneman, the deputy secretary of the U.S. Dept. of Energy. This was shortly after the Fukushima earthquake and tsunami, at a time when the nuclear power reactors at Fukushima Daiichi were still in a very uncertain condition.

Mr. Kirienko and Mr. Poneman first spoke about the ways in which the USA and Russia have been cooperating in tightening control over fissile material around the world. Then Mr. Kirienko addressed what was on the minds of all of us: the situation in Japan and what that portends for nuclear power deployment in the USA and around the world.

He rightly pointed out that the Chernobyl accident almost exactly 25 years ago, and the Fukushima problems now, clearly demonstrate that nuclear power transcends national boundaries, for any major accident can quickly become an international problem. For this reason Kirienko proposed that an international body be organized that would oversee nuclear power development around the world, not just in terms of monitoring fissile material for purposes of preventing proliferation (much as the IAEA does today), but to bring international expertise and oversight to bear on the construction and operation of nuclear power plants as these systems begin to be built in ever more countries.

Kirienko also pointed out that the power plants at risk in Japan were old reactor designs. He said that this accident demonstrates the need to move nuclear power into the modern age. For this reason, he said, Russia is committed to the rapid development and deployment of metal-fueled fast neutron reactor systems. His ensuing remarks specifically reiterated not only a fast reactor program (where he might have been expected to speak about Gen III or III+ lightwater reactor systems), but the development of metal fuel for these systems. This is precisely the technology that was developed at Argonne National Laboratory with the Integral Fast Reactor (IFR) program, but then prematurely terminated in 1994 in its final stages.

For the past two years I’ve been working with Dr. Evgeny Velikhov (director of Russia’s Kurchatov Institute and probably Russia’s leading scientist/political advisor) to develop a partnership between the USA and Russia to build metal-fueled fast reactors; or to be more precise, to facilitate a cooperative effort between GE-Hitachi and Rosatom to build the first PRISM reactor in Russia as soon as possible. During those two years there have been several meetings in Washington to put the pieces in place for such a bilateral agreement. The Obama administration, at several levels, seems to be willingly participating in and even encouraging this effort.

Dr Evgeny Velikhov, SCGI member

Dr. Velikhov and I (and other members of the Science Council for Global Initiatives) have also been discussing the idea of including nuclear engineers from other countries in this project, countries which have expressed a desire to obtain or develop this technology, some of which have active R&D programs underway (India, South Korea, China). Japan was very interested in this technology during the years of the IFR project, and although their fast reactor development is currently focused on their oxide-fueled Monju reactor there is little doubt that they would jump at the chance to participate in this project.

Dr. Velikhov has long been an advocate of international cooperation in advanced nuclear power research, having launched the ITER project about a quarter-century ago. He fully comprehends the impact that international standardization and deployment of IFR-type reactors would have on the well-being of humanity at large. Yet if Russia and the USA were to embark upon a project to build the first PRISM reactor(s) in Russia, one might presume that the Russians would prefer to make it a bilateral project that would put them at the cutting edge of this technology and open up golden opportunities to develop an industry to export it.

It was thus somewhat surprising when Mr. Kirienko, in response to a question from one of the attendees, said that Russia would be open to inviting Japan, South Korea and India to participate in the project. One might well question whether his failure to include China in this statement was merely an oversight or whether that nation’s notorious reputation for economic competition often based on reverse-engineering new technologies was the reason.

I took the opportunity, in the short Q&A session, to point out to Mr. Poneman that the Science Council for Global Initiatives includes not just Dr. Velikhov but most of the main players in the development of the IFR, and that our organization would be happy to act as a coordinating body to assure that our Russian friends will have the benefit of our most experienced scientists in the pursuit of this project. Mr. Poneman expressed his gratitude for this information and assured the audience that the USA would certainly want to make sure that our Russian colleagues had access to our best and brightest specialists in this field.

Enter the United Kingdom

Sergei Kirienko was very clear in his emphasis on rapid construction and deployment of fast reactors. If the United States moves ahead with supporting a GE-Rosatom partnership, the first PRISM reactor could well be built within the space of the next five years. The estimated cost of the project will be in the range of three to four billion dollars (USD), since it will be the first of its kind. The more international partners share in this project, the less will be the cost for each, of course. And future copies of the PRISM have been estimated by GE-Hitachi to cost in the range of $1,700/kW.

Work is under way on gram samples of civil plutonium

According to this consultation document, the UK is looking at spending £5-6 billion or more in dealing with its plutonium. Yet if the plutonium were to simply be secured as it currently is for a short time longer and the UK involved itself in the USA/Russia project, the cost would be a small fraction of that amount, and when the project is completed the UK will have the technology in hand to begin mass-production of PRISM reactors.

The plutonium stocks of the UK could be converted into metal fuel using the pyroprocessing techniques developed by the IFR project (and which, as noted above, are ready to be utilized by South Korea). The Science Council for Global Initiatives is currently working on arranging for the building of the first commercial-scale facility in the USA for conversion of spent LWR fuel into metal fuel for fast reactors. By the time the first PRISM is finished in Russia, that project will also likely be complete.

What this would mean for the UK would be that its stores of plutonium would become the fast reactor fuel envisioned by earlier policymakers. After a couple years in the reactor the spent fuel would be ready for recycling via pyroprocessing, then either stored for future use or used to start up even more PRISM reactors. In this way not only would the plutonium be used up but the UK would painlessly transition to fast reactors, obviating any need for future mining or enrichment of uranium for centuries, since once the plutonium is used up the current inventories of depleted uranium could be used as fuel.

Conclusion

Far from being decades away, a fully-developed fast reactor design is ready to be built. While I’m quite certain that GE-Hitachi would be happy to sell a PRISM to the UK, the cost and risk could be reduced to an absolute minimum by the happy expedient of joining in the international project with the USA, Russia, and whichever other nations are ultimately involved. The Science Council for Global Initiatives will continue to play a role in this project and would be happy to engage the UK government in initial discussions to further explore this possibility.

There is little doubt that Russia will move forward with fast reactor construction and deployment in the very near future, even if the PRISM project runs into an unforeseen roadblock. It would be in the best interests of all of us to cooperate in this effort. Not only will the deployment of a standardized modular fast reactor design facilitate the disposition of plutonium that is currently the driving force for the UK, but it would enable every nation on the planet to avail itself of virtually unlimited clean energy. Such an international cooperative effort would also provide the rationale for the sort of multinational nuclear power oversight agency envisioned by Mr. Kirienko and others who are concerned not only about providing abundant energy but also in maintaining control over fissile materials.

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24 Comments

  1. The biggest problem with uranium-plutonium MOx fuel, in my opinion, is that it degrades the isotopic quality of the plutonium, making it far less economic to use the resulting once-used plutonium mixture in a breeder reactor.

    The problem is that new plutonium is made since this is still a uranium-plutonium converter cycle, and the startup plutonium is degraded into less fissile and fertile plutonium.

    The problem is this. With a lower isotopic quality more plutonium is needed to startup the IFR or MSR. We’re talking 2-3x as much here people.

    Essentially, it converts a possibly slightly economic startup charge for advanced reactors into a dubious resource.

    I’d prefer that MOx fuel fabrication be stopped completely and the money saved (billions!) be put into gen IV build. IFR, MSR, metal-chloride pyroprocessing and fluoride processing investments.

    But the decision to use MOx is almost completely political. If we must do it, I’d suggest PuO2-ThO2, so that higher quality fissile (U233) is created with less degraded plutonium (since very little new plutonium is made).

    Also because MOx fuel is so expensive, it makes sense to use it in a very thermal spectrum reactor such as CANDU.

    Regarding the IFR, I’ll note that the UK has considerable experience with metal fuel in their gas cooled reactors. This could be a bridge to build IFRs, or at least converter (non-integrated processing) reactors as a first step. Combined with the UK’s willingness to reprocess, it looks like the important technological elements are in place for such a transition.

  2. I cannot think of anything better for the UK than for its government to contribute to the effort described.

    I was also greatly encouraged to read of suggested settled down costs within the range of $1700/kW, considerably less than some critics have been suggesting.

    Good news, at last.

  3. “the United States moves ahead with supporting a GE-Rosatom partnership, the first PRISM reactor could well be built within the space of the next five years. The estimated cost of the project will be in the range of three to four billion dollars (USD), since it will be the first of its kind. .. ”

    What is the holdup here?$3 to 4B is peanuts to a company like GE. Shell just spent $15B on a GTL plant in Qatar. Can’t they hit up Buffet or Gates for a few bucks or a loan? I just don’t get it.

    They could easily build the unit in Canada with a much more reasonable regulator, one that has already approved the ACR-1000 for construction.

    The DOE could let them build a plant at INL, ORNL, or on a military base.

  4. @ Cyril R suggests PuO2-ThO2 fuel to avoid Pu240+

    Plutonium-in-thorium-oxide fuels have very high burn up, do not distort with age (UO2 loses oxygen at temperature), do not accumulate transuranics, and are meltdown-resistant (ThO2 MP 3300° C). The activity of the used fuel improves with a year or more of storage, and “spent” fuel is chemically inert for long storage.

    I speculate that used PuThO fuel which has accumulated a limiting amount of neutron-absorbing fission products could be cleaned for reuse by diffusing out the lower-mass FP’s at higher temperature. Such a fuel cycle would obviate the opportunity to separate out the fissile isotopes, without using the politically-vulnerable pyroprocessing stage.

    Thorium reactors have been vulnerable to political interference that would require the addition of U238. Although this would indeed dilute the U233 beyond any use to bogeyman, it also would contaminate the process with higher actinides. In the context of burning Pu239 rather than Pu240, there would inevitably be a level of security monitoring the fuel, which would extend easily to the U233 in the cycle, avoiding arguments for dilution.

  5. We have to get it through everyone’s head that there is no stopping any nation that is intent on fabricating nuclear weapons short of military intervention. Endless hand wringing about vulnerabilities in the fuel cycle are a waste of time and effort.

    Furthermore, and country that has the technical wherewithal to fabricate MOX or PuThO fuel or has stocks of Pu that need re-burning in the first place, is a nuclear weapons state, or has had the ability to make nuclear weapons for some time and has chosen not to.

    Proliferation is not a technical issue.

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  8. Roger Clifton is correct, ThO2 is in almost all ways a superiour fuel for light water and heavy water reactors.

    It would be hard, though, to remove the most neutron hungry fission products as-is (in their oxide form) that ‘poison’ the reactor. These are the lanthanide fission products such as samarium oxide. Their boiling points are extremely high. A simple processing method that keeps the oxide in oxide form (preferably even in the same valence) and removes the fission products without ‘touching’ the actinides at all, would be a game-changer.

    I’ve also been interested in thorium metal fuel for many reasons, including the high actinide density, very high thermal conductivity (and increasing with temp) and possibility of direct distillation of waste products. The actinides, in their metal forms, are all very high boiling, whereas most fission products, including the horrible samarium, will boil away at reasonable temperatures. Simple one stage refractory still running at atmospheric pressure and maybe 2000 degrees Celcius.

    Such a processing scheme would also be of great value to the IFR. Much simpler and less lossy than the chloride electrolysis/reduction steps.

  9. Pingback: Fast breeder technology | Lenz Blog

  10. For the US, it seems that realistic plans to have new nuclear technology developed, of whatever type (IFR’s LFTR’s, etc.), depends on getting the NRC out of the loop. Currently they appear to be considering the reopening of public comment on the AP1000! At this rate a half-dozen will be completed OUS before the NRC finally approves it (if there is such a thing as ‘finally’ at the NRC).

    So, these international consortia are a great idea I think.

  11. Great article, but rather than usual talk up by the usual BNC commentators has anyone actually contacted anyone with any influence in such matters within the UK goverment etc? It would be sad to see all this great promise only to hear of another reprocessing effort at Sellafield.

  12. Here’s a transcript of testimony before the Subcommittee on Strategic Forces, Committee on Armed Services, U.S. House of Representatives that helps put this issue into perspective.

    I would draw everyone’s attention to this quote”:

    In any case, as the NAS studies pointed out, the plutonium that has been declared excess, while a large amount in terms of the number of nuclear weapons that could be made from it, is small in terms of global energy needs: even if it were all used as nuclear fuel, it would provide only a few months of the fuel for the existing global reactor fleet. The key question, then, is under what circumstances can plutonium disposition provide benefits in these areas that are worth the substantial costs of moving forward – not only in money, but in high-level political attention and diplomatic capital expended? /blockquote>

    Link Disposition of Excess Plutonium: Rethinking Security Objectives and Technological Approaches

  13. Mmm….the gap in how far this plutonium can stretch is determined by the extent to which it may be recycled and re-burned. That is the author’s point: in current discourse regarding nuclear fuel, there has not been enough work to process and re-use existing nuclear waste. With adequate recycling, there would be much less new material required to be mined.

    To wit: If (per your quote) these dozens of tons of plutonium will supply the equivalent to three months of world nuclear energy demand (I assume in a once-through MOX burn), they also will have lost less than one percent of the energy contained within them. Even accepting substantial energy losses for reprocessing, that stock of plutonium would supply the current nuclear energy demand for FIVE YEARS.

    Yes, I know that this is not a direct comparison. However, enough energy to supply current world nuclear demand for five years, may be worth looking into. And if other fast-reactor cycles burn more on each pass/recycle more cheaply, that number could be pushed to a ten-year equivalent or even higher.

  14. DV82XL:

    Thanks for the link. Very interesting and I will read it in full later- about to go out.

    However, the post by Tom Blees relates specifically to the UK’s plutonium stockpile. My very simple calculations have suggested to me that such a stockpile would be sufficient to start about 10GW worth of IFRs. If these were started asap (say 2025) and run in full breeding mode with an 8 year doubling time, the UK could be producing nearly all the clean, sustainable energy it needs within half a century.

    Pie in the sky – castles in the air – or basic fact. What do you think?

  15. Reactor grade plutonium can be best utilized in combination with metallic Thorium or uranium. Thorium is higher melting, better conductor of heat and more neutron efficient. Fast spectrum is no doubt better but Th-Puo2 could be used even in thermal reactors. U-PuO2 could be quite good in fast reactors and also make use of Depleted/Recovered uranium. UO2-PuO2 MOX is a waste of this valuable resource.
    UK has a nuclear co-operation agreement with India, who are building a 500MW fast reactor. Further development of the optimum design of a fast reactor could be done under this co-operation. Indians have also designed thorium fuels for AHWR, both with Pu and LEU fissile feed. They have long in-reactor lives. Th-Pu fuel can be designed for any reactor on the same lines. At present the Indians are considering 19.75%LEU-Th fuels for PWRs under construction. If the UK is willing to share the fissile feed, fuels can be developed in India for use in both countries.

  16. Pingback: Mark Lynas: Home » climate change » Good reasons not to waste nuclear ‘waste’

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