Mark HibbsChina Peeps about Plutonium

Anthony Trollope lived and wrote half a century before plutonium was discovered, and maybe that’s why during the holidays I was deeply immersed in three of his novels. Shortly before New Year’s and about 400 pages into The Eustace Diamonds, I got an e-mail from a friend in Beijing, telling me that something noteworthy had apparently happened in a small reprocessing plant on a remote site in Gansu Province. I’d been watching this place for signs of life for a long time, to no avail.

This plant was conceived of by China National Nuclear Corporation (CNNC), China’s biggest state-owned enterprise in the nuclear sector and responsible for virtually all military and civilian nuclear fuel production activities, as the first step toward closing China’s civilian nuclear fuel cycle.

It  was completed about six years ago, but since then there’s been nary a peep from official China about what was going on inside.

That’s got to be the reason why a little news item about a “breakthrough” at the plant which CNNC ran up the flagpole at CCTV about this project a week ago prompted a flurry of attention from the rest of the world for about 48 hours.

CNNC invited a news team from CCTV into the plant and it was allowed to film some of the processing equipment and what looked like activities in the control room (Some of the news footage broadcast last week however did appear like it came from one or two Chinese nuclear power reactors instead.) The visit by CCTV was recorded for posterity and on January 3 was shown in several versions to evening news viewers across the country from Kashgar to Harbin.

This version has some nice shots of what looks like very up-to-date process control monitoring equipment, rows of glove boxes, a mast manipulator in action, maybe some ion exchange equipment, and a few spent fuel assemblies from the Daya Bay PWRs at the bottom of one of the intake pools, replete with glowing Cerenkov radiation.

This one, from English-language program CCTV-9, has an interview with the plant’s chief engineer and presents a good shot of the whole head-end of the plant.

Anyone who has ever picnicked on the Cotentin Peninsula, looked toward the English Channel, and stared in amazement at the vastness of the Areva reprocessing complex knows that, by comparison, the little plant shown on CCTV sure wasn’t UP3, but I was impressed nonetheless. The housekeeping looked as spic-and-span as at Rokkashomura—and a lot less gritty than the separator building at Tokai, to say nothing about the antediluvian canyon at RT-1. Were I to spill my spicy chicken with black bean sauce on the floor of the Chinese plant during my lunch break, I could probably lick the spot clean without worrying about catching anything nasty (I certainly wouldn’t want to do that in a few selected other facilities I’ve been into over there.)

Chinese Caution

Now keep in mind that this plant was essentially finished in 2004. That fact should lay to rest one idée fixe entertained by some nuclear-power advocates: namely, that while Western country regulators are keeping their thumbs on the “nuclear renaissance” there, China is going gangbusters in expanding its program without wrapping up untried new projects in bothersome regulatory red tape. Not so in this case. Believe me, China’s safety authorities are very much on top of this little plant in the desert and they have made sure things are proceeding prudently.

The Gansu reprocessing plant project got underway during the early 1990s, and construction began in 1997. And it was delayed long before Chinese regulators had anything to say about the commissioning schedule beginning in 2004.

About 15 years ago, some foreign intelligence information attributed to Chinese sources suggested that some of the early delays had to do with problems raised by the Russians, in consideration of the potential military application of the technology involved—a point I’ll return to below because it has re-emerged more recently.

As early as the late 1980s, so goes the story, the USSR had originally agreed (as it did for China’s 20-MW fast breeder reactor project) to provide process technology and equipment for the Gansu reprocessing plant. But during the planning, procurement, and construction of the plant in the 1990s, the Chinese and their Russian partners had some, hmmm… differences, and it was rumored then that the Russians got cold feet because they were worried that their assistance would help China make nuclear weapons. It was also reported in foreign diplomatic cables that there were civil engineering quality control issues including concerning concrete pouring of the foundation of the facility. Whether any of this was true or not, it took China a long time to complete this project.

CNNC and Purex

I confess to some initial irritation in hearing that China had trumpeted its little experiment last week as a “breakthrough” (Greg Kulacki has pointed out that the sloppiness of prevailing news culture may be the explanation why that happened). A “breakthrough” it was only in so far as safety overseers had after six years permitted CNNC to carry out an initial trial plutonium and uranium separation, probably at the end of 2010. As of October, two fuel assemblies had been chopped up and dissolved in nitric acid, but no plutonium-uranium separation had been allowed to take place.

And what happened at the plant last month certainly was not a breakthrough for China in any technical sense: This is a Purex plant, using the same technology that China, beginning in the 1950s on an R&D level, employed to separate plutonium for its weapons program. (The pioneering achievement was that of China Institute of Atomic Energy or CIAE, which was involved from the outset in the design of the Gansu separation plant and is also responsible for China’s breeder program). Through about 1991, using Purex, CNNC separated several tons of plutonium for warheads.

CNNC loves Purex: its radiochemists know it inside and out, the open literature shows that they are still tweaking the technology to improve it, and when the company approached Areva back around 2006 to get help in setting up a big commercial reprocessing plant in China to follow the Gansu plant, they asked Areva to sell them a Purex plant.

The French raised a few issues with that Chinese proposal, as I pointed out here in November. Areva, strongly encouraged by the government, instead offered a plant based on a further development beyond Purex it calls COEX.

Since about 2007, Areva and CNNC have been in effect negotiating terms of a future commercial contract permitting Areva to export a reprocessing plant to China.

China is building a lot of power reactors and if it continues indefinitely to do so, it may be logical and even inevitable for China to close its commercial nuclear fuel cycle. But In my Carnegie piece I expressed the view that, for numerous reasons—cost, human resource management, technology development, nuclear security and safety—China should not be overly hasty in aiming to set up a big reprocessing plant along the lines of what we’ve seen in Japan, France, Russia, or the UK.

Some Chinese Rethinking

Shortly after my Carnegie piece was finished, Zhou Yun over at Harvard passed along a link which suggested that in fact Chinese decision makers themselves seem to be entertaining second thoughts about CNNC’s near-term commercial reprocessing crash program. For readers who can handle Mandarin, these second thoughts are registered here:

Gu Zhongmao, who gave this interview to Chinese media, is a heavyweight in the world of China’s policy making on its nuclear fuel cycle strategy. The bottom line of the above remarks seems to be:

  • For both cost and technology policy reasons, China might not choose Areva technology
  • China understands that the US policy not to reprocess LWR fuel has its logic, but in the long term both China and the US will be looking to close the fuel cycle
  • China is not under pressure to dispose of its spent fuel
  • China may be inclined to delay commercial reprocessing for a decade beyond the timetable originally foreseen by CNNC

After last week’s little media flare-up subsided following the airing of the CCTV films, this week a uranium market analyst at Ux was indirectly cited by a UK newspaper as commenting that talks between Areva and China “have not been going well” and speculating further that the Chinese announcement of the mini-plutonium separation “could be a way of pressuring Areva” to make concessions in its negotiations with the Chinese.

Regardless of the outcome of Areva’s discussions with CNNC, however, there can be no Sino-French reprocessing plant deal without a bilateral government-to-government agreement setting some ground rules, and this is where the issue of CNNC’s pivotal role in both the civilian and military fuel cycles may factor in. France wants to be assured that China won’t put Areva technology to use in making nuclear weapon material, and Chinese officials in fact have told me quite recently that there has been a discussion about a future verification regime for an Areva-supplied reprocessing plant in China which might involve the IAEA. That’s a potential show-stopper, China hands say, because in general Beijing doesn’t like IAEA inspectors rubbernecking around Chinese nuclear facilities. There’s also the cost of verification—an issue which Japanese executives say has deterred China from doing some serious nuclear business with Japan (which under a bilateral cooperation agreement with China requires IAEA safeguards under certain conditions).

Is China’s Military a Real Issue?

Some US and Russian experts responded to my paper by questioning whether France is genuinely concerned about China’s tiny nuclear weapons program hijacking Areva’s technology. One speculated that French concerns may be part of an Areva-CEA marketing strategy to lock China in to buying both a reprocessing plant and a MOX plant from Areva. French sources brush this aside and say their nuclear security and nonproliferation concerns about China are genuine, and in more general terms, they wax on about an “arc of proliferation” extending from the Middle East, across South Asia and into China and North Korea, and they express special concern about China because critical areas of its nuclear program are opaque.

Come what may, recent information about the status of China’s plutonium inventory suggests that French concerns may be well-founded.

Back in 2003, David Wright and Lisbeth Gronlund had estimated after careful analysis that China had produced at its two plutonium production sites, Jinquan and Guangyuan, between 2 and 5 tons of plutonium for weapons, leaving China currently an inventory of “4 tons or less.”

Very recently, the IPFM group arrived at a more circumscribed estimate for how much plutonium from military production is in China’s stockpile: 1.8 tons plus or minus 0.5 tons.

David told me on the phone this week it would appear that in large part the lower numbers cranked out by IPFM derived from a lower estimate for the thermal rating of the Guangyuan reactor.

Does the difference matter with regard to China’s future plutonium production intentions? The 2003 Wright/Gronlund paper suggests to me that it might:

The size of China’s plutonium stocks could have implications for future expansion of its nuclear arsenal, either as part of its modernization plans or in response to a US deployment of a ballistic missile defense system. For example, if China were to increase the number of warheads on long range missiles from the current level of roughly 20 to a level of 75 to 100, as suggested by the December 2001 National Intelligence Estimate (NIE), that could require 0.2 to 0.4 tonnes of plutonium, assuming these warheads contained 3 to 5 kilograms of plutonium each. A buildup to 200 warheads on long-range missiles—a number reportedly suggested by the 2000 NIE—would require 0.6 to 0.9 tonnes of plutonium.

Thus, unless China dismantled some existing warheads on shorter range systems and reused the plutonium, limits on its plutonium stocks might place a bound on how much it could expand its long-range arsenal without restarting plutonium production. This may be an important consideration for China if it wants to keep open the option of expanding its strategic nuclear forces in response to possible US ballistic missile defense deployments.  Indeed, while Chinese officials stated in the mid-1990s that China was no longer producing fissile material for weapons and had no plans to resume, China has resisted efforts to negotiate a formalized fissile material cut off treaty.

Since this paper was published, China has stated that it favors negotiation of an FMCT, but China is widely believed to be standing behind Pakistan, which is blocking the negotiation in the CD in Geneva.

Unlike the rest of the P-5, China also won’t declare a formal moratorium on weapons fissile material production. I had argued in November that China should declare such a moratorium if it wanted to build confidence and alleviate foreign concerns about potential for proliferation from their future fuel cycle cooperation with CNNC.

In the course of preparing that article over nine months, on two occasions PLA officers expressed to me the view that China might at some future time resume defense fissile material production, especially should China and the US not resolve serious strategic issues including redeployment of US strategic forces in Asia and ballistic missile defense. Since publication of the Carnegie article, another Chinese official aimed to somewhat qualify these statements, interpreting the PLA’s position on future restart of nuclear material production as a “policy of complete ambiguity.”


  1. David Wright (History)

    We just put up a post on the issue of what the original CCTV story actually said, and what the “breakthrough” was:

  2. Ben (History)

    Does anyone know the status of the Areva deal?…also looking on GoogleEarth there’s actually a striking similarity between the Lanzhou plant in China and the unfinished french built Chashama plant in Pakistan.

  3. FSB (History)

    Interesting note from the Wright/Gronlund paper you mention:

    “The size of China’s plutonium stocks could have implications for future expansion of its nuclear arsenal, either as part of its modernization plans or in response to a US deployment of a ballistic missile defense system.”

    Yet another possible problem due to missile defense — while there is no clear benefit accruing from missile defense.

    Who is still enthusiastic about missile defense and why?

    • MWG (History)

      China’s interest in a Fissile Material Cutoff Treaty fell precipitously in 1999, after the Clinton Administration announced plans to develop National Missile Defense. At that point China began linking FMCT negotiations in Geneva to negotiations on Prevention of an Arms Race in Outer Space (PAROS). In May 1999, the Chinese Ambassador to the Conference on Disarmament said:

      “Many delegations, including the Chinese Delegation, believe that the importance of Nuclear Disarmament and PAROS is no less than that of FMCT. At the beginning of this year, one country breached the existing arms control treaty by announcing its decision to accelerate the research and development of missile defense systems.”

      China was well aware that the United States had no interest in negotiations on PAROS (or nuclear disarmament), so this linkage was a way to hold up FMCT negotiations.

    • FSB (History)

      Thanks MWG. That is really interesting and indeed the Chinese have a point.

      So we could get progress on FMCT perhaps if we let go of the myth that missile defense will ever provide protection from nuclear threats.

      Someone at a higher pay grade needs to think deeply about that.

  4. mark (History)

    The open source record on Chinese reprocessing appears to suggest that China’s two plutonium production compounds (not to forget the third one which was never finished and operated) have been idle for about 20 years. If China wants to resume plutonium production for weapons, in the case where there is a full-blown fuel cycle cooperation with France, the issue is whether China’s calculus would include the option of diverting a French-supplied reprocessing plant to produce weapons plutonium, or diverting technology from that plant to produce weapons plutonium elsewhere. Would China do that? In asking that question over the last nine months, very often the answer I obtained was: “On the surface, based on what we think an advanced nuclear weapon country would do, the answer would be no. But we don’t know the answer in this case because China is a potential adversary, and because of China’s lack of transparency about its nuclear activities and the future of its nuclear program.”

  5. MEC (History)

    Hi All,

    Just an FYI.. The fun guys at China Daily are now reporting on clarifying remarks from CNNC’s annual briefing yesterday, noting that it will take them 10 years to get a fast breeder built before they can begin attempting to operate a MOX cycle.

    No comments on likely size of breeder but I suspect more able folk than me can back into the implicit size required if China were to become self-sufficient given plans for UOX plant growth (40GW by 2020, up from 9GW now)

  6. mark (History)

    MEC, in fact there hasn’t been a lot of clarity about what they want to separate the plutonium in bulk quantities for in the short term. Some pretty senior scientists last year alternatively told me they wanted it for breeders, and that if the breeder program didn’t work out or got delayed, then they’d use it for LWRs. Several experts in foreign breeder programs cautioned that China should take awhile before they go from their 20 MW test breeder to a commemrcial-scale FBR at 800 MW or more (which is what the CIAE-Russian project is about.) Moreover, the plans for the BN-800 call for Russia to supply all the plutonium for the first core of that reactor, perhaps just short of about a ton of plutonium. Why would Russia part with its hard-earned plutonium? Because they have 50 tons or more of it that was separated at RT-1 and has been accumulating for about four decades without being used. That fact alone serves us a lesson about how long it will take any country, even China, to establish a breeder program big enough (expensive enough? safe enough?…) to work off large amounts of plutonium separated in reprocessing plants the size of which CNNC wants to build and set up during this decade.

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