Jeffrey LewisChina Exports SWU

Did you know that China occasionally exports enrichment services?

I didn’t.  But, sure enough, they do from time to time.

Apparently China used to export enrichment services to the United States, but those exports stopped in 2007.  They began again last year.  Here is a chart created from data released by the Energy Information Administration in 2010 and 2012.

Purchases of enrichment services by owners and operators of U.S. civilian nuclear power reactors by origin country and year, 2007-2011 
Thousand separative work units (SWU)
Country of Enrichment Service (SWU-origin) 2005 2006 2007 2008 2009 2010 2011
China W W 0 0 0 0 W
France 1,830 2,154 613 556 895 W W
Germany 583 818 681 468 1,059 681 1,539
Netherlands 581 960 1,703 1,038 1,345 2,292 1,506
Russia 5,059 4,724 6,176 4,793 5,478 5,055 5,308
United Kingdom 1,379 2,000 1,939 2,195 2,940 2,119 2,813
Europe1 W W W W W W 670
Other 2 W W W W W W 0
Foreign Total 10,343 11,808 12,729 10,709 13,115 11,526 12,395
United States 1,052 1,630 1,473 1,890 4,102 2,251 2,434
Total 11,394 13,437 14,202 12,599 17,217 13,776 14,829
Average Price (US$ per SWU) 106.57 114.58 121.33 130.78 136.14 136.12

The “W” is for “withheld”– “W = Data withheld to avoid disclosure of individual company data.”

As it turns out, however, the data is recoverable.  The Convention on the Physical Protection of Nuclear Materials requires that states party make “prior arrangements …specifying time, place and procedures for transferring transport responsibility.”  In the United States, that means a declaration to the NRC, which looks like this.

Westinghouse imported 118 tons of UF6 enriched to ~5 percent in May and November 2011.

If that is the whole shipment, then that should work out to something like 580 tons of Seperative Work Units (SWU) — a surprisingly large order.  (Someone should check my math! I am notoriously unreliable when it comes to arithmetic.  And I used the handy new URENCO SWU Ap on my iPhone.  So ….)

There are two interesting things about this import.

First, the China Nuclear Energy Industry Corp (CNEIC) needs to get better at packaging UF6 for transport.  The NRC’s ADAM database contains a number of documents detailing the violations that occurred with the shipments.   (Recommended search string: CNEIC UF6 Westinghouse) Generally speaking, the problems related to the valves, although some of the cylinders were not properly marked.

Second, URENCO and other enrichers have to be terrified that this is a sign of things to come.  Although much of the uranium trade is based on long-term contracts (rather than spot sales), over time China might very well muscle into this business with the indigenous centrifuge plant it has constructed at Lanzhou.  I wouldn’t be surprised to see words like “dumping” get thrown around in the next decade or so.


  1. krepon (History)

    Hasn’t China provided fuel for Tarapur, as well?

    • RAJ47 (History)

      This is called rumour mongering.
      Et tu MK?
      And now Liang Guanglie is in New Delhi to sign a missile technology transfer pact. Right?
      Are you all finding Nirupama Rao difficult to handle?

    • Steve (History)

      After the U.S. stopped supplying uranium to Tarapur in the late 1970s, India received LEU for that reactor from France (~1982-1993), from China (starting in January 1995), and from Russia (2001-2004 and resuming in 2006).

      (for the China deal, there are several articles from Jan. 1995 in lexisnexis under the search terms “china tarapur uranium”)

    • RAJ47 (History)

      Hard proof please.
      I think Tarapur is under IAEA safeguards.
      It should not be a big problem for either you or MK.

    • Jeffrey (History)

      You’re being a too brusque. It is a well-established fact that China sold LEU to India for Tarapur. You have every right to ask for evidence, but you’re acting as though this is some controversial, new claim that Steven and Michael must document. It’s common knowledge.

      Yes, the material is under safeguards. In fact, India had to modify its safeguards agreement to permit the import. The document is online, although the IAEA merely states that the material is being transferred from “another party.” See: INFCIRC/433/Mod.1 <<>>

      If you had bothered to look at the stories to which Steven suggested, you would have noticed that the announcement came directly from the Indian Department of Atomic Energy itself, which took a beating for the import. There is a press release, which you can dig up yourself, and an interview with a DAE official (below) defending the arrangement.

      Agence France Presse — English

      January 10, 1995 08:22 Eastern Time

      India defends purchase of enriched uranium from China

      SECTION: International news

      LENGTH: 400 words


      An Indian scientist defended Tuesday the purchase of enriched uranium from China for the Tarapur nuclear power plant saying local fuel did not conform to International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) safeguards.

      A.N. Prasad, director of an atomic research centre in Bombay, told the Press Trust of India that importing fuel which met with IAEA standards was necessary due to a pact signed between the IAEA and the US-built Tarapur power station.

      “The voluntary October 1993 agreement was a confidence-building measure in which it was made clear that Tarapur could only use American, French or any other safeguarded fuel,” he said.

      “The choice of Chinese fuel was made after a careful study,” Prasad, said, adding that it was cheaper than Indian enriched uranium.

      “We are only buying the raw material from China (and) the rest of the processing is being done (in India),” said Prasad, director of the Bhabha Atomic Research Centre in Bombay

      The first consignment of Chinese fuel for the twin reactors at Tarapur, located near Bombay, arrived at India’s Nuclear Fuel Complex in the southern city of Hyderabad on January 5.

      The Tarapur reactors, built in 1969 by General Electric, had initially received fuel from the United States and later France. The French contract to sell enriched uranium to Tarapur expired in October 1993 and was not renewed.

      Atomic energy accounts for nearly three percent of India’s power generation.

      India exploded a atomic device in 1974 but says its nuclear programme is solely for peaceful purposes.

      It has refused to sign the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty arguing that it discriminates between the nuclear haves and have-nots.


      BBC Summary of World Broadcasts

      January 7, 1995, Saturday

      China supplies first batch of “low enriched” uranium for Tarapur nuclear plant

      SOURCE: All-India Radio, New Delhi, in English 1230 gmt 5 Jan 95

      SECTION: Part 3 Asia – Pacific; SOUTH ASIA; INDIA; FE/2195/A

      LENGTH: 85 words

      Text of report

      China has supplied the first consignment of low enriched uranium for the Tarapur power station.

      The supply was made under the commercial contract concluded between the Department of Atomic Energy and China Nuclear Energy Industry Corporation.

      An official release in New Delhi says the consignment will be converted to fuel assemblies for the power station by the Nuclear Fuel Complex in Hyderabad. The Tarapur plant will be operated with low enriched uranium and mixed oxide fuel.


    • RAJ47 (History)

      And within two years the Defence Minister claimed China is India’s “Enemy Number 1”.
      Hats off to Indian diplomacy.
      I would prefer to believe IAEA than some BBC or La Monde correspondent.

  2. Cthippo (History)

    UF6 is, basically, a fungible commodity, and hence anyone with the capability to enrich can sell it. Why not China.

    As for URENCO’s concerns, I wonder how much of the cost of enrichment is in labor costs, which is where China’s primary advantage lies. Seems like the capital costs of the plant and market factors would be more important than labor costs.

    • rwendland (History)

      I suspect, as for nuclear power plants, the dominant cost factor for a new enrichment plant is cost-of-capital. I believe private financiers in the west are looking for around a 12% return (including the risk premium) for nuclear power finance, and I’d guess it would be similar for a new enrichment plant. I suspect large Chinese companies can get capital very much more cheaply from the state-backed chinese banks – where essentially the state is carrying much of the risk.

      So, if there is a global need for expansion or replacement of enrichment capacity, new plant would have lower costs in China unless the western companies can tap into cheaper military/govt finance somehow. But as the western “nuclear renaissance” looks utterly stalled, it doesn’t seem obvious we need much new enrichment capacity – does anyone have a pointer to a paper estimating the lifetimes of existing enrichment plant globally?

  3. Steve (History)

    CNEIC has been supplying LEU since the early 1980s:

    From China Today: “Starting in 1981, Chinese low-concentration uranium products entered international markets and the quality of the products was well received.”

    The buyers? Could be Argentina and South Africa:

  4. Jon (History)

    Yes, UF6 is a fungible commodity. However, since Westinghouse will be supplying the first core loads for the AP1000s they are currently building in China, it would seem economically advantageous for the Chinese to supply their own UF6. 118 tons of 5% enriched UF6 would equate to 79.8 tons of 5% enriched U. About right for a 1000MW core?

  5. Miles Pomper (History)

    Capital costs are by far the dominant costs in enrichment plants–roughly two-thirds of the cost– according to Geoffrey Rothwell’s 2009 Market Power in Uranium Enrichment analysis in Science and Global Security which is the best out there. Labor, electricity, and materials split the rest.

    Rothwell also noted that China had about a 1-2 percent of the US market from 1995-2008.

    It is not clear what would account for the recent upswing in China’s market share but in a purely free market I doubt the Chinese could compete with the Russians who have cheap finance, efficient technology, etc. However, the Russians are currently limited by the terms of the megatons-megawatts agreement….

    • Jeffrey (History)

      The Russians believed that they could maintain a technological lead over the Chinese while selling them centrifuges that were one generation behind. I wonder about the wisdom of the decision.

    • rwendland (History)

      Thanks for link to that interesting paper.

      Rothwell is only using 5% as the cost of capital in his model (see table A.3), that implies cost-of-capital is about 66% of levelized SWU cost. If new western plant had to use private sector capital at a more plausible cost-of-capital in the 10% to 12% region, cost-of-capital would likely be around 80% to 90% of levelized SWU cost.

      NB Amused that some of Urenco (Capenhurst) centrifuges had been running non-stop since 1982 (as at 2005), and “If machines are stopped, risk is they will not start again”! (pdf page 12)