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Civilian HEU: China

  • Construction of China Prototype Fast Reactor Construction of China Prototype Fast Reactor
    www-frdb.iaea.org
  • Miniature Neutron Source Reactor Miniature Neutron Source Reactor
    www.ciae.ac.cn
  • China Experimental Fast Reactor Design China Experimental Fast Reactor Design
    www.ciae.ac.cn
  • China Experimental Fast Reactor China Experimental Fast Reactor
    www.iaea.org

Chinese policymakers have not yet officially declared a national policy regarding highly enriched uranium (HEU). While China, a nuclear weapon state, uses HEU in its weapons program, it has only a few civilian installations that use HEU, and has been converting or shutting down these reactors. Therefore, forgoing the use of HEU in civilian applications would not entail a difficult choice for Beijing.

The China Experimental Fast Reactor (CEFR) had an initial load of HEU fuel. However, Beijing plans to use MOX fuel in subsequent loadings, as well as in its industrial-scale (600 MW) China Prototype Fast Reactor envisioned for 2020, and in future 1500 MW fast reactors envisioned by 2030. [1] China's first experimental fast reactor went into commercial operation in July 2011, according to its chief engineer Xu Mi. [2]

Other recent and planned Chinese research reactors use low-enriched uranium (LEU). China has made progress in phasing out HEU in current reactors. In 2007, Beijing converted its High Flux Engineering Test Reactor (HFETR) and the Minjiang Test Reactor (MJTR) from HEU to LEU fuel, and shut down the Miniature Neutron Source Reactor in Shanghai (MNSR-SH). [3] The HFETR critical assembly, reported as already shut down, was converted in 2007 as well (Note: this likely means the remaining HEU fuel was removed from the critical assembly in 2007).

China has assisted Pakistan in the conversion of the Pakistan Research Reactor (PARR-1), and has been working to develop high density LEU fuels. [4] Beijing has been working with the Global Threat Reduction Initiative (GTRI), the Reduced Enrichment for Research and Test Reactors Program (RERTR), and the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) to convert all seven remaining miniature reactors, including the five that it supplied to foreign countries, and has agreed to take back the HEU fuel used abroad in these reactors. [5]

Overview of Chinese HEU Holdings

There is very little information about China's HEU holdings, domestic or military. China does not declare its HEU stockpiles, and has not classified a specific amount of its HEU as civilian. [6] China has not declared any HEU as excess to its military needs, and has only informally signaled that it would not produce more HEU. [7] Unusually, Beijing uses LEU fuels in its naval propulsion reactors; it does not require HEU for military propulsion. [8] There are no reports of China using HEU for space propulsion.

The International Panel on Fissile Materials estimated that China produced 20 +/- 4 tons of HEU, and currently holds approximately 16 +/- 4 metric tons. [9] In 2005, David Albright and Kimberly Kramer reported that China's holdings equal approximately 1 metric ton of civilian HEU. The latter was enriched in Russia as well as in China. In 2005, Albright and Kramer projected that the country would have 1.5 metric tons of civil HEU, including irradiated fuel, by 2020. Beijing was projected to keep using HEU fuel in some of its existing research reactors and did not appear to have the means to reprocess HEU spent fuel. Therefore, the researchers predicted that the civilian share of China's HEU stockpile would increase. [10] If the current trend of civilian HEU minimization continues, China's total stockpile of fresh HEU should suffice, enabling it to continue to freeze new production. Information on Chinese reactors, production, security of stockpiles, and related issues is not made public, though Beijing has increasingly cooperated with the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE), exchanging information on material protection, control, and accounting (MPC&A) equipment and measures. [11]

HEU Production

China produced its own HEU for military use, but imported some HEU fuel from Russia for civilian use. Since China treats details about a key enrichment plant as secret, information on Chinese enrichment is scarce.

China ended uranium enrichment for nuclear weapons around 1987, although Beijing has never made an official announcement to this effect. [12] Albright and Kramer's chapter on Chinese military inventories notes that unofficial Chinese statements indicate production ended by about 1991. In February 1997, a senior Chinese official "confirmed to the authors that production of fissile material for nuclear weapons in China had ceased." [13]

HEU Commerce

China supplied approximately 200 kg of 20.05% HEU to Brazil in the 1980s. [14] This material has since been blended down to LEU (slightly below 20% U-235). [15]

Chinese exports of Miniature Neutron Source Reactors (MNSR) included sales of HEU fuel. These reactors require approximately 1 kg of HEU enriched to 90% or greater. [16] None appear to have been refueled since their sale. Although the Syrian reactor is due for refueling in the near future, the current situation in Syria makes it unclear whether the reactor will be converted and fueled with LEU at that time. The overall effort to convert the MNSRs sold by China to other countries from HEU to LEU fuel made important progress in September 2010, as an agreement was reached in Beijing between the China Institute of Atomic Energy (CIAE) and the U.S. Argonne National Laboratory (ANL) to cooperatively establish a Zero Power Test Facility (ZPTF) in China. The ZPTF will be used to assemble and test LEU cores to replace the HEU cores currently operating in the MNSRs. [17]

The 2010 agreement in Beijing also included provisions for the establishment of an MNSR Working Group in 2011. This Working Group includes MNSR operators, designers, and stakeholders, and the group's purpose is to coordinate conversion efforts and the repatriation of HEU fuel to China. The scope of the Working Group may expand in the future to include exchange of information and experience in reactor utilization, maintenance, code upgrading, equipment and facility upgrading, training and R&D applications. [18]

Regarding imports, China's pilot fast neutron reactor, the Chinese Experimental Fast Neutron Reactor (CEFR), used an initial fuel load composed of Russian HEU fuel. [19] Russia's Machine Engineering Plant (MSZ) reportedly supplied China with the fuel for the CEFR in 2004. [20] According to a Russian Government Directive of 19 April 1999, plans called for fuel enriched up to 64.4%. Additionally, Russia's Rosatom and China have worked toward a preliminary agreement for a fast neutron reactor in China, possibly a BN-800, though this reactor will likely be fueled with MOX and not HEU fuel. [21] As such, future Chinese fast reactors are expected to use MOX fuel regardless of origin. [22]

Reactor Conversion

In 2007, China converted its HFETR reactor at the Southwest Reactor Engineering Research and Design Academy in Jiajiang, Sichuan Province. The test reactor MJTR employs fuel discharged from the HFETR, and thus will no longer use HEU fuel as soon as all of the older HFETR fuel is discharged. The HFETR critical assembly was also shut down in 2007, as was the MNSR-SH reactor. [23] The CIAE is currently working with RERTR to convert the remaining two MNSRs on Chinese soil to LEU fuel, and other recent and planned Chinese research reactors use LEU. [24]

In November 2005, DOE officials announced that the MNSR in China (four reactors), as well as the ones that China had sold to other countries (one each in Ghana, Iran, Nigeria, Pakistan, and Syria), had become part of the Reduced Enrichment for Research and Test Reactors (RERTR) program; the IAEA is assisting with this program. [25] This was China's first involvement in the (GTRI), following an initial April 2005 meeting at the IAEA on the possible conversion of the MNSRs. [26] Chinese scientists attended a Vienna meeting in April 2006, as well as the 2008 RERTR meeting in Washington (their first RERTR attendance in a decade). Should the Chinese fail to develop an LEU fuel that could be made available to convert the MNSRs outside the country, the RERTR program has a back-up plan of purchasing LEU fuel for the Chinese-built MNSRs from Canada. [27]

While in 2005 some Chinese officials had questioned the proliferation relevance of facilities with small amounts of material (the reactors have only about 1 kg of HEU fuel), they have subsequently recognized the importance of the principle of conversion. [28]

China's gradually increasing involvement in the RERTR program resulted in the China Atomic Energy Authority hosting the program's annual meeting in 2009 in Beijing in cooperation with the U.S. National Nuclear Security Administration's Office of Global Threat Reduction, Argonne National Laboratory, Idaho National Laboratory, and the International Atomic Energy Agency. This was the 31st annual meeting on the subject of the conversion of reactors within the GTRI. [29] Papers released at the meeting showed that China is seriously investigating uranium molybdenum (U-Mo) fuel as a means to facilitate conversion from HEU to LEU. [30]

Policy Issues

China has no national policy related to the civilian use of HEU. The China Atomic Energy Authority (CAEA) is the senior official body dealing with nuclear exports and domestic research reactors. In July 2011, CAEA Chairman Zhang Huazhu told the Japanese press that CAEA would compile a draft of China's first "Atomic Energy Act" by the end of the year, but did not specifically mention a policy vis-à-vis HEU. [31] As of January 2014, the then-eleven-year-old Radioactive Pollution Prevention Act was the only law in place to govern nuclear facilities and materials; the Chinese government continues preparation of the Atomic Energy Act, which is now in its sixth revision, but it is still uncertain when the act will finally be adopted. [32]

The agency, for its part, does not appear to oppose the elimination of the civilian use of HEU. China does not use much HEU, and it has not declared any plans for future exports. China's justification for developing fast reactors is its insufficient uranium supply; therefore Beijing plans to focus on the use of MOX, not HEU, in the future.

In 1994 China and the United States issued a joint statement on stopping the production of fissile materials for nuclear weapons, agreeing to "work together to promote the earliest possible achievement of a multilateral, non-discriminatory, internationally and effectively verifiable convention banning the production of fissile materials for nuclear weapons or other nuclear explosive devices." [33] This commitment was reaffirmed in a 1997 joint statement by the two nations. [34] However, China has never officially announced a moratorium on HEU production. [35]

Beijing is a strong supporter of a Fissile Material Cut-off Treaty (FMCT), and has voted in favor of the resolution on an FMCT at each session of the General Assembly. However, it has linked negotiations of the FMCT to negotiations on the Prevention of an Arms Race in Outer Space (PAROS) treaty, with which the United States does not agree. This is one reason for the stalemate in FMCT negotiations, and also explains Beijing's reticence to officially renounce further HEU production. For example, Ambassador Wu Haitao, speaking as the Permanent Representative of China to the Conference on Disarmament, declared in May 2012 that, in order to create a "favorable environment for the start of negotiation on FMCT," "due importance" should be attached to "promote the work of all agenda items in a comprehensive manner," which were "all of great importance." This list of items was composed of "four core issues," two of which were explicitly the FMCT and PAROS negotiations. [36]

Regarding security issues, such as the theft of fissile material and the protection of sites with fissile material against attacks and sabotage attempts, China acceded to the Convention on the Physical Protection of Nuclear Material in 1989. [37] However, there is no open-source information on its implementation of the convention's security recommendations. [38] The Nuclear Threat Initiative's Nuclear Materials Security Index's overall ranking for China in 2012 was 52 out of 100, where 100 was a perfect nuclear materials security score. To place this ranking in context alongside some of the 32 states with weapons-useable nuclear materials, China scored below the United Kingdom (79), the United States (78), France (73), Russia (65), and Israel (56), amongst others, and above India (49), Pakistan (41), and North Korea (37), amongst others. [39] Researchers noted the large quantities of materials, as well as significant uncertainties regarding transit security between sites in China. They also highlighted "societal factors," such as corruption, which made nuclear material theft more likely. They emphasized that China's secrecy on material security arrangements hampered their appraisal of the latter's nuclear materials security conditions. [40]

China's statements at the 2012 and 2014 Nuclear Security Summits clearly demonstrate the importance Beijing places on its role as a supporter of nonproliferation and nuclear security worldwide. As such, China could decide to adopt a significant role in an international civilian HEU ban. Some encouraging signs already exist, such as a 2011 agreement between the CAEA and the U.S. DOE to establish a "Center of Excellence" in China to promote nuclear security and safeguards. This, coupled with Beijing's hosting of the 2009 RERTR annual meeting and its 2010 commitment to help Ghana convert its research reactor to LEU, are noteworthy steps in the direction of championing shared nonproliferation and nuclear security goals. [41] Despite these positive steps, some experts have expressed concern that China was absent from the joint statement, known as the Strengthening Nuclear Security Implementation Initiative, which was signed by 35 nations at the 2014 Nuclear Security Summit. The initiative, sponsored by the three hosts of the nuclear security summits - the United States, South Korea, and the Netherlands – aims to implement a set of voluntary guidelines, proposed by the IAEA, by which "subscribers" or signatories can strengthen their own nuclear security regimes, including but not limited to the physical protection of HEU. Regardless of speculation on this issue, it is important to highlight President Xi JinPing's statement, and the positive hint he made concerning issuing an invitation to the IAEA's International Physical Protection Advisory Service to visit China. [42] 

Sources: 
[1] Mark Hibbs, "Chinese Breeder Reactor Criticality Delayed until 2008," Nucleonics Week, August 18, 2005; "Chinese Fast Reactor Nears Commissioning," World Nuclear News, April 7, 2009, www.world-nuclear-news.org; Hui Zhang, "Approaches to Strengthen China's Nuclear Security," Project on Managing the Atom, p. 2, http://belfercenter.hks.harvard.edu.
Hui Zhang, "Rethinking Chinese Policy on Commercial Reprocessing," Project on Managing the Atom, p. 3, http://belfercenter.ksg.harvard.edu; Chen Huang, Baoyu Xu, Xian Xu, Peisheng Zhang, Bangyue Yin, "Fuel Development Status for Fast Reactor in China and Irradiation Test Plan on CEFR," presented at IPPE, Obninsk, Russia, May 30 - June 3, 2011, p. 7.
[2] Cheng Yingqi, "Fast Reactor Will Soon Supply Power," China Daily, March 24, 2011, http://usa.chinadaily.com.cn; "Chinese Fast Reactor Starts Supplying Electricity," World Nuclear News, July 21, 2011, www.world-nuclear-news.org; International Atomic Energy Agency, "Support for Innovative Fast Reactor Technology Development and Deployment," October 14, 2013, www.iaea.org; China Institute of Atomic Energy, "中国实验快堆 (China Experimental Fast Reactor)," accessed October 28, 2013, www.ciae.ac.cn.
[3] Gu Jianfeng, "The Nuclear Safety Regulation on Research Reactors in China," paper submitted to the First Technical Meeting of Research Reactor Decommissioning Demonstration Project, March 26-30, 2006, Manila, Philippines, www-ns.iaea.org; National Nuclear Security Administration, "GTRI: More Than Four Years of Reducing Nuclear Threats," NNSA Fact Sheet, October 2008, http://permanent.access.gpo.gov.
[4] The China Advanced Research Reactor, currently under construction, will use 19.75% dispersion fuel with a density of 4.3g/cm3. This fuel is being developed by the Southwest Reactor Engineering Research and Design Academy. Changgeng Yin, "Development of Fuel Element for Research Reactor in Nuclear Power Institute of China," Atomic Energy Science and Technology, Vol. 39 (July 2005).
[5] Zheng Lu, et al., "The Feasible Research on Developing Application of Miniature Neutron Source Reactor Loaded Low-Enrichment Fuel,"Atomic Energy Science and Technology, Vol. 37 (March 2003); Shin-Yao (Sandra) Feng, "China: Reactors and Nuclear Propulsion," Nuclear Terrorism and Global Security: The Challenge of Phasing Out Highly Enriched Uranium, ed. Alan J. Kuperman (Abingdon: Routledge, 2013), 103.
[6] International Panel on Fissile Materials, "Global Fissile Material Report 2013: Increasing Transparency of Nuclear-warhead and Fissile-material Stocks as a Step toward Disarmament," Seventh Annual Report, October 2013, p. 13, http://fissilematerials.org.
[7] International Panel on Fissile Materials, "Increasing Transparency of Nuclear-warhead and Fissile-material Stocks as a Step toward Disarmament," April 24, 2013, pp. 3, 13, http://fissilematerials.org.
[8] Hui Zhang, "Evaluating China's MPC&A System," Paper Presented at the INMM 44th Annual Meeting, Phoenix, Arizona, July 13-17, 2003.
[9] Chunyan Ma, Frank von Hippel, "Ending the Production of Highly Enriched Uranium for Naval Reactors," The Nonproliferation Review (Spring 2001): 89, 91, 93.
[10] International Panel on Fissile Materials, "Global Fissile Material Report 2013: Increasing Transparency of Nuclear-warhead and Fissile-material Stocks as a Step toward Disarmament," Seventh Annual Report, October 2013, pp. 11, 13, http://fissilematerials.org; The 2013 estimate presented above matches the detailed 2010 IPFM report estimates. International Panel on Fissile Materials, "Global Fissile Material Report 2010, Balancing the Books: Production and Stocks," December 17, 2010, http://fissilematerials.org.
[11] David Albright and Kimberly Kramer, "Civil HEU Watch: Tracking Inventories of Civil Highly Enriched Uranium," Institute for Science and International Security, February 2005, revised August 2005, p. 8, 11, http://isis-online.org.
[12] Ann MacLachlan, and Mark Hibbs, "China Stops Production of Military Fuel: All SWU Capacity Now for Civil Use," NuclearFuel, November 13, 1989. The 1987 data is from a personal communication to one of the authors of the Albright report from Hibbs, who was told in turn by the head of the China Nuclear Energy Industry Corporation. It is also cited in note 22 of:
Chunyan Ma, Frank von Hippel, "Ending the Production of Highly Enriched Uranium for Naval Reactors," The Nonproliferation Review (Spring 2001): 99.
[13] David Albright and Kimberly Kramer, "Separated Civil Plutonium Inventories: Current Status and Future Directions," June 10, 2005, revised July 8, 2005, http://isis-online.org.
[14] David Albright and Kimberly Kramer, "Separated Civil Plutonium Inventories: Current Status and Future Directions," June 10, 2005, revised July 8, 2005, http://isis-online.org.
[15] David Albright and Kimberly Kramer, "Civil HEU Watch: Tracking Inventories of Civil Highly Enriched Uranium," Institute for Science and International Security, February 2005, revised August 2005, http://isis-online.org.
[16] International Atomic Energy Agency, "CRP on Conversion of Miniature Neutron Source Research Reactors (MNSR) to Low Enriched Uranium (LEU)," IAEA Research Reactor Section, July 27, 2011, www.iaea.org.
[17] "Argonne, China Sign Agreement to Develop Zero Power Test Facility," Argonne National Laboratory, October 28, 2010, www.ne.anl.gov.
[18] "US-China Agreement Advances Conversion of Small Research Reactors to Low Enriched Uranium Fuel," International Atomic Energy Agency, September 21, 2010, www.iaea.org.
[19] David Albright and Kimberly Kramer, "Separated Civil Plutonium Inventories: Current Status and Future Directions," June 10, 2005, revised July 8, 2005, p. 6, http://isis-online.org; Hui Zhang, "Approaches to Strengthen China's Nuclear Security," Project on Managing the Atom, p. 2, http://belfercenter.hks.harvard.edu; Hui Zhang, "Rethinking Chinese Policy on Commercial Reprocessing," Project on Managing the Atom, p. 3, http://belfercenter.ksg.harvard.edu; Chen Huang, Baoyu Xu, Xian Xu, Peisheng Zhang, Bangyue Yin, "Fuel Development Status for Fast Reactor in China and Irradiation Test Plan on CEFR," presented at IPPE, Obninsk, Russia, May 30 - June 3, 2011, p. 7.
[20] "Produktsiya yaderno toplivnogo tsikla [Production for Nuclear Fuel Cycle]," Elemash, November 2008, www.elemash.ru.
[21] "Russia, China Ink Deal on Nuclear Power Plant, Plan more Deals," ITAR-TASS, 27 September 2010; Mark Hibbs, "Sino-Russian Fuel Cycle Cooperation Poised to Move Beyond Enrichment," Platts Nuclear Fuel, May 29, 2009.
[22] Mark Hibbs, "Chinese Breeder Reactor Criticality Delayed until 2008," Nucleonics Week, August 18, 2005.
[23] National Nuclear Security Administration, "GTRI: More Than Four Years of Reducing Nuclear Threats," NNSA Fact Sheet, October 2008, http://permanent.access.gpo.gov.
[24] Shin-Yao (Sandra) Feng, "China: Reactors and Nuclear Propulsion," Nuclear Terrorism and Global Security: The Challenge of Phasing Out Highly Enriched Uranium, ed. Alan J. Kuperman (Abingdon: Routledge, 2013), 103.
[25] Samuel Anim-Sampong, "Converting Miniature Neutron Source Reactors to LEU," RERTR Program, Minimisation of Highly Enriched Uranium in the Civilian Sector- the Way Ahead, www.7ni.mfa.no.
[26] "RERTR program adds MNSRs to reactor list," NuclearFuel, Vol. 30, No. 25, December 5, 2005, pp. 1, 13.
[27] CNS interview with IAEA official, October 2006.
[28] CNS interview with China Atomic Energy Agency official, September 29, 2005.
[29] "RERTR-2009 International Meeting," Argonne National Laboratory, November 2009, www.rertr.anl.gov.
[30] "The research status of U-Mo alloy fuel in NPIC," RERTR 2009: 31st International Meeting on Reduced Enrichment for Research and Test Reactors, November 2009, www.rertr.anl.gov.
[31] "China Moving toward Establishing its First Law on Nuclear Power," The Denki Shimbun (English edition), July 8, 2011, www.shimbun.denki.or.jp.
[32] Hui Zhang and Tuosheng Zhang, Securing China's Nuclear Future (Cambridge, Mass.: The Project on Managing the Atom, Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs, Harvard University, March 2014.) pp 31-35. Older articles discussing the need for such an act include:
Wu Wencong, "Nuclear Plants see Powerful Growth," China Daily USA, September 26, 2013, http://usa.chinadaily.com.cn; "Experts Call for Nuclear Safety Law Enactment," Xinhua, March 6, 2013, http://news.xinhuanet.com; and Hui Zhang, Shangui Zhao, "China Moves Cautiously Ahead on Nuclear Energy," Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, April 22, 2013, http://thebulletin.org.
[33] "Joint United States-People's Republic of China Statement on Missile Proliferation/Stopping the Production of Fissile Materials for Nuclear Weapons," October 4, 1994.
[34] "Joint U.S.-China Statement," Embassy of the People's Republic of China in the United States of America, October 29, 1997, www.china-embassy.org.
[35] International Panel on Fissile Materials, "Increasing Transparency of Nuclear-warhead and Fissile-material Stocks as a Step toward Disarmament," April 24, 2013, pp. 3, 13, http://fissilematerials.org.
[36] H. E. Ambassador Wu Haito, Permanent Representative of China to the Conference on Disarmament on FMCT, "Statement by H.E. Ambassador Wu Haito, Permanent Representative of China to the Conference on Disarmament, on FMCT," Geneva, Switzerland, May 31, 2012, www.china-un.ch.
[37] International Atomic Energy Agency, "International Conventions and Legal Agreements: Convention on the Physical Protection of Nuclear Material," www.iaea.org; International Atomic Energy Agency, "Convention on the Physical Protection of Nuclear Material," December 17, 2013, p. 1, www.iaea.org.
[38] For information on Chinese physical protection requirements, see: Nathan Busch, "China's Fissile Material Protection, Control, and Accounting: The Case for Renewed Collaboration," The Nonproliferation Review, Fall-Winter 2002, pp. 89-106.
[39] Nuclear Threat Initiative, index developed with Economist Intelligence Unit, "NTI Nuclear Materials Security Index, Building a Framework for Assurance, Accountability, and Action," January 2012, pp. 11, 14-15, www.nti.org.
[40] Nuclear Threat Initiative, index developed with Economist Intelligence Unit, "NTI Nuclear Materials Security Index, Building a Framework for Assurance, Accountability, and Action," January 2012, pp. 28-29, 33, 91, and fn. 17 on p. 28, www.nti.org.
[41] U.S. National Nuclear Security Administration, "Press Release: U.S., China Sign Agreement to Establish Center of Excellence on Nuclear Security," NNSA Press Release, January 19, 2011, http://nnsa.energy.gov; "RERTR-2009 International Meeting," Argonne National Laboratory, November 2009, www.rertr.anl.gov.
[42] Xi Jinping, President of the People's Republic, Statement at 2014 Nuclear Security Summit, The Hague, Netherlands, March 24, 2014.

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This material is produced independently for NTI by the James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies at the Monterey Institute of International Studies and does not necessarily reflect the opinions of and has not been independently verified by NTI or its directors, officers, employees, or agents.

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The article is part of a collection examining civilian HEU reduction and elimination efforts. It details current Chinese HEU policies, progress reducing and eliminating the civil use of HEU in China, and remaining challenges.

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