Civilian HEU: China


China is a nuclear weapon state (NWS) party to the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons (NPT), with both military and civil use stocks of highly enriched uranium (HEU). There is very little public information on China's civilian HEU holdings in regard to quantity, security, or production. The Institute for Science and International Security estimates that China has 1 metric ton of civilian HEU, about 240 kg of which is Russian-origin. [1] The government has not declared an official national policy regarding HEU, nor does China declare its HEU stockpiles in its annual plutonium declarations to the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) (INFCIRC/549). China has not declared any HEU as excess to its military needs. [2]

China uses low enriched uranium (LEU) fuels in its naval propulsion reactors and does not require HEU for civil maritime propulsion. [3] There are no reports of China using HEU for space propulsion. The country has been decreasing its dependence on HEU for civil purposes by converting or shutting down many reactors that utilize HEU. [4] In September 2015 China, in cooperation with the United States and the IAEA, successfully discharged and replaced one HEU-fueled core from a Miniature Neutron Reactor Source (MNSR), and replaced it with an LEU core. Its success will serve as a model for future MNSR core conversions. In early 2016 it was announced that the reactor has passed all of its tests and is now running at full power on LEU. [5]

Production, Use, and Commerce

Information on HEU production in China is highly speculative. China is believed to have ended uranium enrichment for nuclear weapons, although this has never been officially announced by Beijing. [6] Albright and Hinderstein report that, based upon unofficial Chinese statements, fissile material production for military use 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." [7]

China may continue to produce HEU for civil uses at the Heping gaseous diffusion plant (the Jinkouhe facility of Plant 814). One report, based upon thermal infrared satellite imagery, noted that the Jinkouhe facility remains hot and therefore possibly operational. However, details on production output or end use remain unclear. [8] The Lanzhou gaseous diffusion plant ceased HEU production in 1979, and since 1980 has produced LEU for civilian power reactors. [9]

China currently has only three reactors that utilize HEU. These include the CEFR Prototype Fast Power reactor, an MNSR Steady State reactor, and a Zero Power Fast Critical Assembly. [10] The China Experimental Fast Reactor (CEFR) had an initial load of Russian-supplied 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 the 1500 MW fast reactors planned for 2030. [11] In 2007, China converted its 125 MWt High-Flux Engineering Test Reactor (HFETR) at the Southwest Reactor Engineering Research and Design Academy in Jiajiang, Sichuan Province. The 5 MWt Min Jiang 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. [12]

China has exported HEU to a number of countries along with the sale of its MNSR reactors. These reactors require approximately 1 kg of HEU enriched to at least 90%, [13] and have been exported along with HEU fuel to Syria, Ghana, Nigeria, Pakistan, and Iran.

Efforts to Reduce or Eliminate Civilian HEU

While previously some Chinese officials had questioned the proliferation relevance of facilities with small amounts of material (reactors that have only about 1 kg of HEU fuel), they have subsequently recognized the importance of civil HEU minimization. [14] This has resulted in both domestic conversion efforts as well as international cooperation with both the United States and the IAEA on civil HEU reduction.

In November 2005, DOE officials announced that the MNSRs in China, as well as the ones that China had sold to other countries, had become part of the U.S. Reduced Enrichment for Research and Test Reactors (RERTR) program. The IAEA is assisting with this program. [15] The overall effort to convert the MNSRs from HEU to LEU fuel made important progress in September 2010. 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 was used to assemble and test LEU cores to replace the HEU cores currently operating in the MNSRs. [16]

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. The group's purpose is to coordinate conversion efforts as well as the repatriation of HEU fuel to China. [17] 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] In 2015, the United States, China, and the IAEA successfully converted a Chinese MNSR as a model for future MNSR conversion efforts. [19] The converted MNSR began operating on LEU at full power in early 2016. [20] China assisted Pakistan in the conversion of the Pakistan Research Reactor (PARR-1), and conversion of Ghana's MNSR reactor is planned in 2016.

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. In early 2016, the China Atomic Energy Authority (CAEA) and the U.S. Department of Energy, with Russian input, built and opened the largest nuclear security center in the region. The nuclear security Center of Excellence (COE) "is a world-class facility for Chinese, regional, and international nuclear security training and technical exchanges." [21] This, along with Beijing's hosting of the 2009 RERTR annual meeting and commitment to helping convert MNSR reactors domestically and abroad are noteworthy steps in the direction of championing shared nonproliferation and nuclear security goals. [22]

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, signed by 35 nations at the 2014 Nuclear Security Summit. The initiative, sponsored by the United States, South Korea, and the Netherlands - aims to implement a set of voluntary guidelines. These guidelines, proposed by the IAEA, are recommendations by which "subscribers" or signatories could strengthen their own nuclear security regimes, including but not limited to the physical protection of HEU.

[1] David Albright and Serena Kelleher- Vergantini, "Civilian HEU Watch: Tracking Inventories of Civil Highly Enriched Uranium," October 7, 2015,
[2] 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,
[3] Hui Zhang, "Evaluating China's MPC&A System," Paper Presented at the INMM 44th Annual Meeting, Phoenix, Arizona, July 13-17, 2003.
[4] 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,
[5] "One of China's MNSR reactors converted to LEU," International Panel on Fissile Materials Blog, March 29, 2016,
[6] Ann MacLachlan, and Mark Hibbs, "China Stops Production of Military Fuel: All SWU Capacity Now for Civil Use," Nuclear Fuel, 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: Chunyan Ma, Frank von Hippel, "Ending the Production of Highly Enriched Uranium for Naval Reactors," The Nonproliferation Review (Spring 2001): 99.
[7] David Albright and Corey Hinderstein, "Chinese Military Plutonium and Highly Enriched Uranium Inventories," The Institute for Science and International Security, June 30, 2005.
[8] Catherine Dill. "The Jinkouhe Gaseous Diffusion Plant Is Hot!" Arms Control Wonk, September 23, 2015,
[9] Hui Zhang, "China's Uranium Enrichment Capacity: Rapid expansion to meet commercial needs," Harvard Kennedy School, Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs, August 2015.
[10] "Reducing the Use of Highly Enriched Uranium in Civilian Research Reactors," Committee on the Current Status of and Progress Toward Eliminating Highly Enriched Uranium Use in Fuel for Civilian Research and Test Reactors, The National Academies Press, January 28, 2016.
[11] 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,; Hui Zhang, "Approaches to Strengthen China's Nuclear Security," Project on Managing the Atom, p. 2,; Hui Zhang, "Rethinking Chinese Policy on Commercial Reprocessing," Project on Managing the Atom, p. 3,; 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.
[12] National Nuclear Security Administration, "GTRI: More Than Four Years of Reducing Nuclear Threats," NNSA Fact Sheet, October 2008,
[13] 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,
[14] CNS interview with China Atomic Energy Agency official, September 29, 2005.
[15] Samuel Anim-Sampong, "Converting Miniature Neutron Source Reactors to LEU," RERTR Program, Minimization of Highly Enriched Uranium in the Civilian Sector- the Way Ahead,
[16] "Argonne, China Sign Agreement to Develop Zero Power Test Facility," Argonne National Laboratory, October 28, 2010,
[17] J. Mormon, "Efforts Made for the Conversion of Ghana's MNSR to LEU," RERTR 2014 -35th Internatinoal Meeting on Reduced Enrichment for Research and Test Reactors, October 2014.
[18] "US-China Agreement Advances Conversion of Small Research Reactors to Low Enriched Uranium Fuel," International Atomic Energy Agency, September 21, 2010,
[19] Brian Waud, "U.S., China, and IAEA Advance International HEU Minimization Efforts," Defense Nuclear Nonproliferation Sentinel, Vol. 1, No. 3,
[20] "One of China's MNSR reactors converted to LEU," International Panel on Fissile Materials Blog, March 29, 2016,
[21] Elizabeth Shim, "Largest nuclear security center in Asia-Pacific opens in China," United Press International (UPI), March 18, 2016.
[22] 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,; "RERTR-2009 International Meeting," Argonne National Laboratory, November 2009,

April 26, 2016
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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.


This material is produced independently for NTI by the James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies at the Middlebury 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. Copyright 2016.