Fact Sheet

China Nuclear Facilities

China Nuclear Facilities

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China possesses a comprehensive nuclear infrastructure for both military and civilian purposes, including enrichment and reprocessing capabilities. China initially constructed its military nuclear facilities with Soviet assistance, but after withdrawing in 1959, completed them independently. In the late 1960s China constructed numerous military nuclear facilities as a part of its “Third Line” policy of duplicating essential military infrastructure. Beginning in the late 1980s, China initiated a policy of “military to civilian” conversion of industries, including nuclear energy, and has established many nuclear corporations for civilian nuclear energy programs. China currently has 17 nuclear power reactors in operation and 28 under construction, in addition to 15 operational research reactors. [1]

Relevant Individuals and Institutions

The Chairman of the Central Military Commission (CMC) is the ultimate authority with regards to China’s nuclear weapons, and the management of relevant facilities. [2] The CMC has delegated authority over the Chinese military’s nuclear facilities to the General Armaments Department (GAD) under the People’s Liberation Army, which oversees the China Academy of Engineering Physics (CAEP). CAEP is responsible for most of the research, development, testing and production of China’s nuclear weapons. [3]

China’s civilian nuclear energy policy is opaque and lacks a centralized government agency. This ambiguity is rooted in the transition from military to civilian programs, as well as constant economic and institutional reforms. [4] Originally the Second Ministry of Machine-Building headed the nuclear industry, with a primary focus on developing China’s first nuclear weapons. [5] In 1982 this ministry was renamed the Ministry of Nuclear Industry (MNI), arguably to reflect increased efforts in the civilian nuclear program. [6] In 1988 the People’s Congress dissolved the MNI and created the ;China National Nuclear Corporation (CNNC), which controls most nuclear sector business, including research and development, design, uranium exploration and mining, enrichment, fuel fabrication, reprocessing and waste disposal. [7]

Though opaque and constantly changing, it appears that the China Atomic Energy Authority (CAEA), under the Ministry of Industry and Information Technology (MIIT) has most regulatory authority, and the National Nuclear Safety Association (NNSA) issues licenses and grants technical approvals. [8]

Funding for Nuclear Programs

Initially, China’s crash program for military nuclear capability relied on foreign assistance, primarily from the Soviet Union, and a drastic increase in domestic expenditures. That assistance included training as well as equipment and materials for production. Chinese scientists studied in the United States, United Kingdom, Soviet Union and France, and received a cyclotron from France and USSR, fissile material from France, and a chemical reaction chamber from Germany. [9] In exchange for Soviet assistance, China provided “necessary raw materials” for Soviet strategic programs, and sold surplus mined uranium. The PRC simultaneously increased funds for science from $15 million in 1955 to $100 million in 1956, and the Chinese Academy of Sciences received three times more funding in 1957 than in 1953. [10]

During the “Third Line Policy” of duplicating critical infrastructure, one fifth of expenditures, or 28 billion Yuan (1965-1980) went to defense purposes. [11] This budget included nuclear facilities constructed in Sichuan Province, such as the Heping Uranium Enrichment Plant, the Yibin Nuclear Fuel Component Plant, and the Guangyuan Facility (Plant 821).

In 1988 China established the China National Nuclear Corporation (CNNC) — a corporate entity — as part of a broader effort to decrease the nuclear industry’s dependency on the government for financial support. [12] Even after corporatization of nuclear energy began, CNNC was seen as a part of the military-defense industry, and nuclear power was not a profitable venture until 2003. [13]

From 2003 to present there has been a surge in demand for nuclear power reactors, making nuclear energy more profitable and open to joint ventures. Nuclear power plants have become a large sources of revenue for local governments, further stimulating demand. The unfinished Taohuajiang nuclear power plant in Hunan Province is expected to bring at least 2 billion RMB in annual tax revenue to the local county, five times the total collected in 2010. [14] After the Fukushima crisis in Japan, then-Premier Wen Jiabao announced a moratorium on the construction of planned nuclear reactors. [15] However, as of October 2012, China ended the suspension, stating that new plants will “comply with the highest international safety standards,” and designs will all be Gen III or later. [16]

China’s Past, Present and Planned Nuclear Facilities

Soviet assistance was critical in the early stages of China’s nuclear facility construction. Between 1955 and 1958 the two nations signed six accords on the development of China’s nuclear science, industry, and weapons program. In these accords, Soviet assistance included the supply of a nuclear reactor, cyclotron, aid in building China’s nuclear industries and research facilities, and a prototype atomic bomb. [17] The Sino-Soviet Split prevented the transfer of a prototype weapon, and the Chinese had to independently finish the construction of the gaseous diffusion plant at Lanzhou, Jiuquan’s plutonium-producing reactor and plutonium-processing plant, and the Baotou Nuclear Fuel Component Plant. [18] China duplicated these facilities in its Third Line Policy with the construction of the Heping Uranium Enrichment Plant, Guangyuan facility (Plant 821), and the Yibin Nuclear Fuel Factory.

Highly enriched uranium (HEU) production was based primarily in the Lanzhou and Heping gaseous diffusion plants. Both facilities stopped HEU production in 1979 and 1987 respectively. China’s current inventory of HEU for weapons is estimated to total 16 ± 4 tons. [19] China has produced plutonium for weapons at two sites, the Jiuquan Atomic Energy Complex and Guangyuan plutonium production complex. China’s current inventory of weapon-grade plutonium is estimated to total 1.8 ± 0.5 tons. [20] Many HEU research reactors in China are being converted to low enriched uranium (LEU) or shut down. In 2007 the Nuclear Power Institute of China converted its high flux engineering test reactor (HFETR) as well as the HFETR Critical Assembly from HEU to LEU. China shut down the MNSR-SH at the Shanghai Testing and Research Institute in March 2007, and confirmed the shutdown of the MNSR-Shandong reactor in December 2010. [21]

For its civilian nuclear sector China is actively indigenizing foreign technology and investing heavily in new technologies. The State Nuclear Power Technology Corporation (SNPTC), directly under the State Council, managed foreign bidding processes for new nuclear power plants to be deployed SNPTC selected the Westinghouse AP1000, a Generation III technology reactor. In exchange, Westinghouse is assisting in the development of Chinese designs, and eventually may transfer intellectual property rights. [22] Independently China is investing in the development of Generation IV technologies, such as the pebble-bed high temperature gas-cooled reactor (HTGR). [23]

China is exploring options for reprocessing spent nuclear fuel to close the fuel cycle, in particular at the 404 Reprocessing Plant in Gansu Province. On 3 January 2011, state media hailed a “breakthrough” of mastering reprocessing technology. [24] The process poses proliferation concerns of plutonium being extracted, and cost and feasibility problems may hinder the commercialization of reprocessing technology. [25]

[1] “Nuclear Power in China,” World Nuclear Association, June 2013, www.world-nuclear.org; “Research Reactor Database (RRDB),” IAEA, http://nucleus.iaea.org/RRDB.
[2] Stephan Polk, “China’s Nuclear Command and Control,” Air Power Journal, Vol. 2 No. 4, Winter 2005, p.11, www.aerospaceindia.org.
[3] “Nuclear R&D Organizations in Nine Nations,” Congressional Research Service, 28 February 2011, p. 3.
[4] Xu Yi-chong, The Politics of Nuclear Energy in China (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2010), p. 68.
[5] John W. Lewis and Xue Litai, China Builds the Bomb (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1988), pp. 54-59.
[6] Xu Yi-chong, The Politics of Nuclear Energy in China (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2010), p. 68.
[7] “集团介绍 [Introduction to the Corporation],” China National Nuclear Corporation, www.cnnc.com.cn; “Government Structure and Ownership, Nuclear Power in China Appendix 1,” World Nuclear Association, July 2011, www.world-nuclear.org.
[8] Xu Yi-chong, The Politics of Nuclear Energy in China (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2010), p. 91.
[9] Qian Sanqiang, “钱三强科普著作选集 [Qian Sanqiang: Selection of Writings on Popular Science],” (Shanghai: Shanghai Education Publishing House, 1988).
[10] John W. Lewis and Xue Litai, China Builds the Bomb (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1988), pp. 41-43.
[11] John W. Lewis and Xue Litai, China’s Strategic Seapower: The Politics of Force Modernization in the Nuclear Age (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1994), pp. 91-94.
[12] Evan Medeiros, Reluctant Restraint: The Evolution of China’s Nonproliferation Policies and Practices, 1980-2004 (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2007), p. 76.
[13] Xu Yi-chong, The Politics of Nuclear Energy in China (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2010), p. 75.
[14] Liu Linlin, “China Set to Power on with Massive Nuclear Plants,” People’s Daily Online, 31 March 2011, http://english.peopledaily.com.cn.
[15] “国务院:全面检查核电站不符安全标准立即停建 [State Council: Comprehensive Inspection of Nuclear Power Plants, Those Inconsistent with Safety Standards Will Immediately Be Shut Down],” Nanfang Daily (China), 16 March 2011, www.infzm.com.
[16] “China to Resume Construction of Nuclear Plants,” China Daily, 25 October 2012, www.chinadaily.com.us; “China to Approve New Nuclear Plants, Ending Moratorium after Fukushima,” The Guardian, 25 October 2012, www.guardian.co.uk.
[17] John W. Lewis and Xue Litai, China Builds the Bomb (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1988), p. 41.
[18] John W. Lewis and Xue Litai, China Builds the Bomb (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1988), p. 97-98, 107.
[19] “Fissile Material Stocks,” International Panel on Fissile Materials, January 2013, www.fissilematerials.org.
[20] “Fissile Material Stocks,” International Panel on Fissile Materials, January 2013, www.fissilematerials.org.
[21] “GTRI: Reducing Nuclear Threats,” National Nuclear Security Administration, 1 February 2011, http://nnsa.energy.gov.
[22] “Nuclear Power in China,” World Nuclear Association, 22 September 2011, www.world-nuclear.org.
[23] Keith Bradsher, “A Radical Kind of Reactor,” The New York Times, 24 March 2011, www.nytimes.com.
[24] “24年科技攻关 [24 Year Technological Breakthrough],” CCTV, 3 January 2011, via: www.youtube.com.
[25] Mark Hibbs, “China Peeps About Plutonium,” Arms Control Wonk, 11 January 2011, http://hibbs.armscontrolwonk.com; Frank Von Hippel, “Plutonium, Nonproliferation, and Radioactive Waste Politics in East Asia,” presentation for the Carnegie-Tsinghua Center for Global Policy, Beijing, China, 1 November 2010, http://carnegieendowment.org.

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Enriched uranium
Enriched uranium: Uranium with an increased concentration of the isotope U-235, relative to natural uranium. Natural uranium contains 0.7 percent U-235, whereas nuclear weapons typically require uranium enriched to very high levels (see the definitions for “highly enriched uranium” and “weapons-grade”). Nuclear power plant fuel typically uses uranium enriched to 3 to 5 percent U-235, material that is not sufficiently enriched to be used for nuclear weapons.
Reprocessing: The chemical treatment of spent nuclear fuel to separate the remaining usable plutonium and uranium for re-fabrication into fuel, or alternatively, to extract the plutonium for use in nuclear weapons.
Nuclear energy
Nuclear energy: The energy liberated by a nuclear reaction (fission or fusion), or by radioactive decay.
Uranium is a metal with the atomic number 92. See entries for enriched uranium, low enriched uranium, and highly enriched uranium.
Nuclear power plant
Nuclear power plant: A facility that generates electricity using a nuclear reactor as its heat source to provide steam to a turbine generator.
Atomic bomb
Atomic bomb: See entry for Nuclear weapon
Highly enriched uranium (HEU)
Highly enriched uranium (HEU): Refers to uranium with a concentration of more than 20% of the isotope U-235. Achieved via the process of enrichment. See entry for enriched uranium.
Low enriched uranium (LEU)
Low enriched uranium (LEU): Refers to uranium with a concentration of the isotope U-235 that is higher than that found in natural uranium but lower than 20% LEU (usually 3 to 5%). LEU is used as fuel for many nuclear reactor designs.
Spent nuclear fuel
Spent nuclear fuel: Irradiated nuclear fuel. Once irradiated, nuclear fuel is highly radioactive and extremely physically hot, necessitating special remote handling. Fuel is considered “self protecting” if it is sufficiently radioactive that those who might seek to divert it would not be able to handle it directly without suffering acute radiation exposure.


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