Why is China taking delivery of a massive load of Russian nuclear fuel off the coast of Taiwan? -- China Boss update 3.3.23
“On the same day in December when Chinese and US diplomats said they’d held constructive talks to reduce military tensions, Russian engineers were delivering a massive load of nuclear fuel to a remote island just 220 kilometers (124 miles) off Taiwan’s northern coast,” Bloomberg’s Jonathan Tirone wrote this week. Even “US protests didn’t dissuade China National Nuclear Corp. from taking delivery of fuel from Rosatom” for China’s breeder reactor in Fujian province “which is based on a Russian design using liquid metal instead of water to moderate operation.”
China’s so-called fast-breeder reactor on Changbiao Island is one of the world’s most closely-watched nuclear installations. US intelligence officials forecast that when it begins working this year, the CFR-600 will produce weapons-grade plutonium that could help Beijing increase its stockpile of warheads as much as four-fold in the next 12 years. That would allow China to match the nuclear arsenals currently deployed by the US and Russia.
Pavel Podvig, a nuclear expert with the UN’s Institute for Disarmament, said China’s lack of transparency about its plutonium production was another reason for concern.
“It is entirely possible that this breeder program is purely civilian,” said Pavel Podvig, a Geneva-based nuclear analyst with the United Nations’s Institute for Disarmament Research. “One thing that makes me nervous is that China stopped reporting its civilian and separated plutonium stockpiles. It’s not a smoking gun but it’s definitely not a good sign.”
Why it matters.
Overtaking the US as a global source of energy
We know that Changbiao Island, as Tirone writes, “is part of China’s ambitious $440 billion program to overtake the US as the world’s top nuclear-energy provider by the middle of next decade.” In 2021, Beijing revealed extensive plans to build “at least 150 new reactors in the next 15 years, more than the rest of the world has built in the past 35,” according to a Bloomberg report that same year.
The [Chinese] government’s never been shy about its interest in nuclear, along with renewable sources of energy, as part of President Xi Jinping’s goal to make China’s economy carbon-neutral by mid-century. But earlier this year, the government singled out atomic power as the only energy form with specific interim targets in its official five-year plan. Shortly after, the chairman of the state-backed China General Nuclear Power Corp. articulated the longer-term goal: 200 gigawatts by 2035, enough to power more than a dozen cities the size of Beijing.
In March 2021, S&P Global Market Intelligence said that China’s appetite for uranium in recent years had been “gaining momentum.” The CEO of SC National Atomic Co. Kazatomprom, the leading producer of uranium globally and the national operator of the Republic of Kazakhstan’s uranium exports, told analysts that “China will be the world's largest uranium consumer” in the ensuing years “by a significant margin.”
"Some of the comments coming from China around discussions to build strategic stockpiles of uranium, is something I think some of the market participants are missing," Pirmatov said. "So today, long-term security of supply is undoubtedly a focus for the Chinese new-build program. And the large inventory they have built over the past decade is an absolute necessity."
Last September, Chinese leader Xi Jinping stopped over in Kazakhstan on his way to the Shanghai Cooperation Organization summit in Uzbekistan, according to Genevieve Donnellon-May, a master’s student in water science, policy, and management at the University of Oxford. During his trip, China and Kazakstan “agreed to take measures related to energy cooperation, including the supply of the China-Kazakhstan crude oil pipeline and in various areas, including natural uranium.”
Plus 50 new nuclear warheads every year, per reactor
The problem is that the Russian design, which uses “a combination of highly-enriched uranium and so-called mixed-oxide fuel” rather than the “traditional light-water reactors,” according to Tirone, “yields weapons-usable plutonium as a byproduct.” And with so many “fast breeder reactors” on order, China would amass a jaw-dropping amount of the stuff fairly quickly.
In their eagerness to hype China’s new nuclear gambit, Chinese authorities, themselves, have provided clues as to the future scale of plutonium production.
According to Chinese authorities, the ones on Changbiao are civilian power reactors, designed to generate 600 megawatts of electricity each, which amounts to a little more than 1 percent of the total capacity of China’s nuclear power sector. But each reactor could also yield up to 200 kilograms of weapons-grade plutonium each year, enough for about 50 nuclear warheads—which is making nuclear-arms-control experts in Western countries nervous.
Frank von Hippel, a physicist and nuclear-policy expert at Princeton University, told IEE Spectrum - a technical professional association - that “China is in the middle of a big buildup of its nuclear-weapon arsenal. “My belief is that one of the purposes of these reactors is to produce weapons-grade plutonium for that buildup,” he said.
Non-proliferation experts have also discovered “construction of a desert factory in Gansu province designed to extract plutonium from the CFR-600’s spent fuel, once construction is finished in two years,” Bloomberg’s Tirone said.
“The increasing secrecy and strong diplomatic efforts against providing greater transparency have raised international suspicion,” said Tong Zhao, a visiting research scholar at Princeton University’s Science and Global Security Program. “I don’t think anyone can rule out the potential military use.”
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Enjoy the weekend.