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Report on the military implications of China’s new fast-breeder nuclear reactor plans – ”Plowshares to Swords ?”

China’s Civil Nuclear Sector: Plowshares to Swords? (Occasional Paper 2102), 26 Mar 21, http://npolicy.org/article.php?aid=1548&rtid=2
 Today, Reuters reported that China is pushing the development of a new generation of fast breeder reactors that make significant quantities of weapons-grade plutonium. The article draws on reports that China is building not one, but two large reprocessing plants (the first likely to come on line in 2025; the second sometime before 2030) and two large fast breeder reactors (projected to begin operation in 2023 and 2026).

With the normal operation of fast breeder reactors of the size China is building comes the annual production of hundreds of bombs’ worth of weapons-grade plutonium. This has major military implications. To help clarify them, the Reuters article, cites NPEC’s research report, “China’s Civil Nuclear Sector: Plowshares to Swords?”, which NPEC is releasing today. The senior-most nuclear nonproliferation policy officials of both the Trump and the Obama Administrations — Christopher Ford and Thomas Countryman — coauthored the report’s preface and endorsed its determinations.

The report’s key finding is that given China’s large fast reactor program, China could conservatively produce 1,270 nuclear weapons by 2030 simply by exploiting the weapons-grade plutonium this program will produce. If China chose, in addition, to make weapons that either used highly enriched uranium or composite (uranium-plutonium) cores, it could increase this number by a factor of two or more.

The report makes several recommendations. First, our government needs to learn why, after 2017, China stopped reporting privately on its civilian plutonium activities and holdings to the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA). China, Russia, the United States, France, the UK, and Japan agreed to make these reports and have done so since 1997.

Second, the US, South Korea, Japan, and China should make this information public and also publicly share their uranium holdings and enrichment related activities. On the defense side, Washington should ask Beijing to reveal what its military plutonium and uranium holdings are. The United States already did so in 1996 and 2001.

Finally, the report recommends that the United States explore with China, Japan, and South Korea the idea of taking a commercial plutonium production timeout. Currently, fast reactors are far less economic than the least economic of conventional reactors. Japan, South Korea, and the United States could and should offer to delay their fast reactor and commercial plutonium programs if China would agree to do the same.

The full report includes work by Hui Zhang of Harvard’s Belfer Center, Greg Jones, Frank Von Hippel of Princeton University, David Von Hippel, and two appendices consisting of previously published NPEC studies. The later examine the difficulties of preventing abrupt and incremental diversions from commercial nuclear fuel-making plants of the type China and Japan have or are planning to build and that South Korea and the United States are considering developing.

March 27, 2021 - Posted by | Uncategorized

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