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China’s ambiguous plutonium policy.

Plutonium programs in East Asia and Idaho will challenge the Biden administration, Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, By Frank N. von Hippel | April 12, 2021 ”…………………….China’s ambiguous plutonium policy. China is estimated to have produced between 2.3 and 3.5 tons of weapon-grade plutonium before it halted production in 1988. China is also estimated to have doubled the number of its nuclear warheads since the end of the Cold War to about 300, with a public call from one government-owned journal for a further increase to 1000.

That would require more weapon-grade plutonium.

China is, in fact, building a “demonstration” reprocessing plant and two plutonium breeder reactors. Breeder reactors produce weapon-grade plutonium in the uranium “blankets” surrounding their cores. This plutonium ordinarily would be mixed in with the non-weapon-grade plutonium recovered from the core and recycled into new fuel, but could be kept separate and used for weapons.

One troubling development that suggests that China may be reconsidering the civilian character of its plutonium program is that, since 2017, it has halted making the public annual declarations to the International Atomic Energy Agency of its civilian plutonium stocks required by the Guidelines for the Management of Plutonium. China was one of nine countries, including France and the United States, that committed to make those declarations starting in 1997. An International Atomic Energy Agency official has informed me that that the agency “does not request those member states to submit updates and has no role in connection with the implementation of these voluntary commitments.” One of the other states that are parties to the guidelines could, however, ask China why it has stopped submitting updates.

China’s National Nuclear Corporation has been negotiating since 2007 with France’s Orano to purchase technology for a large reprocessing plant like Japan’s that could separate up to eight tons of reactor-grade but weapon-usable plutonium per year. France’s finance minister said in 2018 that the sale could “save” France’s nuclear industry.

Unless the economic competitiveness of breeder reactors proves to be better in China than elsewhere, however, the rate of plutonium separation by the French plant would be vastly in excess of the amount that China could use to start a realistic number of breeder prototypes. Other countries, including France, Japan, Russia, and the United Kingdom, have been down this road before and ended up with huge stocks of reactor-grade plutonium (Figure 1 on original). One would hope that China would learn from rather than emulate their folly.

The Biden administration should engage France on the wisdom of Orano’s continued promotion of plutonium separation worldwide through offers of both reprocessing services and technology.

If China moves ahead with its own large-scale reprocessing program, it will make it more difficult to pressure Japan to end its plutonium program, which both countries clearly understand provides Japan with a nuclear-weapon option.

The Obama administration suggested to Beijing a bilateral multidisciplinary dialogue on pros and cons of civilian reprocessing. The Biden administration could press again for such a private discussion. Perhaps, backing away from reprocessing would become more attractive in both Beijing and Tokyo if they made their decisions in parallel…………..https://thebulletin.org/2021/04/plutonium-programs-in-east-asia-and-idaho-will-challenge-the-biden-administration/?utm_source=Newsletter&utm_medium=Email&utm_campaign=MondayNewsletter04122021&utm_content=NuclearRisk_EastAsia_04122021

April 13, 2021 - Posted by | - plutonium, technology

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