Updated 05/31/21 – See Addendum below.
A 600 MWe fast reactor, the CFR600, is expected to be complete by 2023. The CFR-600 is a sodium-cooled pool-type fast-neutron nuclear reactor under construction in Xiapu County, Fujian province, China, on Changbiao Island. Work began on building it in 2017. On the same site, the building of a second 600 MWe fast reactor CFR-600 was started in December 2020. (IAEA technical profile)
It is positioned as a civilian / commercial effort and is a GEN IV demonstration project operated by the China National Nuclear Corporation (CNNC) which is a commercial state owned enterprise. The project is also known as Xiapu fast reactor pilot project. The reactor will have an output of 1,500 MWth thermal power and 600 MWe electric power. A larger commercial-scale reactor, the CFR-1000, is also planned.
GEN IV Conceptual Design of a Sodium Cooled Fast Reactor: Image: Gen IV Forum
The CFR600 reactor will use mixed-oxide (MOX) fuel. It will feature two coolant loops producing steam at 480°C. The reactor will have active and passive shutdown systems and passive decay heat removal. Fuel for the reactor comes from Russia’s TVEL which also provides the fuel for Russia’s BN-600 which is the design basis for the CFR600.
In recent months western nonproliferation experts have raised concerns that these plants will have more fuel generation than their actual usage. In other words, the question has been raised whether the plants will be used to produce plutonium for nuclear weapons.
A recent paper (PDF) that includes contributions by Frank von Hippel, Thomas Cochran, Hui Zhang, and several other nuclear non-proliferation experts, and published by the Nonproliferation Policy Education Center in Washington, DC, drew attention to this issue.
The findings in the paper stated that China could “conservatively produce 1,270 nuclear weapons by 2030 simply by exploiting the weapons-grade plutonium this program will produce or even increase that by a factor of two or more if China used highly enriched uranium or composite uranium-plutonium cores from the reactors in bombs and missiles.”
One of the concerns that has also been highlighted is that China has stopped reporting to the IAEA on the quantities of plutonium produced by its civilian reactors. In a statement on May 19th to the Al Jazeera news service, Nickolas Roth, senior fellow and director of the Nuclear Security program at the think-tank the Stimson Center in Washington, DC, said, “Confidence-building measures like plutonium declarations to the IAEA are really important.”
“When countries don’t submit those declarations, particularly as they’re going down the path of producing more materials, that is a legitimate reason for concern.”
The China Atomic Energy Authority, the agency responsible for reporting to the IAEA, did not respond to Al Jazeera’s questions about why China stopped reporting on its civilian plutonium program. Similar requests from Al Jazeera made through China’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs, the National Energy Administration and the Ministry of Industry and Information Technology were not acknowledged.
The way forward, Roth says, is for the US to engage with China to find out why it stopped the declarations to the IAEA and pursue a path to set disincentives to others in the region from pursuing plutonium reprocessing.
U.S. Military Concerns
The US military appears to be concerned about these developments. According to a news media report, the commander of Stratcom, Admiral Charles A. Richard, testified on April 20th about the connection between China’s civil fast reactor program and its weapons efforts.
“I can’t get through a week without finding out something I didn’t know about China,” Adm. Charles Richard, the head of U.S. Strategic Command, told the Senate Armed Services Committee on April 20th.
Richard said China’s “very opaque” nuclear policy makes it “difficult to determine their intentions.”
Henry Sokolski, Executive Director, The Nonproliferation Policy Education Center, who is one of the authors of the paper on China’s nuclear ambitions, told this blog in an email that China’s fast breeder effort creates “uncertainties” about what other nuclear states might do in light of China’s actions.
“Without ever saying it, most Hill experts understand that if China gets as many or more nuclear weapons than we have deployed its not only going to throw a wrench into diplomatic efforts to reduce our arsenal, but also prompt a nuclear buildup and arms race the likes of which we haven’t seen since the l950s. That it might finally push Japan, South Korea, and Australia to go nuclear also threatens to blow up the NPT and, our super high-trust security ties with these states.”
Sokolski wrote in the policy paper, “It is widely known that the People’s Republic of China (PRC) is expanding its arsenal of nuclear weapons, which at this point even its own diplomats do not much trouble themselves to deny. What is less clear, however, is how fast this build-up is occurring and – most critically – how long and to what level Beijing intends to continue this expansion.”
Diplomats Weigh in on China’s Reluctance to Hold Talks
On April 14th, the US went public with its concerns about China’s intentions. Reuters reported that China is resisting bilateral talks with the United States on nuclear weapons.
The U.S. disarmament ambassador Richard Wood told a U.N. conference, “Despite the PRC’s dramatic build-up of its nuclear arsenal, unfortunately it continues to resist discussing nuclear risk reduction bilaterally with the United States.”
“To date Beijing has not been willing to engage meaningfully or establish expert discussions similar to those we have with Russia. We sincerely hope that will change,” he added.
Reuters also reported that there is no evidence that China intends to divert its potential plutonium stockpile to weapons use, but concern has grown as Beijing is expected to boost its number of nuclear warheads over the next decade.
Hui Zhang, a senior research associate at Harvard University’s Project on Managing the Atom, said in an email to Reuters,
“To reduce international concerns about the potential plutonium diversion issues, China needs to keep its plutonium recycling programs more transparent including timely reporting of its stockpile of civilian plutonium like they did before 2016,”
He added that China should also offer to have its plutonium recycling facilities monitored by the U.N.’s International Atomic Energy Agency.
As a practical matter many nations are developing advanced reactors, including the U.S., which are also seen as fast breeders even if they are slated for strictly civilian uses. Getting all the world’s nuclear powers on the same page to prevent letting the proverbial genies out of the bottle, by committing to IAEA declarations, would seem to be a useful idea.
Addendum 05/31/21: How Much MOX Does China Need?
China is building two spent fuel reprocessing plants with a capacity each of 200 tonnes of heavy metal per year each. The first plant is expected to come on line in 2025, the second one sometime before 2030.
These plants could be fully utilized in separating plutonium from spent fuel to make mixed-oxide (MOX) fuel for the two CFR600 fast breeder reactors under construction. There is a question of whether or how soon the CFR600 units will need this fuel.
If the CFR600 don’t need it, what does China plan to do with the approximately 15 tonnes of plutonium that will be recovered from spent fuel by each of these plans each year?
Russia’s TVEL had signed a contract to fabricate the fuel for China’s CFR-600 reactors and for the next seven years of operation. In other words, reliable fuel services for the first CFR600, and most likely, for the second unit, are assured at least until 2028. So for the better part of this decade, the fuel needs of one and likely both CFR600s are taken care of. Also, Once Russia has a fuel service contract, it will aggressively pursue renewing the contract long before it expires.
If that is the case, then why is China building the two reprocessing plants as cited? In terms of “make v. buy,” China gets the benefit of the economies of scale Russia is reaping by making fuel for both of the Chinese reactors and the BN-600. It will be far more costly for China to make its own fuel.
It’s possible that China eventually wants to be self-sufficient in making MOX fuel, but another question is how much MOX does it need? According to trade press reports, the 200 tonnes/yr reprocessing plant will extract 15 tonnes of plutonium from the spent fuel each year.
Using a rough order of magnitude calculation, that inventory could be turned into about 500-800 PWR type MOX fuel assemblies at the equivalent of less than 5% U235 enrichment. Typically, a PWR can be converted to have about one-third of its core (137 assemblies) filled with MOX fuel.
Depending on how many of its PWRs China would then convert to burning MOX, that would set the demand for this type of fuel. The majority of China’s nuclear fleet are PWR type designs followed by Russian VVER type. There are other designs, but they are not relevant for using MOX fuel. (50 operating reactors, 19 under construction) It would seem that there could be plenty of potential demand for MOX fuel if China decided it wanted to go in that direction.
However, China has not qualified any of its fleet of LWR type commercial reactors to burn MOX and has shown little interest in doing so despite a growing inventory of spent nuclear fuel.
There is a proposed project between China National Nuclear Corporation (CNNC) and France’s EDF/AREVA to develop an 800 t/yr reprocessing plant costing $15.7 billion that includes an SNF storage facility. Despite a decade of talks China and EDF have not come to terms about building the plant. The main issues are cost and that China would be dependent on France for the technology and operation of the plant.
According to Mark Hibbs, an expert on China’s nuclear program, during the 2000s China aimed to set up a MOX fabrication plant based on Belgian technology on the Plant 404 site at Jiuquan in Gansu Province.
Hibbs writes, “Belgium, according to European officials, would not agree to terms set by China and the project was scuttled. Instead China designed and built an indigenous pilot installation to make 500 kilograms of MOX per year and began operating it in 2013.”
Based on his book on China’s nuclear energy program, Hibbs added that for China, “MOX is a long term proposition,” but he predicts the country will make progress this decade with the fabrication and use of the fuel.
What all this looks like is that aside from the CFR600s, which will use MOX fuel from TVEL for the next seven years, there does not appear to be a lot of demand for MOX fuel in China leaving open the question of what is China planning to do with the plutonium from its twin reprocessing plants? The plants are too small to make as significant dent in China’s inventory of spent fuel. So what is China’s plan for the plutonium recovered by these facilities?