As the Olympics in China begin, many in Washington are struggling to determine how the United States should deal with Beijing given its bad behavior. The short answer is Washington should hold Beijing to China’s own commitments to behave.
A case in point is Beijing’s announcement January 3rd that it would uphold its Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT) commitment under Article VI “to pursue negotiation in good faith on effective measures relating to cessation of the nuclear arms race.” So far, Beijing has refused to join any nuclear arms limitation talks with Washington and Moscow. Just last week, China also rebuffed a Japanese-American request that Beijing make its nuclear arms buildup more transparent and complained about Japan’s massive civilian stockpile of nuclear explosive plutonium.
Given China’s own crash civilian plutonium production and fast reactor program, this last bit is interesting, to say the least. As I point out in the attached Real Clear Defense piece, “A Nuclear Control Initiative China Should Welcome,” China and Japan’s neighbors are right to worry about the 10 tons of plutonium Tokyo has been stockpiling for a fast reactor Japan has yet to build. Japan also plans to make roughly 1,500 bombs’ worth of nuclear explosive plutonium more per year starting in 2023 when it expects to open a massive plutonium separation reprocessing plant at Rokkasho.
Meanwhile, China has a crash fast reactor and reprocessing program, one that it has increasingly hidden from public view. Why does this matter? The Pentagon recently determined that China is likely to use this program to boost its nuclear arsenal by 2030 by roughly five-fold to levels equal to America’s entire deployed nuclear force. France and India, who either used or are planning to use fast reactors to make bombs, understand fast reactors’ military utility: Roughly half of the plutonium these plants can produce is super weapons-grade — i.e., of even higher purity than the weapons-grade plutonium America uses in its nuclear weapons.
What’s to be done? First, get Beijing to comply with its voluntary 1997 agreement with the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) to report on China’s civilian plutonium holdings and activities. The United States, Russia, the UK, France, Germany, Japan, and others are upholding their commitments. China stopped reporting in 2017. Second, get China to open up its “peaceful” fast reactor and plutonium production program to IAEA inspectors as the Japanese already do. Washington should sweeten this pot by offering to place America’s planned fast reactors and related facilities under such inspections as well.
Finally, Washington, Tokyo, and Seoul, which all are planning on operating fast reactors, should meet with Chinese officials at this year’s upcoming NPT Review Conference to discuss taking a fast reactor-plutonium reprocessing commercialization time-out. Fast reactors historically are at least twice as costly as conventional reactors (small or large) and present major nuclear weapons proliferation worries. If China is serious about upholding its NPT commitments and is worried about Japan’s fast reactor and plutonium programs, taking a pause now should be something Beijing should welcome.
February 4, 2022
Author: Henry Sokolski
By Henry Sokolski
Earlier this month, China seemed all-in on nuclear arms control. On January 3rd, Beijing loudly announced it would uphold its Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT) obligation under Article VI “to pursue negotiations in good faith on effective measures relating to cessation of the nuclear arms race.” Yet, the very next day, Beijing’s top arms control official pulled back, stipulating that China would only join in nuclear arms reduction talks when both Russia and the U.S. brought their arsenals down to China’s level. Then, last week, when the United States and Japan asked China at least to make its nuclear weapons build up more transparent, Zhao Lijian, spokesman for China’s foreign ministry, went full wolf warrior: “The US,” he advised,“ should mind its own business.”
Game over? Maybe, but it’s unclear. Why? The same spokesman made an additional argument, slamming Japan for stockpiling tons of “peaceful” nuclear weapons explosive plutonium, which Tokyo originally intended to fuel its now terminated Monju commercial fast reactor. Tokyo still has nearly 10 tons of this fuel on hand — enough to make 1,000 to 2,000 nuclear weapons. Although Tokyo says it will dispose of its stockpile, it hasn’t yet. Worse, it plans to open a plant at Rokkasho sometime next year that would separate 1,500 bombs’ worth of explosive plutonium from spent reactor fuel each year — more than America’s entire deployed strategic nuclear arsenal.
This has rankled China and (privately) Japan’s neighbors and with cause. But Beijing calling Tokyo out on its plutonium holdings and activities is like the pot calling the kettle black. Why? Because Beijing recently launched a crash plutonium production program easily as worrisome as Japan’s.
China’s fast reactor and reprocessing effort is quite ambitious and, unlike Japan’s, it’s increasingly under wraps. Beijing once reported its civilian plutonium production and plans annually under a 1997 voluntary international agreement with the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA). Japan, the U.S., Russia, the UK, Germany are all still parties in good standing. China, though, stopped reporting in 2017. Not long after, Beijing revealed that it was building two large fast breeder reactors that can make super weapons-grade plutonium and two large reprocessing plants capable of producing several hundred bombs’ worth of nuclear explosive plutonium annually.
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