How Much Nuclear Weapons Material Might China Make?


As U.S. nuclear arms negotiators continue to call on Beijing to join control talks with Russia, one topic that has so far escaped most experts’ attention is just how much nuclear weapons material China might be able to make and stockpile. Since it has generally taken a decade to negotiate nuclear control agreements, NPEC asked the leading expert of China’s nuclear activities, Hui Zhang of Harvard, to project what the numbers might be for the next two decades.  


Attached is his detailed analysis. The high numbers for separated plutonium and highly enriched uranium stocks and production capacity are sobering:  By 2030, China could have thousands of additional bombs’ worth of these materials on hand. How is this possible?  China has an extensive “peaceful” program to enrich uranium. It also is building a large domestic reprocessing plant, has a pilot plant it currently operates, and is still planning on importing a massive reprocessing plant from France. These plants can extract nuclear weapons explosive plutonium from China’s fleet of heavy and light water reactors and, soon, from the fast reactor now under construction.  


China claims all of these fissile production activities are peaceful. Yet, Beijing has protested Japan’s plans to bring its own large reprocessing plant at Rokkasho on line in the fall of 2021. Chinese officials say this plant’s operation would be destabilizing as it is designed to make 1,600 bombs’ worth of plutonium a year.  


Japanese and Chinese nuclear enthusiasts refuse to concede that producing and using plutonium-based fuels in power reactors is uneconomic compared to using low-enriched uranium in conventional reactors. The negativity of plutonium economics, however, is a lasting feature and, in fact, is only getting worse.


What does this suggest? Dr. Zhang recommends that, at a minimum, China make both its uranium enrichment and plutonium reprocessing and reactor programs and plans more transparent. Beyond this, he recommends that Beijing slow down on the commercial plutonium front.  “China,” he notes, “has no convincing rationale for rushing to build commercial-scale reprocessing facilities or plutonium breeder reactors. China should postpone the large reprocessing-plant project, and take an interim-storage approach.”


I and others have argued that in addition, the United States should open talks with Beijing and Japan on these programs and join in announcing a joint moratorium on commercial reprocessing and on the further expansion of uranium enrichment capacity until economic demand clearly requires it. Perhaps this is a topic that China would feel comfortable discussing even if, for the moment, it chooses to sit out three-way strategic arms control talks.



Jul 16, 2020
AUTHOR: Hui Zhang
Hui Zhang Paper (PDF) 3,607.33 KB

China’s Uranium Enrichment and Plutonium Recycling 2020-2040: Current Practices and Projected Capacities

June 23, 2020
Hui Zhang

Since 2010, China has significantly expanded its indigenous enrichment capacity to meet the expected rapid increase of enrichment requirements. Meanwhile, China has expanded its plutonium reprocessing and recycling capabilities for “saving uranium.” The purpose of this report is to provide a better understanding of the development of China’s uranium enrichment and plutonium recycling programs.

In part one, this report discusses the development status of China’s uranium enrichment industry. Given China does not officially release information on its enrichment capacity, the report estimates China’s current enrichment capacity based on satellite imagery, Chinese publications, and discussions with Chinese experts. Furthermore, the report makes projections of China’s enrichment expansion over the next two decades.

In part two, this report reviews the development of China’s reprocessing and fast reactors programs also referencing the latest reports and imagery. The report also projects cases for stocks of reactor-grade plutonium over next two decades. Finally, it estimates weapons-grade plutonium produced in the blankets of fast reactors.

Part One: China’s Uranium Enrichment: Current State and Projected Expansion

Since the mid-2000s, China has adopted a strategy that combines domestic production, overseas exploitation, and purchases on the world marketplace in uranium in order to meet expectations of a rapid increase in uranium requirements. Known as the “Three One-Third” rule, one-third of its uranium comes from domestic supply, one-third from direct international trade, and another third from overseas mining by Chinese firms. Consequently, China has secured a huge amount of overseas uranium resources and more could easily be added, which would afford more than enough uranium to meet the requirements of China’s most ambitious nuclear energy plan through 2050.

While China will continue relying on domestic and overseas uranium resources, the China National Nuclear Corporation (CNNC)—the sole player responsible for enrichment services in China—has said that it maintains a policy of “self-sufficiency” in the supply of enriched uranium products needed to fuel its nuclear power plants. In practice, to meet the expected rapid increase of enrichment requirements, CNNC has expanded its indigenous centrifuge enrichment capacity significantly since 2010. By 2020, China reached a total estimated enrichment capacity of about 7.8 million SWU (separative work units) (as shown in table 1) — enough to meet its reactors’ demands of 7.5 million SWU annually. Moreover, China could have a surplus of up to 30 million SWU by 2019 as a result of a net import of SWU and the domestic overproduction since 2010, which means that China may not need to add new enrichment capacity at least until 2025. By 2040, the SWU requirement is expected to grow to about 18 to 32 million SWU/year.

How much will China build its enrichment capacities in the future? CNNC experts emphasize its policy of “meeting its domestic demand and targeting the international markets” in supply of enrichment services. They further address that China is able to produce enough enrichment uranium products to feed its domestic reactors and exported reactors.

China does not officially release information on its enrichment capacity. Based on satellite imagery, Chinese publications, and discussions with Chinese experts, this author made an estimate in 2015 on China’s enrichment capacity. Since then, there have been significant developments. On the one hand, new centrifuge facilities have been recently commissioned. On the other hand, enrichment expansion has been scaled back since 2016 due to China’s slowed growth in nuclear power. Such trends could continue in the near future. However, China’s SWU capacities are expected to expand significantly in the next two decades to align with the country’s expected domestic and export reactor growth.  

To read the entire paper, click here