June 23, 2020
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.
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