China's Civil Nuclear Sector: Plowshares to Swords? (Occasional Paper 2102)

Today, Reuters reported that China is pushing the development of a new generation of fast breeder reactors that make significant quantities of weapons-grade plutonium. The article draws on reports that China is building not one, but two large reprocessing plants (the first likely to come on line in 2025; the second sometime before 2030) and two large fast breeder reactors (projected to begin operation in 2023 and 2026). With the normal operation of fast breeder reactors of the size China is building comes the annual production of hundreds of bombs’ worth of weapons-grade plutonium.

This has major military implications. To help clarify them, the Reuters article, cites NPEC’s research report, “China’s Civil Nuclear Sector: Plowshares to Swords?”, which NPEC is releasing today. The senior-most nuclear nonproliferation policy officials of both the Trump and the Obama Administrations — Christopher Ford and Thomas Countryman — coauthored the report’s preface and endorsed its determinations.

The report’s key finding is that given China’s large fast reactor program, China could conservatively produce 1,270 nuclear weapons by 2030 simply by exploiting the weapons-grade plutonium this program will produce. If China chose, in addition, to make weapons that either used highly enriched uranium or composite (uranium-plutonium) cores, it could increase this number by a factor of two or more.

The report makes several recommendations. First, our government needs to learn why, after 2017, China stopped reporting privately on its civilian plutonium activities and holdings to the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA). China, Russia, the United States, France, the UK, and Japan agreed to make these reports and have done so since 1997. Second, the US, South Korea, Japan, and China should make this information public and also publicly share their uranium holdings and enrichment related activities. On the defense side, Washington should ask Beijing to reveal what its military plutonium and uranium holdings are. The United States already did so in 1996 and 2001.

Finally, the report recommends that the United States explore with China, Japan, and South Korea the idea of taking a commercial plutonium production timeout. Currently, fast reactors are far less economic than the least economic of conventional reactors. Japan, South Korea, and the United States could and should offer to delay their fast reactor and commercial plutonium programs if China would agree to do the same.

The full report includes work by Hui Zhang of Harvard’s Belfer Center, Greg Jones, Frank Von Hippel of Princeton University, David Von Hippel, and two appendices consisting of previously published NPEC studies. The later examine the difficulties of preventing abrupt and incremental diversions from commercial nuclear fuel-making plants of the type China and Japan have or are planning to build and that South Korea and the United States are considering developing.


Mar 24, 2021
2102 Chinas Civil Nuclear Sector (PDF) 5,410.38 KB

China's Civil Nuclear Sector: Plowshares to Swords?

Edited by Henry D. Sokolski



This volume of research was supported by grants from the MacArther Foundation, the Scaife Foundation, the Carnegie Corporation of New York, and the US Department of State’s Bureau of Arms Control Verification and Compliance. Brooke Buskirk is responsible for the volume’s formatting and assembly. The research, of course, would not have been possible without the contributions of the volume’s authors.



This is an important and worrying report.

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.

This new NPEC Occasional Paper on “China’s Civil Nuclear Sector: Plowshares to Swords?” does not answer those questions. It does, however, provide new insight into the degree to which China’s current trajectory in the civil nuclear arena will have the result of placing enormous additional quantities of weapons-usable plutonium into the hands of the Chinese government as that country moves into large-scale plutonium reprocessing in order to produce fuel for a new generation of plutonium-fueled breeder reactors.

The two of us served consecutively as U.S. Assistant Secretary of State for International Security and Nonproliferation, and we both for a time additionally fulfilled the responsibilities of the Under Secretary of State for Arms Control and International Security. We have worked long and hard for presidents who could hardly be more different, we support opposing political parties, and we most assuredly disagree about many of the more important issues in American foreign and national security policy today.

Yet despite our very different perspectives, we agree – as foreign policy and national security professionals – that there is essentially nothing good that can be said about the prospect of the PRC acquiring an additional 1,440 additional kilograms of weapons-grade plutonium from the two “civilian” breeder reactors it is presently constructing – nor about the additional 110 kilograms of plutonium that China could recover by processing material from its small experimental fast breeder reactor.

This expanding Chinese reprocessing program is especially problematic, not to mention hypocritical, in light of China’s own oft-expressed security concerns about the very large plutonium stocks still held by its neighbor Japan. After more than 40 years of pursuing the plutonium option for power generation, Japan is still far from making it economically competitive with other nuclear and non-nuclear options, and has accumulated many tons of plutonium, the disposal of which in non-breeder reactors would take decades to accomplish, even assuming its whole reactor fleet still returns online. China claims to see that stockpile as a potential threat, even though Japan would have to work quite hard (as well as break its treaty commitments) to convert such material into nuclear weapons, since, thankfully, it lacks both a nuclear weapons production infrastructure and systems for delivering any such weapons to their targets. China, however, lacks neither of those things, and is moreover presently engaged in a large nuclear weapons build-up that U.S. intelligence officials publicly estimate will result in at least a doubling (or more) of the size of Beijing’s nuclear arsenal – which today is only a small fraction the size of the U.S. or Russian arsenals – over the course of the next decade.

To be sure, there is at present no evidence that China intends to divert its potential new plutonium horde to weapons use, though Beijing continues to be rather conspicuous in its refusal to adopt a moratorium on fissile material production for weapons purposes and has collaborated with Pakistan for many years to prevent the U.N. Conference on Disarmament from negotiating a Fissile Material Cutoff Treaty. Our concern and that of this study is not that Beijing necessarily intends to divert these huge quantities of plutonium to weapons, but that it could do so and might yet choose to – and that China’s civil-nuclear excursion into the “plutonium economy,” an effort that is neither technically necessary nor likely to be economically worthwhile, represents a colossal global security liability. As this report makes clear, if China opted to divert its burgeoning civil-nuclear plutonium program to weapons purposes, it could increase the size of its operational nuclear arsenal to a level approximating those of the United States or the Russian Federation.

China’s determination to pursue plutonium reprocessing and breeder reactors seems to be driven by its desire to dominate the future’s cutting-edge technologies, as part of the Chinese Communist Party’s broader agenda of making the PRC the pre-eminent world power by 2049 – the centennial of the Party’s seizure of power. Most technically capable countries, however, have correctly concluded that fueling fast reactors with plutonium is better described as “pipe dream” than “cutting-edge.” As this report demonstrates, creating more plutonium (beyond the c.500 tons humans have created since the 1940s) will not solve the essential problem: plutonium is a product of negative economic value, the very existence of which creates unnecessary risks and the disposal of which is terribly expensive.

Beijing’s ambition roils the waters in an East Asian environment that is already struggling with the questionable economic rationality and nonproliferation good sense of similar civil-nuclear ambitions elsewhere: in Japan’s would-be plutonium economy, and in the Republic of Korea as it, too, debates such issues. The world most certainly does not need Beijing to raise tensions, and raise the stakes, in this fashion as the region grapples with such matters. Nor does the world need China’s development of such a potent “expansion option” to further complicate negotiated nuclear arms reductions, including between the United States and the Russian Federation.

This report makes a number of suggestions about how to deal with this emerging problem, which we hope readers will carefully consider. (The report does not address the complexities of arms control negotiations with Russia, and the still more complex prospects with China, which could help head off the dangerous new arms race.) In our view, at the very least, it is time for leaders from around the Pacific Rim to engage with each other diplomatically as this report recommends about whether it is really a good idea for such an important, dynamic, and prosperous area of the world to further entangle itself with the production of additional tons and tons of the world’s most dangerous material, or instead to seek a better alternative. The United States should work with the PRC, ROK, and Japan to forestall industrial-scale reprocessing, which would only make the entire region, and the world, less secure. While our leaders talk, moreover, we hope that all five nations will have the wisdom to pause the headlong rush into plutonium production, to give such diplomacy a chance to find more sensible answers.

This report deserves attention, and the issues it raises careful thought. We hope you will read it, and share it, with this in mind.

Christopher Ford
The Hon. Christopher Ford
Assistant Secretary 2018-21
Performed Under Secretary duties 2019-21
Administration of Donald Trump

Thomas Countryman
The Hon. Thomas Countryman
Assistant Secretary 2011-17
Performed Under Secretary duties 2016-17
Administration of Barack Obama


To read the full occasional paper click here.