For decades, the Defense Department made little or no connection between China’s civilian nuclear power program and its military nuclear weapons buildup. No longer. With its latest annual assessment of China’s military power, the Pentagon identifies Beijing’s civilian fast reactor and plutonium reprocessing efforts as being ideal for producing significant quantities of super weapons-grade plutonium for bombs (and cites NPEC’s 2021 study, “China’s Civilian Nuclear Sector: Swords from Plowshares?” for the third year running).
This year, however, the Pentagon’s annual China report went further, linking China’s civilian power reactors to Beijing’s production of tritium for its nuclear arsenal. An optimal way to produce this thermonuclear weapons fuel is to extract it from operating heavy water reactors. China has two, both Canadian, both operated by China National Nuclear Corporation, (CNNC), China’s chief nuclear weapons contractor.
Canada’s commercial connection with CNNC, though, does not end here. As I note in the attached The National Interest piece, “Chinese Nuclear Weapons and Canada: An Uncivil-military Connection,” Canada is working with CNNC on the development of new, advanced heavy water reactors and just approved the sale of nearly 100 thousand metric tons of uranium to CNNC. Canada plans to ship China 12,700 metric tons of this uranium a year for each of the next four years. This is roughly 200 to 300 metric tons more than China’s civilian sector currently consumes annually. This surplus amount alone could fuel as many as 100 bombs each year.
All of this should raise eyebrows. Currently, no national or international authority monitors the production of tritium. Nor do they verify tritium’s end use or that of uranium. This needs to change.
At the very least, the U.S. government needs to routinely report what foreign and domestic companies are exporting critical nuclear materials and technologies to America’s nuclear-armed rivals. In addition, our government should ban U.S. government contracts or subsidies for such firms. Finally, Foggy Bottom should work with like-minded nations to get the International Atomic Energy Agency to verify the peaceful end use of exported uranium and of tritium produced in civilian reactors.
December 5, 2023
Author: Henry Sokolski
For decades, the Defense Department made little or no connection between China’s civilian nuclear power program and its military nuclear weapons buildup. No longer.
For the last three years, the Pentagon has explicitly linked Beijing’s “peaceful” fast reactor power program to China’s ramped-up weapons plutonium efforts and the projection China will acquire more than 1,000 nuclear warheads by 2030. In its latest annual China military power report, the Defense Department went further and revealed that China is using its civilian nuclear reactors to produce tritium to fuel its thermonuclear weapons.
China is doing this by placing lithium rods in power reactors and bombarding the rods with neutrons. This produces tritium, which subsequently is separated, much like how America makes its weapons tritium. It’s unclear if China uses all its power reactors—American, Canadian, Russian, French, or Chinese-designed—for this purpose.
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