Blog Post - Nuclear Security Matters

The Security Risks of China’s Nuclear Reprocessing Facilities

| Oct. 08, 2014

China is in beginning stages of significantly expanding its reprocessing program. As it considers the costs and benefits of its plan, Beijing should include the inherent security risks that come with extracting weapons-useable plutonium from spent nuclear fuel.

China has a relatively small fleet of 22 operational nuclear reactor units with a total capacity of 19 GWe. While China’s nuclear industry is relatively young in comparison with other major nuclear power states, Beijing says it plans to increase its total nuclear capacity to 58 GWe by 2020,and even further over the coming decades.

China plans to reprocess its civilian spent fuel, and to recycle the plutonium in fast breeder reactors. In December 2010, it conducted a successful 10-day hot test at its pilot reprocessing plant with a capacity of 50tHM/year (about 500 kg separated plutonium) , where it is also building a pilot Mixed Oxide (MOX) fuel fabrication facility (0.5 tons/year) that will supply fuel reloads for an Experimental Fast Reactor (CEFR).  Also, the China National Nuclear Corporation (CNNC) plans to build a medium-scale demonstration reprocessing plant (200 tHM/year) by 2020 and a larger commercial one (800 tHM/year) between 2025 and 2030.

Indeed, even the pilot reprocessing plant has already shown some security issues. For instance, there is evidence that it lacks an integrated security system. Some of the facilities at the plant—like high level waste tanks—were originally part of an older military processing plant built in the 1960s. Due to constrained economic and technological conditions at the time, these older facilities sometimes had inadequate security, especially by today’s standards that incorporate “security-by-design.” As a result, security systems at the plant are a combination of newer, more effective, measures and those that are older and insufficient. Thus, it may lack a complete and unified physical protection system, and fail to meet with the defense-in-depth and balance principles required in the 2008 Nuclear Facility Physical Protection Guidelines issued by National Nuclear Safety Administration.

Also, the operator of pilot reprocessing plant faces a challenge in establishing an effective materials control and accounting (MC&A) system. As those older facilities were not designed in compliance with modern MC&A standards, the plant’s accounting system might not be able to detect the loss of a significant quantity of nuclear material. The pilot plant’s December 2010 hot test demonstrated this challenge. Although reprocessing operations stopped after only ten days, many problems, including safety and security issues, were encountered or identified. These included both a very high amount of waste produced and a very high measure of material unaccounted for or MUF.

Moreover, unlike operators of nuclear power plants, which derive revenue from market sale of electricity, the pilot reprocessing plant is currently heavily dependent on the government for financial support. It, therefore, often lacks enough money to hire enough qualified people and to purchase the number and type of appropriate sensors and equipment needed for an effective MC&A system. Also, Chinese nuclear experts have argued that the plant operator needs to improve sampling analysis and random error analysis, and to avoid systematic biases in measurement.

China’s plan to transport MOX fuel to the CEFR also presents an increased security risk because the fuel would have to travel 3,000 kilometers from the northwestern part of the country to Beijing. Furthermore, when larger commercial reprocessing facilities, larger MOX plants, plutonium fabrication plants (which will likely be located near the pilot reprocessing plant or other remote areas), and commercial fast breeder reactors (which will likely be near the east coastal areas—far away from those plutonium separation and processing facilities) come on-line, the long-distance shipment of MOX fuels and metal plutonium fuels will pose major security concerns.

Further, to make sure that nuclear security systems are actually implemented effectively, the development of a strong security culture—in which the relevant individuals hold a deeply rooted belief that nuclear terrorism threats are credible— is imperative. Unfortunately, many Chinese experts continue to doubt that there is a credible threat to Chinese nuclear materials and facilities.

China also faces the challenge of complacency among a significant number of senior nuclear experts and nuclear industries. They believe that China already has strict nuclear security systems that have worked well and “free of accident” over the past 50 years. Some managers doubt whether it is worth the money and time to establish and maintain a stronger security system. It is difficult to count on people to endeavor to prevent something that they do not believe is real.

Also, the operation of the pilot reprocessing plant shows China may lack the experience necessary to operate an effective MC&A system for bulk processing facilities, particularly large-scale reprocessing facilities. Nuclear security experts have identified that it is far easier for insiders to steal small amounts of material over time without anyone noticing bulk processing facilities like those being planned in China. In nearly every case in which authorities have seized stolen HEU or separated plutonium the material has been in bulk form, such as powder, apparently stolen without detection by insiders from bulk processing facili­ties. In practice, the possibility of an insider theft of nuclear materials in China cannot be ruled out, particularly as China continues to transform into a market-oriented society and becomes increasingly corrupt.  

It will be even more difficult to establish an effective MC&A system at those larger-scale reprocessing facilities than at the much smaller pilot facility where problems already exist.

Even with an advanced, modern MC&A system, measurement uncertainties at a reprocessing plant are typically in the range of one percent of plutonium throughput, amounting to 80 kg or ten bombs worth of plutonium per year at an 800 tHM/year facility. Thus, the construction of China’s planned reprocessing facilities will require a substantial investment in improved MC&A measures.  Given the inevitable uncertainties in accounting, it is likely that China will ultimately have to rely primarily on other measures to prevent insider theft. 

China should rein in plans for commercial reprocessing. Large-scale commercial plutonium separation increases security risks and undermines its current, and more secure, approach of consolidated control of nuclear-weapons usable material.

The 2014 Hague Nuclear Security Summit communiqué encouraged “States to keep their stockpile of separated plutonium to the minimum level”. The international community unanimously agrees that separated plutonium increases security risks creating an inviting target for terrorists to steal or attack. Further, China’s exploration and investment in domestic and overseas uranium make reprocessing for the purposes of electricity unnecessary. Reprocessing is much more costly and much less safe and secure than storing spent nuclear fuel at a hardened site. Dry cask storage offers a flexible, safe, and low-cost option that can postpone the need for either reprocessing or direct disposal for decades, allowing time for interest to accrue and technology to develop.  China has no convincing rationale for rushing to build commercial-scale reprocessing facilities or plutonium breeder reactors in the next couple of decades, and a move toward breeders and reprocessing would be a move away from more secure consolidation of nuclear materials.

For more information on this publication: Please contact the Belfer Communications Office
For Academic Citation: Zhang, Hui.The Security Risks of China’s Nuclear Reprocessing Facilities.” Nuclear Security Matters, October 8, 2014, https://nuclearsecuritymatters.belfercenter.org/publication/security-risks-chinas-nuclear-reprocessing-facilities.