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China: A Second Reprocessing Plant at Jinta

Copyright © 2021 Energy Intelligence Group

Preparatory work is now under way on China's second large-scale spent nuclear fuel reprocessing plant alongside an identical "demonstration" plant under construction at the Jinta industrial park in the western Gansu province, according to a blog and report released this week. But owner and operator China National Nuclear Corp. (CNNC) has not publicly announced plans for this second plant as it did for the first one six years ago. And the US report publicizing the new plant is raising concerns that this unsafeguarded civilian reprocessing effort could be used to support a major buildup in China's nuclear weapons arsenal. This second reprocessing plant with an annual capacity of 200 tons of heavy metal (tHM) is part of an ambitious Chinese program that now includes two CFR-600 fast breeder reactors (FBRs) under construction at Xiapu, in Fujian province, and that could eventually include a 1,000 megawatt or 1,200 MW FBR and additional reprocessing plants. But while CNNC has prominently announced the first concrete pours for the Xiapu FBRs -- the first in December 2017 and the second on Dec. 27, 2020 -- it has been far more circumspect about construction at Jinta (NIW Jan.5'18). Plans for a massive reprocessing complex at Jinta were first revealed to local press in 2015, but it wasn't until April 2019 that a CNNC executive acknowledged to Energy Intelligence that work on the 200 tHM/yr Jinta demonstration plant was already under way (NIW Apr.12'19). Beijing has been similarly secretive about its stockpiles of civil plutonium, which it last reported to the International Atomic Energy Agency in September 2017. That coincides with the reported ramp-up at the 50 tHM/yr pilot civilian reprocessing plant at the Jiuquan nuclear complex (Plant 404), also in Gansu, after years of poor performance. There is no evidence that Beijing has plans to divert civilian plutonium for its weapons program, and it is believed to have ended all defense-related fissile material production in 1991. But China is the only one of the five nuclear superpowers which has not officially committed to a de facto halt of such production until a Fissile Material Cut-off Treaty (FMCT) is in place. China is now embarked on an aggressive nuclear weapons expansion and modernization program similar to such buildups in the US and Russian Federation, and more recently, the UK (NIW Mar.19'21). Last summer the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute released a report positing that China's nuclear arsenal had increased from 290 warheads in 2019 to 320 in 2020 (NIW Jun.26'20). It's therefore conceivable that at some point China may need more plutonium and highly enriched uranium to fuel those weapons than it currently has. That at least is the argument of "China’s Civil Nuclear Sector: Plowshares to Swords?," a report released Mar. 25 by the Virginia-based Nonproliferation Policy Education Center (Npec). This would "drive China to resume fissile materials production for weapons and undermine possible Chinese support for FMCT negotiations" aimed at verifiably restricting or halting the production and stockpiling of fissile material production in the nine countries with nuclear weapons. Jinta Objectives Unclear News of an additional reprocessing plant at Jinta was disclosed in a blog post on Mar. 21 by Chinese nuclear expert Hui Zhang of Harvard University's Belfer Center, who cited online bidding and purchase documents, and it was also mentioned in the Npec report to which Zhang contributed. Zhang last May revealed plans for a second CFR-600 (NIW May22'20). But China watchers in nuclear circles have long been aware of expansion activities at Jinta, and discussion within China about potentially building out a complex of four 200 tHM/yr indigenous reprocessing plants. This could effectively replace plans for the 800 tHM/yr reprocessing plant using Orano technology that has been discussed for well over a decade in talks with Paris (NIW Feb.26'21). "The driver" of the activity at Gansu "is probably the absence of French cooperation," said Mark Hibbs, of the Carnegie Endowment in Berlin. CNNC's motivations could conceivably also move beyond the commercial. While Paris has maintained the need for any plant using Orano technology to be safeguarded, there is no such requirement for the indigenous plants at Jinta (NIW Aug.14'20). The 159-page Npec report highlights the "fusion of China’s civilian and military sectors," and suggests that diversion of plutonium from the civil side would be the easiest way for China's military to secure the material needed to expand its nuclear arsenal. The expansion of civilian reprocessing as currently planned could produce enough plutonium to, if diverted, allow for the quadrupling of its weapons stockpile to 1,270 warheads by 2030, which is "nearly as many as the US currently has deployed on its intercontinental missiles," the report said. Even without any evidence of intent to divert material from civil to military purposes, China is certainly building up options should it ever want to do so. Although the Covid-19 pandemic could affect construction of the two CFR-600s and the reprocessing plants, plans now call for the first of the two reactors to be completed in 2023 and the second around 2026, according to Zhang. He also contends that CNNC is targeting the first reprocessing plant to operate by 2025, and the second "before 2030." Next door at Jinta, CNNC is building a demonstration mixed-oxide (Mox) fuel fabrication line with a capacity of 20 tons/year, although it's not clear if talks in 2019 between CNNC and Belgian nuclear research center SCK-CEN resulted in any Belgian technology being used in that plant (NIW Oct.25'19). The Mox plant is expected to be commissioned in 2025, according to Zhang. And while its output would eventually be used to fuel the two CFR-600s, at least the first of these FBRs will be fueled with Russian-supplied highly enriched uranium under a January 2019 contract with Tvel for supply of the initial core and reloads for seven years (NIW Jan.11'19). The two reprocessing plants under construction at Jinta, "operating at 50% capacity, and the 20 ton per year Mox plant could support the plutonium needs" of the two CFR-600s, according to Zhang's blog, leaving plenty spare should the plants operate at higher capacities. It's equally possible that the Jinta plants will face many of the same teething problems as other reprocessing efforts in China (to say nothing of Japan or France). For example the pilot civilian reprocessing plant at Jiuquan "encountered difficulties, delays, and higher-than-expected costs," noted Zhang, writing in the Npec paper. In 2017, however, the plant appears to have begun operating "normally" and "completed the task of reprocessing 50 metric tons of spent fuel accumulated between December 2010 to 2019." If that's true, the plant may have created a stockpile of as much as 500 kilograms of plutonium, Zhang says. Assuming the Jinta plants are successfully commissioned China will have the capacity to quickly build its plutonium stockpiles at undeclared facilities. The prospect that Beijing could then divert them to a bomb program was enough to bring together two well-known former nonproliferation officials from both sides of the US political spectrum -- Thomas Countryman and Christopher Ford -- for a preface to the Npec report (related). "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 -- or about the additional 110 kilograms of plutonium that China could recover by processing material from its small experimental fast breeder reactor." Countryman and Ford served consecutively as assistant secretaries of state for nonproliferation under former Presidents Barack Obama and Donald Trump. Stephanie Cooke, Washington

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