China Is Building Two Secret Nuclear Reactors. Scientists Are Worried.
·4 min read
- China plans to open two nuclear breeder reactors beginning in 2023.
- These reactors make weapons-grade plutonium as part of their operation.
- International scientists are worried about what this means for Chinese nuclear weapons.
On the tiny, nondescript island of Changbiao, in the Fujian province, the China National Nuclear Corporation is building two mysterious nuclear reactors that are drawing plenty of international attention—and concern.
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The reactors, which are scheduled to power up in 2023 and 2026, are both a type called China Fast Reactor 600 (CFR-600). This kind of reactor is a “breeder,” meaning its nuclear reaction generates more fuel than it uses. And that’s what has scientists from around the world scratching their heads, according to a new report from Al Jazeera.
The goal with most nuclear power plants is to use as much of their fuel up as possible—not make more. That’s especially true when the reactor produces plutonium, which is easy to turn into nuclear weapons.
Breeder reactors fell out of favor quite early in the history of nuclear power plants; today, countries like the U.S., the U.K., and Germany have long since abandoned their breeder development programs.
That’s not the case in China. The CFR-600 is a sodium-cooled fast-neutron reactor, which means instead of using water, like most of the world’s working nuclear power plants, it’s cooled by liquid sodium, with a much broader temperature range and less interactivity than water. And fast neutrons have more natural energy than the alternative, thermal neutrons, which must be held in a temperature-controlled medium in order to act. Fast reactors don’t require the medium.
Inside the CFR-600 is a fuel called mixed oxide (MOX), which is made from nuclear waste plutonium and depleted uranium. It’s the next step in a process China started in 2003 with the design of the China Experimental Fast Reactor (CEFR). Each of the two CFR-600 reactors will produce 1500 MWt and 600 MWe of energy.
That’s good. The problem? The fast reactor uses more uranium, which is why nuclear scientists moved away from it decades ago due to the high cost of uranium fuel.
So why, then, is China building a breeder reactor in addition to its large portfolio of light, water-cooled reactors—the traditional kind on which most of the world’s nuclear plants rely?
Here’s where the situation gets even more complicated. In a new paper, experts from the Nonproliferation Policy Education Center (NPEC) say with the amount of weapons-grade plutonium the fast reactors will make, China could have 1,270 nuclear warheads by 2030. That’s as many as the U.S. has in its intercontinental ballistic missile arsenal.
The two recent former U.S. Assistant Secretaries of State for International Security and Nonproliferation who wrote the new paper urge world governments to confront the Chinese government about what the reactors mean for China’s weapons program:
“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.”
Instead of engaging in dialogue, the experts say, China has made its nuclear program more and more opaque. The U.S., Japan, and South Korea all report the state of their “civil” plutonium (meaning not used in weaponry) to the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), and the report urges China to do the same, because it hasn’t since 2017.
Why would China be stockpiling plutonium behind closed doors? “China is 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,” the experts explain, and accumulating plutonium gives them even more of these critical resources.
It could be that China simply wants large amounts of plutonium as a way to feel competitive with other world powers, or to have a persuasive bargaining chip if needed. Scientists will likely keep questioning the breeder reactors, especially as more countries build up their nuclear plants as a way to work toward carbon neutrality.