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No.39 2022/08/17

Observations on Lack of Transparency in China’s Nuclear Arms Expansion: Ahead of the NPT Review Conference

Yuki Kobayashi (Research Fellow, Sasakawa Peace Foundation)

1. Problems Created by China’s Nuclear Arms Expansion

The Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) Review Conference, which has been postponed due to the Covid pandemic, will now be held in New York in August 2022. The review conference is a meeting held every five years to gauge the compliance of member states to the treaty, particularly Article 6 on “pursuing negotiations in good faith on nuclear disarmament[1].” There will be many issues of concern at the upcoming session. As a result of Russia’s military invasion of Ukraine last February, with Russia threatening and intimidating Ukraine and its allies with the use of nuclear weapons, there has been a tremendous deterioration of relations between the two nuclear superpowers, the U.S. and Russia. In addition, there are issues of particular concern for Japan in the Asian region about China pursuing nuclear armament with no transparency.

According to analysis in the 2020 edition of “Military and Security Developments Involving the People’s Republic of China,” a report on military trends in China submitted by the U.S. Department of Defense (DoD) to Congress each year, “Over the next decade, China’s nuclear warhead stockpile—currently estimated to be in the low-200s—is projected to at least double in size[2].” The 2021 edition further predicts that “The PRC likely intends to have at least 1,000 warheads by 2030, exceeding the pace and size the DoD projected in 2020[3].”

One of the factors behind this upward adjustment is that China has increased its production of plutonium for civilian use (for power generation) and is allegedly secretly attempting to convert this for military use.

As a matter of fact, China suddenly stopped its hitherto yearly report on its plutonium holdings to the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) in 2017. During this same period, it started construction of two nuclear fuel reprocessing facilities to extract plutonium from spent fuel from nuclear power plants. This was detected by the Nonproliferation Policy Education Center (NPEC), an organization formed by nuclear nonproliferation experts and former policy planners, through the analysis of satellite images[4]. The Pentagon’s report is also based on such analysis.

Lack of transparency in plutonium production and nuclear arms expansion not only heightens tension between the U.S. and China and in the Asian region, but it may also emaciate the IAEA’s regime for international nuclear materials management. In addition, this may even lead to the collapse of the global nuclear order built around the NPT.

This article will first present an outlook of China’s plutonium production capability in the future and analyze changes in its nuclear strategy. It will also look into the impact of China’s nuclear arms expansion on its neighbors and the international community and what role Japan needs to play to alleviate this impact.

2. Trends in China’s Plutonium Production and Projected Number of Nuclear Warheads

(1) History and Future of Plutonium Production

For many years, China had produced its plutonium at a military facility in the inland province of Kansu. However, this facility was shut down by 1987[5].

It has become clear that under a desperate situation in which the existing international order is crumbling, there are two non-negotiable bottom lines, or so-called core interests, in China’s diplomacy.

Meanwhile, civilian use of nuclear energy started in earnest in the 1980s. From 2010 onward, contrary to the global slowdown in the use of nuclear energy in the aftermath of the Fukushima Daichi Nuclear Plant accident, China has built more nuclear plants to reduce the ratio of coal-fired power generation as part of its effort to deal with global warming. These consist mostly of pressurized water reactors (PWR) built through technology transfer from France[6]. As of January 2021, there are 48 nuclear plants in operation, a number exceeding that in Japan, and 16 more are in the works[7].

However, due to economic development, demand for power is predicted to be double the level in 2020 by 2040. If China is to meet the increasing demand for power with more PWRs, it will have to procure 50% of the world’s supply of uranium[8]. To avoid shortage of nuclear fuel, China is aiming to establish nuclear fuel cycle technology by extracting plutonium from spent fuel at PWRs, mixing this with uranium to fabricate mixed oxide fuel (MOX fuel) for use at fast breeder reactors (FBR), which generate electricity more efficiently. With this technology, China plans to supply 80% of its nuclear energy with FBRs by 2050[9]. For this purpose, China reportedly built a new experimental plutonium reprocessing plant at a site next to the previously closed down military facility, which began operations around 2010. However, this facility had been marred with numerous troubles, and it is estimated that it was only able to start operating normally around 2019[10].

Since 2015, construction of two new reprocessing plants is underway in the desert in Kansu Province at a location not far from the experimental plant. While the Chinese government and the China National Nuclear Corporation (CNNC), the company operating these plants, have not revealed any details of these reprocessing facilities, the NPEC’s analysis of satellite images shows that civil construction work for the first plant was completed in February 2020 and installation of machinery and equipment is ongoing. Based on progress made in the construction work, it is reckoned that the first plant will become operational around 2025, while the second one, around 2030.

The fast breeders that will use reprocessed plutonium from the above facilities are known as “dream nuclear reactors” where new plutonium is “produced” through nuclear fuel reaction during their operation, enabling the recovery of more plutonium than the amount of nuclear fuel injected[11]. The U.S., Russia, France, the UK, and Japan were the leaders in developing this technology for practical application. Japan operated the “Monju” prototype reactor[12] from 1994 to 1995. However, the management of sodium used to cool the reactors has proved to be a big challenge, so the U.S. ceased development in the 1980s; the UK and France did the same in the 1990s, while Japan decided to decommission the prototype FBR in 2018. On the other hand, China has moved ahead with its FBR development with technical assistance from Russia, and two large FBRs called CFR-600 (1,500 MW, power generation capacity is 1.5-2 times that of PWRs operating in Japan) are scheduled to start operation in 2023 and 2026[13].

However, FBR development always comes with concerns about the conversion of nuclear materials for military use because it will be easy to extract weapon-class ultrapure plutonium-239.

While it is difficult to extract ultrapure plutonium-239 from the PWRs and other nuclear reactors currently used for power generation in the world, massive amounts of weapon-class plutonium can be obtained by reprocessing the newly produced plutonium in FBRs. For this reason, the IAEA had closely monitored the movement of fuel while the “Monju” was in operation from the standpoint of nuclear nonproliferation. However, China is allowed to possess nuclear weapons under the NPT, so it is not required to accept IAEA inspection. If the operation of FBRs begins in earnest in China, it is highly possible that the international community will no longer be able to track movement of nuclear fuel.

(2) China’s Plutonium Holdings

According to the declared cumulative amount of plutonium holdings under the IAEA’s “Guidelines for the Management of Plutonium,” the last declaration made by China in 2016 was 40.9 kilograms. (See Table 1)

Table 1: Guidelines for the Management of Plutonium (China)
Year 2010 2011 2012 2013 2014 2015 2016
Amount 13.8 13.8 13.8 13.8 25.4 25.4 40.9

* Created by this author based on “Guidelines for the Management of Plutonium, 2017”

If the two new CFR-600s start operating as planned, these alone will allow China to acquire up to over 330 kilograms of weapon-use plutonium each year. Since one nuclear warhead for missiles requires 3.5±0.5 kilograms of plutonium, this amount is equivalent to 82-110 nuclear warheads. Table 2 below is the NPEC’s estimates of annual plutonium production and cumulative holdings by 2030, including those by smaller reactors currently in operation. A certain margin in the amount of plutonium extraction is postulated, factoring in the technical difficulties in nuclear fuel cycle technology.

Table 2: China’s Plutonium Production with FBRs
Year Small FBRs (kg) 2 CFR-600s (kg) Total (kg)
2012-2020 45-46 45-56
2021 5-7 50-63
2022 5-7 55-70
2023 5-7 60-77
2024 5-7 91-164 156-248
2025 5-7 91-164 252-419
2026 5-7 91-164 348-590
2027 5-7 187-337 540-934
2028 5-7 187-337 732-1278
2029 5-7 187-337 924-1622
2030 5-7 192-346 1121-1975

* Created by this author based on NPEC, China’s Civil Nuclear Sector: Plowshares to Swords?

Based on the cumulative amount of plutonium production by FBRs by 2030 in Table 2 (in bold letters), adding currently held plutonium and newly produced plutonium after the two reprocessing plants become operational, NPEC estimates that China will have 2.9±0.6 tons of weapon-class plutonium by the end of 2030, which is equivalent to 830±210 nuclear warheads[14]. This shows that the U.S. DoD’s analysis that China “likely intends to have 1,000 warheads by 2030” conforms with the projection of the increase in its plutonium production in the future.

3. Changes in China’s Nuclear Strategy

(1) From Minimum Deterrence to Mutual Assured Destruction

The reason why China’s increased plutonium production gives rise to suspicions in the U.S. and China’s neighbors is because its activities lack transparency, and this is perceived to reflect changes in its nuclear strategy.

Since China conducted a successful nuclear test in 1964, it had adopted a minimum deterrence policy aimed at possessing the minimum retaliation capability against nuclear attacks as deterrence. In concrete terms, this means possessing sufficient nuclear warheads that could survive the first strike by the U.S. or the Soviet Union, which would guarantee the capability to retaliate against major American or Soviet cities. Considering China’s inferior economic power at that time, this was not “symmetric equilibrium” premised on the capability to destroy the enemy with a second strike but “asymmetric equilibrium” to deter the enemy from using nuclear weapons with the capability to retaliate against major cities[15].

However, with the modernization of U.S. nuclear weapons after the end of the Cold War, it abrogated its Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty (ABM Treaty) with Russia in 2001[16] and has since strived to strengthen missile defense. This has rendered the premise of China’s hitherto minimum deterrence strategy untenable. Its main nuclear missile for attacking U.S. cities, “Dongfeng 5” (with a range of 12,000 kilometers) is a land-based system, which is vulnerable to U.S. preemptive strikes supported by satellite intelligence gathering. Furthermore, with the deployment of missile defense systems on the U.S. mainland, even missiles surviving the first strike may possibly be neutralized, so it has become difficult for China to maintain second-strike capability[17].

Therefore, China has begun to pursue strategic stability through a power equilibrium based on the possession of mutual assured destruction capability against the U.S. by increasing its number of nuclear warheads and diversifying delivery systems[18]. Besides succeeding in testing the mobile missile system “Dongfeng 31” (with a range of 8,000 kilometers) in 1999, China has also been upgrading the “Dongfeng 5” series into Multiple Independently-Targetable Reentry Vehicle (MIRV) missiles. Furthermore, it is developing hypersonic missiles and other weapons capable of penetrating missile defense systems[19].

(2) Issues Relating to Nuclear Transparency

These changes in China’s nuclear policy have also been implemented with no transparency.

The two nuclear superpowers, the U.S. and Russia (including the former USSR), have sought to ensure nuclear “transparency,” prevent accidental nuclear wars, and otherwise reduce the nuclear risk by exchanging quantitative information on the number of nuclear warheads deployed, the number of delivery vehicles they possess, and their location through bilateral treaties, requiring mutual verification by inspectors from both sides, notification of missile tests, and allowing surveillance with both sides’ technology (mainly reconnaissance satellites).

On the other hand, China is not a part of the nuclear arms control treaties between the U.S. and Russia, and it has not disclosed any information on its nuclear capability, even at such forums as the Review Conference of the NPT, a multilateral treaty. In this regard, China asserts that it is “transparent with regard to its intentions on nuclear arms, so there is no need to disclose quantitative information.”

“Transparency of intentions” refers to the fact that among the five nations (the U.S., Russia, China, the UK, and France) allowed to possess nuclear arms under NPT, China is the only one that has declared an unconditional “no first use (NFU)” nuclear policy[20]. It argues that “since China as a state is clear in its intention not to be the first to use nuclear arms under any circumstances and it only possesses a minimum second strike capability, its national security will not be tenable if it discloses the number and location of delivery vehicles based on the same standards as the U.S. and Russia[21].”

Table 3: Number of Nuclear Warheads in the World (as of June 2021)
Country Total Deployed
Russia 6,260 1,600
U.S. 5,550 1,800
China 350 0
France 290 280
UK 225 120
Pakistan 165 0
India 160 0
Israel 90 0
North Korea 40 0
Total 13,130 3,800

*Created by this author based on The World's Nuclear Warheads Count, 2021, Research

Center for Nuclear Weapons Abolition, Nagasaki University (RECNA).

Based on this argument and its policy of no first use, since China envisions only retaliatory strikes after a nuclear attack by an enemy, it is reckoned that its nuclear warheads and delivery vehicles are stored separately. According to the definitions in past U.S.-Russia treaties, including New START (Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty)[22], China technically has zero deployed nuclear weapons. (See Table 3)[23]

Nevertheless, China’s attempts to boost its nuclear capability in recent years, such as by upgrading missiles carrying nuclear warheads into MIRVs, have certainly raised doubts in the international community as to whether its no first use nuclear policy will be maintained[24].

4. Impact of Changes in China’s Nuclear Strategy and the Necessary Response

(1) Impact of China’s Nuclear Arms Expansion

Changes in China’s nuclear strategy and its military expansion may have a serious impact on the international community both in terms of the military situation and nuclear nonproliferation. Militarily speaking, if China determines that it has achieved “mutual assured destruction” with the U.S. and is now able to deter U.S. intervention in security issues in the Asian region, it is feared that it may take aggressive action, including changing the status quo by force.

The impact on the NPT regime will also be serious. While Article 4 of NPT has a provision on the “inalienable right” of non-nuclear-weapon nations to use nuclear materials for civilian purposes, Article 3 stipulates that with a view to preventing diversion of nuclear energy from peaceful uses to nuclear weapons or other nuclear explosive devices, non-nuclear-weapon states undertake to accept IAEA safeguards (monitoring, inspections). The nuclear-weapon powers are exempted from the safeguards, so there has been increasing discontent among the non-nuclear-weapon states that it is unfair that despite their forgoing the option to acquire nuclear weapons for membership in NPT, they are the only ones subject to strict monitoring and inspections. If China converts plutonium for civilian use to military purposes behind the IAEA's back, Iran and other nations keen on developing nuclear arms may follow suit.

(2) The Necessary Response and Japan’s Role

In light of China’s nuclear arms expansion, the 2019 edition of Japan’s National Defense Program Guidelines states: “In dealing with the threat of nuclear weapons, U.S. extended deterrence, with nuclear deterrence at its core, is essential: Japan will closely cooperate with the United States to maintain and enhance its credibility. To deal with the threat, Japan will also increase its own efforts including comprehensive air and missile defense as well as civil protection. At the same time, towards the long-term goal of bringing about a world free of nuclear weapons, Japan will play an active and positive role in nuclear disarmament and non-proliferation.” Japan is taking the position of pursuing two goals that seem to be in conflict in the short term, the enhancement of deterrence and abolition of nuclear weapons.

While the discussion on what, specifically, Japan needs to do to strengthen the credibility of U.S. extended deterrence, with nuclear deterrence at its core, can be entrusted to experts on deterrence, Japan needs to respond to Russia, which has been reinforcing its deployment of intermediate-range cruise missiles after the U.S.-Russia Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty (INF Treaty) expired in 2019, and North Korea, which is accelerating its development of nuclear arms and missiles. It is important for Japan to realize that considering the added factor of China’s nuclear arms expansion, it is probably the country facing the harshest security environment in the world[25].

What Japan can contribute to nuclear disarmament and nonproliferation is to advocate greater nuclear transparency under a multilateral framework in order to maintain the NPT regime’s credibility and manage nuclear armament.

Japan is a member of the Non-Proliferation and Disarmament Initiative (NPDI) consisting of 10 nations adopting a pragmatic approach to nuclear disarmament, including Australia, Germany, and Canada. This group proposes a standard format for the nuclear-weapon countries to report on the number and status of their nuclear warheads and delivery vehicles[26]. Setting up a framework comprehensible to other countries on the status of nuclear weapons deployment by these countries, including China, at the NPT Review Conference will be a first step toward deliberations on concrete steps for nuclear disarmament.

Japan’s knowledge and experience will also be useful for preventing the linkage of civilian use of atomic energy to the development of nuclear weapons. Japan is the only non-nuclear-weapon state authorized to extract plutonium at nuclear fuel cycle facilities and reuse this in FBRs. This is because as the only country in the world that has been atomic bombed in a war, Japan is recognized to have cooperated fully with the IAEA and contributed earnestly to the compatibility of nuclear nonproliferation and civilian use of nuclear energy in terms of the use of nuclear materials that could be converted to military purposes. From now on, Japan should serve as the voice of the non-nuclear-weapon states’ discontent by proposing at the NPT that the nuclear-weapon powers currently not obliged to undergo IAEA inspections be required to report to IAEA on their weapon-class highly enriched uranium and plutonium and the operation of facilities producing such materials for the sake of ensuring transparency. Furthermore, by using its accumulated technology for denuclearization, verification of nuclear disarmament, and in other areas, Japan can enhance its international credibility as a model of civilian use of nuclear energy and an advocate of nuclear nonproliferation.

Japan was the one that brought China into the NPT’s fold. With China suffering from international isolation after the Tiananmen Incident in 1989, Japan asked China to make contributions to the international community and succeeded in realizing its NPT membership in 1992[27] as part of the process of laying the groundwork for resuming yen loans. If only to build on such diplomatic achievement, Japan should show the way to strengthen nuclear nonproliferation and achieve nuclear disarmament in a multilateral framework.

(August 17, 2022)

1 Article 6 of NPT stipulates: “Each of the Parties to the Treaty undertakes to pursue negotiations in good faith on effective measures relating to cessation of the nuclear arms race at an early date and to nuclear disarmament, and on a treaty on general and complete disarmament under strict and effective international control.”
[https://www.iaea.org/sites/default/files/publications/documents/infcircs/1970/infcirc140.pdf]

2 Office of the Secretary of Defense, Military and Security Developments Involving the People’s Republic of China 2020.
[https://media.defense.gov/2020/Sep/01/2002488689/-1/-1/1/2020-DOD-CHINA-MILITARY-POWER-REPORT-FINAL.PDF]

3 Office of the Secretary of Defense, Military and Security Developments Involving the People’s Republic of China 2021.
[https://media.defense.gov/2021/Nov/03/2002885874/-1/-1/0/2021-CMPR-FINAL.PDF]

4 Henry D. Sokolski, China’s Civil Nuclear Sector: Plowshares to Swords? 2021, pp. 6-22.

5 Hui Zhang, “China’s Plutonium Recycling Programs: Status and Issues,” (in Japanese) New Diplomacy Initiative, 2022, Vol. 15, p. 1.
[For English version, see:https://www.nd-initiative.org/wordpress/wp-content/uploads/2022/06/Hui_eng.pdf]

6 PWRs generate power by sending heated high-pressure water produced in the nuclear reactor to a steam generator, thereby releasing steam that drives the turbines and spins the electric generator. In addition to PWRs, boiling water reactors (BWR) at Japanese nuclear plants send steam produced in the reactor directly to the turbines.

7 Japan Atomic Industrial Forum, Inc. Sekai no genshiryoku hatsuden kaihatsu no doukou 2021 nen ban (World nuclear power plants' report 2021) (in Japanese), May 28, 2021.

8 Mark Hibbs, The Future of Nuclear Power in China, 2018, p. 77.

9 Ibid.

10 “China’s Plutonium Recycling Programs: Status and Issues,” p. 1.

11Yume no genshiro monju shoumetsu de shikichi katasumi ni shin kenkyuro: jimoto ha ondosa (New research reactor set up in a nook of the site after demise of dream nuclear reactor monju: Local residents differ in their reaction” (in Japanese), Mainichi Shimbun, April 30, 2022. (Members-only content)

12 Development of FBRs goes through the stages of experimental reactor, prototype reactor, demonstration reactor, and operational reactor. The experimental reactor is used to validate the technological base; the prototype reactor establishes the power generation technology; the demonstration reactor gauges the economic performance; finally, reaching the operational reactor stage for commercial use.

13 China’s Civil Nuclear Sector: Plowshares to Swords? p. 16.

14 Ibid.

15 Nobumasa Akiyama and Sugio Takahashi. “Kaku no boukyaku” no boukyaku no owari: Kakuheiki fukken no jidai (The end of nuclear forgetting: Revival of nuclear weapons) (in Japanese), Keiso Shobo, June 2019, pp. 73-92.

16 The U.S.-Soviet ABM Treaty took effect in October 1972. It imposed strong restrictions on the development and deployment of anti-ballistic missile systems that intercept strategic ballistic missiles. The treaty was signed for the purpose of mutual deterrence of nuclear attacks by deliberately maintaining weak defense positions on both sides. See Gunshuku jiten (Disarmament Dictionary) (in Japanese), Japan Association of Disarmament Studies, Shinzansha, 2015.

17Kaku no boukyaku” no boukyaku no owari: Kakuheiki fukken no jidai (The end of nuclear forgetting: Revival of nuclear weapons), pp. 78-80.

18 Military and Security Developments Involving the People’s Republic of China 2020, pp. 85-86.

19 “Kaku no boukyaku” no boukyaku no owari: Kakuheiki fukken no jidai (The end of nuclear forgetting: Revival of nuclear weapons), pp. 81-92.

20 Policy of not using nuclear weapons before the enemy does in an armed conflict. However, the option of retaliating with nuclear weapons is kept open if the enemy uses them first. If a regime of no first use is established, the role of nuclear weapons will be limited to deterring other nuclear-weapon states from using such weapons, so this serves to promote nuclear disarmament. Since China succeeded in its nuclear test in October 1964, it has consistently declared a policy of unconditional no first use, that it will not be the first to use nuclear weapons under any circumstances. See Gunshuku jiten (Disarmament Dictionary) (in Japanese).

21 Michiru Nishida. Kaku no toumeisei (Nuclear Transparency) (in Japanese), Shinzansha, November 2020, pp. 260-285.

22 The New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty was signed between the U.S. and Russia in April 2010 to replace the First Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (START 1) that expired in December 2009. It took effect in February 2011. The treaty stipulates that the two countries shall reduce the number of their deployed strategic nuclear warheads below 1,550 and the total number of missiles, bombers, and other delivery vehicles below 800 (with actual deployed vehicles below 700) by 2018. The treaty was due to expire in February 2021, but the two countries agreed to extend it by five years. See Gunshuku jiten (Disarmament Dictionary) and other sources.

23 Kaku no toumeisei (Nuclear Transparency), pp. 260-285.

24 Ibid.

25 “Kaku no boukyaku” no boukyaku no owari: Kakuheiki fukken no jidai (The end of nuclear forgetting: Revival of nuclear weapons), pp. 235-249.

26 Kaku no toumeisei (Nuclear Transparency), pp. 169-201.

27 Masakatsu Ota. Kaku no daibunki: Kizon chitsujo no youkai ka shinki chitsujo no keisei ka (Great divergence of nuclear age: Disintegration of the existing order or the formation of a new order?) (in Japanese), Kamogawa Shuppan, June 2021, pp. 146-152.

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