Two new nuclear reactors are being built on the island of Changbiao on the Chinese coastline, with an expected operation start of 2023 and 2026, respectively. The opening of these nuclear reactors however has some experts concerned as they are of a particular type that creates more nuclear fuel than they consume, Al Jazeera reports, One of the products of such reactors is plutonium and the concern is related to the possibility that this could be used in nuclear weapons.
The two reactors are of the China Fast Reactor 600 (CFR-600) kind. Fast reactors were popular in the 1960s and '70s across several countries, but most of them were decommissioned. Currently, there are two commercial reactors in Russia and two test reactors in India and Japan. China's first nuclear reactor, the China Experimental Fast Reactor completed its operation in 2011.
The vast majority of nuclear reactors use water to cool down the reactions and slow down the neutrons released by the reaction. In fast reactors such as these, instead, liquid sodium is used. There are challenges in this approach but the advantage is the dramatic increase in efficiency in energy production.
Light-water reactors tend to extract less than 1 percent of the energy from uranium in the reactor. Fast reactors have a 100 times higher efficiency, extracting almost all the possible energy from uranium or thorium fuel. The CFR-600 are sodium-cooled fast-reactors whose main drawback is that sodium leaks are often common.
In 2006, the United States, France, and Japan made an agreement to research and develop sodium-cooled fast reactors but currently there are no new ones in construction. The CFR-600 will produce plutonium. Plutonium can be used as fuel for other nuclear reactors but it can be also used in nuclear warheads.
Experts at the Nonproliferation Policy Education Center in Washington, DC are trying to highlight this potential concern. Until 2017, China participated in the annual voluntary declaration of civilian plutonium to the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA).
“By exploiting this weapons plutonium and the highly enriched uranium and tritium that China can easily access or make, Beijing by 2030 could conservatively assemble an arsenal of 1,270 warheads (nearly as many as the US currently has deployed on its intercontinental missiles),” the report from the Nonproliferation Policy Education Center states.
China has an estimated 300 to 350 nuclear weapons. The US-China relationship continues to be fraught so it is currently unclear if serious discussions on nuclear risk reduction will take place any time soon.
[H/T: Al Jazeera]