No one outside China knows if two new nuclear reactors that are under construction and that will produce plutonium serve a dual civilian-military use.
Like many of the over 5,000 small islands dotting China’s coastline, the islet of Changbiao is unremarkable in its history and geography. Jutting out from the shoreline of Fujian province like a small right-footed footprint, it has only gained recognition recently – and even then among a small handful of experts – for being home to China’s first two CFR-600 sodium-cooled fast-neutron nuclear reactors.
Currently under construction, the first of the two reactors is expected to connect to the grid in 2023; the second one around 2026. Together they will produce non-fossil-fuel-based renewable energy that could help China secure its energy needs while at the same time moving the country towards its 2060 carbon-neutral goal.
The two reactors being built on Changbiao are closed fuel cycle nuclear breeder reactors. They produce plutonium. That plutonium could be reprocessed and used as a fuel source for other nuclear reactors. It could also be used to produce nuclear warheads, a lot of nuclear warheads, and produce them very quickly.
But no one outside of the Chinese officials and companies overseeing the projects knows if the intended use is purely for civilian energy, or if it serves a dual purpose for the country’s perceived nuclear deterrent needs.
That question gained even more urgency this week after a United States official accused Beijing of resisting bilateral talks with Washington on nuclear risk reduction.
The reason these breeder reactors are shrouded in mystery is that China, which had been transparent about its civilian plutonium programme until recently, stopped annual voluntary declarations to the International Atomic Energy Agency [IAEA] on its stocks of civilian plutonium in 2017 and has not added the reactors to the agency’s database to date.