Chinese imports of Russian uranium raise fears of a new arms race.

On the same day in December that Chinese and American diplomats said they had held constructive talks to reduce military tensions, Russian engineers delivered a huge shipment of nuclear fuel to a remote island 220 kilometers off Taiwan’s northern coast.

The so-called Chinese fast reactor on Changbiao Island is one of the world’s most closely guarded nuclear facilities. US intelligence services anticipate that the CFR-600, when commissioned this year, will produce weapons-grade plutonium that could help Beijing quadruple its arsenal of nuclear warheads over the next 12 years. This would allow China to match the nuclear arsenals currently deployed by the United States and Russia.

“This program may be purely civilian,” said Pavel Podvig, a nuclear analyst at the Geneva-based United Nations Institute for Disarmament Research. “One thing that makes me nervous is that China has stopped reporting its stockpiles of civilian and separate plutonium. It is not a good sign”.

Changbiao Island
Changbiao Island

China’s burgeoning ability to expand its atomic weaponry comes as the last remaining treaty to limit the strategic arsenals of the United States. Russia is on the brink of collapse amid spiraling fighting over the Ukraine war.

President Vladimir Putin announced Russia’s withdrawal from the New START deal on February 21; US Vice President Joe Biden called it a “huge mistake.”

In a video conference on December 30, Putin told Chinese President Xi Jinping that cooperation on defense and military technology “occupies a special place” in their relations.

“It is clear that China benefits from Russian support,” says German arms control expert Hanna Notte. The risk for Beijing is that the United States expands its own arsenal in response to China’s arms buildup and the Kremlin’s repeal of arms control treaties.

US Defense Department officials have repeatedly raised alarm bells about China’s nuclear weapons ambitions since releasing a 2021 report to Congress. Military planners see the CFR-600 set to play a key role in increasing China’s arsenal of nuclear warheads to 1,500 by 2035 from an estimated 400 today.

Pentagon officials say the December 12 supply of 6,477 kilograms of uranium by Russia’s state-owned company Rosatom is fueling an atomic program that could destabilize the military balance in Asia, where tensions are rising over Taiwan and control of the South China Sea. 

Experts say China has few means to increase its stockpiles of plutonium for nuclear weapons after its original production program shut down in the 1990s.

China rejects the US concerns. Beijing’s foreign ministry claimed that China “strictly complied with its nuclear nonproliferation obligations” and voluntarily submitted “part of civilian nuclear activities” to the International Atomic Energy Agency.

Defense Ministry spokesman Tan Kefei told a briefing on February 23 that the United States had repeatedly exaggerated the “Chinese nuclear threat” as an excuse to expand its own strategic arsenal while China pursued a defensive policy that did not include the first use of nuclear weapons.

The US protests did not deter China National Nuclear Corp. from taking Rosatom fuel for the CFR-600 reactor, based on a Russian design that uses liquid metal instead of water to cool operation. The Royal United Services Institute, a London think tank, provided Bloomberg with exclusive trade data detailing the transaction.

Nonproliferation efforts are being profoundly affected by the deepening nuclear collaboration between Russia and China. Between September and December, RUSI data shows that Russia exported almost seven times more highly enriched uranium for CFR-600 to China than all the material removed worldwide under the auspices of the United States and the IAEA in the last three decades.

Third-party trade provider RUSI cites Russian customs records in claiming that China paid around $384 million in three installments for 25,000 kg of Rosatom’s CFR-600 gasoline during the time period in question.

Rosatom has refused to comment. The project “will become the first nuclear power station with a high-capacity fast reactor outside of Russia,” according to a statement released by Rosatom’s TVEL Fuel Corporation on December 28.

A select few countries are allowed to produce or possess highly enriched uranium, defined as the presence of refined uranium-235 isotopes with a purity of more than 20%.

The higher the level of enrichment, the closer it approaches suitability for weapons use. The elimination of international trade in highly enriched uranium has been a central pillar of nonproliferation policy since the 1990s.

The CFR-600 is a key component of China’s ambitious $440 billion plan to overtake the United States as the world’s leading supplier of nuclear electricity by the middle of the next decade.

It operates on so-called mixed-oxide fuel and highly enriched uranium, unlike conventional light-water reactors, and can create plutonium suitable for use in nuclear weapons.

In Gansu province, China is constructing a desert factory to separate plutonium from CFR-600 spent fuel. The facility is expected to be finished in two years. Beijing has voluntarily stopped reporting its plutonium reserves to the IAEA since 2017.

Attempts to alleviate tensions between the world’s two largest economies culminated in a high-level diplomatic summit in December between senior US and Chinese officials in Langfang, a nearby city of the Chinese capital.

The cancellation of Blinken’s trip in February after reports of a Chinese surveillance balloon above American airspace prompted Biden to order a US warplane’s shooting down, ratcheting up tensions again. 

Wang Yi, China’s senior diplomat, referred to the US response as “hysterical” at a security conference in Munich, while Blinken told Beijing that he would not contribute fatal weapons to Russia’s war in Ukraine.

Russia has become increasingly dependent on China since Putin’s invasion of Ukraine a year ago triggered unprecedented international sanctions. China has shown little intention of abandoning its staunch diplomatic partner against their common American adversary, even as Beijing presents itself as a neutral player in the war.

As part of the five-member club of official nuclear-weapon states codified under the 1970 Nonproliferation Treaty, China and Russia do not have to report details that could help verify whether CFR-600 is being used to increase the Beijing weapons arsenal. The site is not subject to mandatory IAEA monitoring, forcing the Pentagon and arms control analysts to make assumptions about its purpose.