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Plutonium Recovery and Recycle Plans in China: Review of a Report; By L. V. Krishnan

C3S Paper No. 0014/2016

The recent Report on the Cost of Reprocessing in China by Bunn et al[1] provides a very comprehensive analysis of the subject. Bunn and his Chinese co-authors have brought out many relevant details about the various aspects of the Chinese nuclear program derived from sources in Chinese language. The thrust of their objective is to persuade China to defer the programme for recovery and reuse of plutonium in reactors. They present extensive data on economics of the plans to argue that the high cost of the programme is a sufficiently strong reason for such deferment.

The Party ruling China has taken bold decisions in many areas. Flush with funds, the Party has undertaken numerous projects at great cost despite domestic protests and international reservations.

An exception is a certain degree of hesitation on the part of Chinese Government in the matter of recovery and reuse of plutonium. This may have encouraged the Authors of the Report in marshalling their arguments.

Early Military Programme

The initial focus in China, for almost three decades, was on rapid development of nuclear weapons. It was marked by firm decisions in the matter of indigenous construction of reactors and plutonium production plants for the purpose. With several reactors of a combined total of 240 MWt capacity, it was possible to recover about 2 tons of plutonium. It was a rushed programme implemented by a nation in complete isolation. It served the purpose but did not result in mastery of nuclear technology.

Nuclear Power Programme

When attention turned to civilian applications in mid-1980s, China was in a position to choose to seek, adapt and appropriate foreign technology, made available by willing countries like France, Russia, Canada and the US, for building nuclear power stations. These are of several different designs including some that are indigenous. A large indigenous manufacturing base has now been established for rapid expansion of the programme from the present level of 29,000 MWe to about 88,000 MWe by 2030, dominated by Light Water Reactors (LWRs).[2]The level of confidence in indigenous capability has now risen sufficiently to sell to the world Chinese designed LWRs.

However,in the matter of recovery of plutonium from Spent Nuclear Fuel (SNF) and recycle it in Fast Reactors (FRs), there is clear evidence of absence of the same degree of confidence as in launching the weapons programme.

Civilian Efforts for Plutonium Recovery

A small civilian pilot plant for recovery of plutonium with a capacity to treat 50 tons of SNF per year was cold-commissioned in 2005 aftera seven year construction period.[3] But, hot testing did not begin until 2010 and was terminated after a few days. With a production so far of a mere 25 kg of plutonium in five years, it is estimated to take another year or two before it can commence regular operation.

Efforts have been made since 2007 to seek the assistance of France and Russia for building a large plant to treat 800 tons of SNF per year.But these have not reached any conclusion because of the considerable gulf between the prices quoted and what is said to be acceptable to China. There was also a proposal to build a 200 ton plant modelled on the pilot plant and at the same site, with a plant for production of plutonium containing MOX fuel adjacent to it.[4] But, nothing has come of it so far.

Fast Reactor Programme

The ambitious nuclear power programme that is taking shape leads to accumulation of large amounts of SNF and there is a desire to introduce FRs to utilise the plutonium produced by LWRs.

A small experimental FR of 25 MWe (Chinese Experimental Fast Reactor, CEFR) was commissioned in 2010 after 10 years of construction. In the absence of plutonium availability, the reactor was fuelled with highly enriched uranium (HEU) supplied by Russia.[5]After running for 26 hours in 2011, it operated for just 72 hours and at full power in Dec 2014. Regular operation is still many months away.

In 2004, six years before the commissioning of the pilot FRP and the CEFR, the Government was urged to develop commercial FR technology. Two years later, negotiations began with Russia to buy two Russian FRs of the BN800 series.The proposal was for these two units to be commissioned in ten years i.e, by 2018 and to have an indigenous 1000 MWe FR in 2028. The protracted negotiations with Russia have not yet reached finality due to differences about the price and to China’s demand for IP rights.

After the initial ambitions for indigenous development of large fast reactors, the FR programme was then downscaled in 2013 to build a 600 MWe FR by 2023 by way of demonstration of capability.

Recommendations by the Authors of the Report

The authors of the Report have lined up ten reasons to support their recommendation that China should defer plans for plutonium recovery and recycling by some decades:

  1. FRPs are expensive as seen from the experience in Japan and UK.

  2. Money to be spent on them can be used to build 10 GWe of LWRs.

  3. China has access to the needed Uranium for LWRs.[6]

  4. Chinese plans seem to be to recover Plutonium from LWRs as fuel in FR and not in LWRs; but FRs can run on HEU fuel.

  5. There are ample stocks of Plutonium held in other countries that can also be an option for use in the Chinese FRs.

  6. It is advisable to go slow on FR program and await newer designs with enhanced safety, now under development in the world.

  7. Indigenous technology for FRPs is yet to develop; there is very limited experience in design and operation of FRPs; expansion of SNF storage facilities in the meanwhile can defer the need for FRPs.

  8. It is prudent to focus R&D now on FRPs to process SNF from FRs rather than LWRs.

  9. China should pursue R&D on proliferation resistant designs of FRPs.

  10. Large reprocessing program would call for extensive HR and that would compete with the expanding power programme.

Is China likely to pay heed? Time alone can tell. A variety of considerations influence decisions by Governments. Some of these are nation dependent in nature. Party politics play a role in democracies. Autocracies are free from it. Whatever may be the nature of Government, domestic compulsions would have a significant role in the final decisions.

For the benefit of Indian readers, it may be pointed out that in somewhat of a contrast, with little outside help, India has set up and operated three small FRPs and a MOX fuel fabrication plant for a number of years.[7] It has recovered enough plutonium from the Pressurised Heavy Water Reactors (PHWRs) to feed the Fast Breeder Test Reactor (FBTR) that has been operating for over twenty years and the Prototype Fast Breeder Reactor (PFBR) now being readied for commissioning. An FRP to treat SNF from FRs is under construction. Plans have been announced for construction of two more FRs. There is however, as yet, no analysis of the related costs for comparison purposes.

India is now undertaking R&D in development of metal fuelled FRs with co-located FRPs. A proliferation resistant, remotely operated dry process is being developed for recovery of plutonium mixed with uranium and some fission products. With similarity of interests as is evident, there would appear to be scope for technical cooperation in these areas between India and China.

About the Authors of the Report:

Matthew Bunn is a Professor of Practice at Harvard University’s John F. Kennedy School of Government. His research interests include nuclear theft and terrorism; nuclear proliferation and measures to control it; the future of nuclear energy and its fuel cycle; and policies to promote innovation in energy technologies.

Hui Zhang is a Senior Research Associate at the Project on Managing the Atom in the Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs at Harvard University’s John F. Kennedy School of Government.  He is leading a research initiative on China’s nuclear policies for the Project on Managing the Atom. His researches include verification techniques of nuclear arms control, the control of fissile material, nuclear terrorism, China’s nuclear policy, nuclear safeguards and non-proliferation, policy of nuclear fuel cycle and reprocessing.

Li Kang is a senior engineer with China Nuclear Power Engineering Co., Ltd (CNPE) and deputy director of the Economic Evaluation Division of the Institute of Engineering Economics within the China National Nuclear Corporation.


[1]Matthew Bunn, Hui Zhang, and Li Kang, “The Cost of Reprocessing in China.” (Project on Managing the Atom, Report, Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs, Harvard Kennedy School, January 2016).

[2] Recent experience is that construction of many reactors has been completed in a little over five years.

[3] The plant has space for storage for 1,260 tons of SNF from power stations, but its location in remote Gansu province calls for SNF to be transported over thousands of miles to get there. Indications are that two possible coastal sites closer to the power stations are being considered for the 800 ton plant.

[4]MOX refers to a mixture of the oxides of depleted uranium and plutonium. China is reported to have made unsuccessful attempts to get a Belgium firm to help in building the MOX fuel plant.

[5] At that time, there were three Russia supplied enrichment plants in operation in China that were engaged mainly in producing LEU for LWRs. There were no domestic plants, civilian or military. See Zhang, Hui, “China’s Uranium Enrichment Capacity: Rapid Expansion to Meet Commercial Needs.” (The Project on Managing the Atom, Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs, Harvard University, August 2015).

[6]China has already firmed up uranium supplies from various parts of the world amounting to 132,000 tons between 2014 and 2050. See Hui Zhang and Yunsheng Bai, China’s Access to Uranium Resources, (The Project on Managing the Atom, Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs, Harvard University, May 2015)

[7] It includes two FRPs of 100 ton capacity and one of about 6o tons. About two tons of MOX fuel has been produced for loading in the PFBR.

(The author, Mr. L.V. Krishnan, is a C3S Member and Former Director – Safety Research Group, Indira Gandhi Centre for Atomic Research, Kalpakkam, Tamil Nadu,India. Email id:

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