Toward the end of the first week of the new year this item appeared in my e-mail queue. The report was interesting because, in announcing a new contract for fuel to be provided by Russian fabricator TVEL for the 20 MWe China Experimental Fast Reactor (CEFR), it suggested that CEFR will continue indefinitely to use highly-enriched uranium (HEU).

Mark Hibbs
Hibbs is a Germany-based nonresident senior fellow in Carnegie’s Nuclear Policy Program. His areas of expertise are nuclear verification and safeguards, multilateral nuclear trade policy, international nuclear cooperation, and nonproliferation arrangements.
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Since the CEFR project was launched in the 1990s, and as late as 2013, scientists at the China Institute of Atomic Energy (CIAE), who are leading the way for China’s breeder program, indicated that CEFR would after a trial period be fueled with mixed plutonium/uranium oxide (MOX), and that MOX would be chosen as the initial fuel for the first of a line of industrial-scale, power-generating breeders; construction of the first reactor was aimed to get underway before 2020.

Six years after the reactor went critical and approaching two years after MOX fuel was scheduled to be loaded, so far neither Russia nor China has announced that any MOX fuel would be delivered for CEFR, nor that any MOX has been inserted into the reactor.

During the 2000s China aimed to set up a MOX fabrication plant based on Belgian technology on the Plant 404 site at Jiuquan in Gansu Province. Belgium, according to European officials, would not agree to terms set by China and the project was scuttled. Instead China designed and built an indigenous pilot installation to make 500 kilograms of MOX per year and began operating it in 2013.

I looked around this month and found no information from China pointing to any loading of MOX in CEFR. I’m told on good authority there’s no MOX in the reactor. If CEFR has not yet loaded MOX, two possible and complementary explanations come to mind.

The first is that the Chinese plant has so far not been able to make the fuel (or enough of it) for CEFR. Russia—a country with deep fast reactor experience and China’s partner for the CEFR since the project got underway during the Soviet era—may not be prepared on relatively short notice to make this fuel for Chinese specifications at mutually acceptable terms.

A second possible explanation for continued HEU use in CEFR is that China may be reconsidering the fuel strategy for its future fast reactor program. If that’s the case, China might be looking at going forward right off with alternative fuels, for example, zirconium-uranium/plutonium metal fuel that China and U.S. national laboratories, under the Global Nuclear Energy Partnership (GNEP) in the Bush administration, committed to cooperate on beginning in 2007. If so, it would not make sense for China to design, qualify, license, and manufacture a tiny amount of MOX fuel–at considerable expense–for a pilot fast reactor that has hardly operated and might not serve as the design basis for breeder reactors that China builds in the future. U.S. officials say U.S.-China fast reactor cooperation has been more limited since the Obama administration defunded most of GNEP. But China’s breeder program remains interested in the development of zirconium fast reactor fuel technology that is also planned for the U.S.-supported Terrapower breeder reactor initiative, and the longer term vision for China’s fast reactor program includes an eventual transition to metallic fuel.

Other developments would suggest that China’s fast reactor strategy has been under review. The essential facts are these:

  • After an R&D effort that got underway a quarter-century ago, China has one pilot fast reactor, CEFR. It went critical in 2010 and has infrequently operated since. Most of the know-how and key equipment for CEFR was provided by Russia.
  • After CEFR finally started up, the next planned step in China’s breeder partnership with Russia was construction of one or two BN-800 fast reactors in China. The BN-800 is an industrial-scale power-generating reactor (800 = 800 MWe). The deal for BN-800 in China—according to some Russian sources—collapsed over money, technology transfer terms, and intellectual property rights.
  • Nonetheless, last Nov. 7 Chinese Premier Li Keqiang signed a nuclear cooperation agreement with Russia that included joint work on design and development of advanced fast reactors.
  • Since the mid-2000s China and France have been cooperating on the nuclear fuel cycle on the basis of an MOU that links China’s biggest nuclear state-owned enterprise, the China National Nuclear Corporation (CNNC), with French nuclear industry champion Areva. This partnership includes plans to build a spent fuel reprocessing plant in China. But there is no cooperation between Areva and any Chinese organizations on fast breeder reactor design, development, or deployment.
  • There are unconfirmed rumors that GE-Hitachi is approaching China about its Prism sodium fast reactor design.
  • What remains concerning foreign technology opportunities for China is a potential project to build a breeder reactor with Bill Gates’ Terrapower outfit. This emerged as a possibility after the U.S. firm a couple of years ago raised its game in China by proposing a second reactor design more attractive to CNNC. Gates’ first approach—a “traveling wave” reactor meant to burn a plug of uranium like a cigarette without interruption for half a century—didn’t get a lot of CNNC traction. There are two power reactor-sized designs at issue for China: TWR-P, a prototype, followed by a commercial model called TWR-C. Does the U.S. government support Gates’ project in China? Yes.
  • China is part of two international cooperation arrangements to advance progress on development of new fast reactors. One is the Generation IV International Forum (GIF). The other is the International Project on Innovative Nuclear Reactors and Fuel Cycles (INPRO). But these programs do not provide China any intellectual property to build an industrial-scale fast reactor.

All the above leaves China with the option of designing and building an industrial-scale demonstration breeder reactor on its own.

According to Chinese media in 2015, CIAE’s longtime leading breeder scientist, Xu Mi, said that China was ready to build a 600 MWe fast reactor at a site called Xiapu in Fujian Province (Fujian had been tagged in earlier reports as the selected location for the two BN-800 breeders that didn’t materialize).

This report said construction would begin in 2017. That’s right now. So if this is for real, what’s the design for this reactor? Who did the engineering? Is all the IP Chinese? Is the project beyond the preliminary design? Is there a detailed design? What is the fuel cycle for the reactor? Who will make the fuel? What happens with the spent fuel? Did China’s nuclear regulator, the National Nuclear Safety Administration (NNSA), certify the design for a big fast reactor and award the requisite approvals? Who will pay for the project, for its anticipated cost overruns (just ask Germany, France, US, UK, Russia, India, and Japan about whether that is likely), and for the extra cost for power generation associated with the reactor? (Chinese utilities know very well that electricity production in non-PWR nuclear power plants will be more expensive than in PWRs).

According to Chinese industry sources, several years ago CIAE had changed its mind about a demo 600-MWe breeder and began advocating construction of a 1,000-MWe reactor instead. If a 600-MWe unit is currently again favored, the calculation of the balance of plant will be different than for the bigger reactor.

The sum total of these developments so far suggests that China’s default strategy for industrial fast reactor deployment may, like France and Japan previously, begin with a large demonstration nuclear power plant. But not all the components for this way forward in China are in place. The design of the reactor is not complete. If China, like France or Japan in the 1980s and 1990s, builds a one-off demonstration or prototype unit, that installation could likewise become a stranded asset. The ultimate bottom line is that if China wants to operate an industrial-scale fast reactor for electricity production using plutonium fuels anytime during the 2020s, it will need an inventory of separated plutonium that right now it doesn’t have.

This article originally appeared in Arms Control Wonk