Chinese Nuclear Weapons and Canada: An Uncivil-Military Connection

Chinese Nuclear Weapons and Canada: An Uncivil-Military Connection

The United States should take action to ensure that domestic and foreign actors are not boosting the nuclear programs of adversaries.

 

For decades, the Defense Department made little or no connection between China’s civilian nuclear power program and its military nuclear weapons buildup. No longer. 

For the last three years, the Pentagon has explicitly linked Beijing’s “peaceful” fast reactor power program to China’s ramped-up weapons plutonium efforts and the projection China will acquire more than 1,000 nuclear warheads by 2030. In its latest annual China military power report, the Defense Department went further and revealed that China is using its civilian nuclear reactors to produce tritium to fuel its thermonuclear weapons. 

 

China is doing this by placing lithium rods in power reactors and bombarding the rods with neutrons. This produces tritium, which subsequently is separated, much like how America makes its weapons tritium. It’s unclear if China uses all its power reactors—American, Canadian, Russian, French, or Chinese-designed—for this purpose.

The Pentagon report, however, notes that China uses a tritiated heavy water extraction process to cull tritium produced when hydrogen atoms absorb neutrons and become tritium atoms. The only reactors in China that use heavy water are located in Haiyan and operated by China National Nuclear Power Corporation (CNNC)—Beijing’s premier nuclear weapons contractor.

Canada supplied these reactors through Atomic Energy of Canada Limited (AECL), a Canadian government-owned firm. In addition, AECL agreed to work with CNNC on advanced heavy water reactors and related technologies. In 2011, AECL sold its heavy water reactor business to SNC-Lavalin Inc. (recently renamed AtkinsRealis). AtkinsRealis continues to collaborate with CNNC on its heavy water reactors.

However, Canada’s nuclear transfers to China aren’t limited to reactors. In late October, the Canadian firm Cameco, one of the world’s largest uranium suppliers, announced it had contracted to sell more than 97,500 metric tons of uranium to CNNC. Cameco says it will send the CNNC more than 12,700 metric tons annually for the next four years. 12,700 metric tons is roughly 200 to 300 metric tons more than China’s entire civilian sector consumes annually. The 200-to-300-ton surplus alone could fuel as many as 100 bombs each year.

This should raise eyebrows. With poor domestic uranium resources, China insists it’s only building up its uranium reserves for future nuclear power use. Perhaps, but there is no agreed way to verify this. The same is true with tritium. Currently, there are no effective controls on either nuclear substance to assure their peaceful end-use. Both, however, are critical to making nuclear weapons, and CNNC, China’s top weapons vendor, controls these materials.

What should be done? 

First, our government needs to name and shame firms exporting critical nuclear materials and technologies to America’s nuclear-armed rivals. This would require spotlighting Canada’s Cameco and AkinsRealis. It also would require listing France’s nuclear firm, EDF, which this spring announced it would work with CNNC in developing advanced spent fuel recycling, a process critical to producing weapons plutonium. Yet, another entity that deserves dishonorable mention is Rosatom, Russia’s prime nuclear weapons developer, in addition to firms in business with the company. The House has already spotlighted Rosatom as a bad actor, asking the White House to sanction it for assisting China’s fast reactor program. 

To expose these entities further, the Departments of Defense and the Intelligence Community should produce an unclassified annual report clarifying which domestic and foreign firms might be transferring nuclear materials and technologies to hostile states’ nuclear weapons entities.   

Second, the U.S. government should prohibit government purchases and subsidies to these firms. Congress and the White House may be reticent to sanction firms for trading with hostile states’ nuclear weapons entities. But our government should, at least, not buy goods from such firms or subsidize them. 

Finally, the United States and other like-minded nations should call on the International Atomic Energy Agency to track and safeguard tritium and unenriched uranium to prevent their diversion to make bombs. Fortunately, there is little commercial demand for tritium. Most of what is produced is then extracted from reactors for occupational safety reasons and is accounted for. 

Similarly, most uranium ore is used to fuel legitimate civilian reactors. Yet, it too is critical to make nuclear weapons, and it is not currently tracked or safeguarded. Given that the government already tracks and sanctions certain oil and gas transfers—a daunting task—it’s difficult to understand why we don’t do the same for uranium and tritium. In the lead-up to the next Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty Review Conference in 2026, the United States should close this gap. 

Henry Sokolski is the executive director of the Nonproliferation Policy Education Center in Arlington, Virginia, and the author of Underestimated: Our Not So Peaceful Nuclear Future (2019). He served as deputy for nonproliferation policy in the office of the U.S. Secretary of Defense during the George H.W. Bush administration.

Image: Shutterstock.com.