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China’s Nuclear Security Status Is Underestimated
By Shen Dingli

In 2012, the Nuclear Threat Initiative (NTI) boldly launched a Nuclear Security Index. This was an innovative effort to measure the status of nuclear materials security of all nuclear-capable states. By researching and publishing such an index over time, especially by releasing three biennial reports in 2012, 2014 and 2016, the NTI has mapped trends in these countries’ overall performance, as well as their performance in the five categories that constitute the overall index.


China, as an acknowledged nuclear-weapons state, is scrutinized by this NTI study. Since China is rapidly developing its nuclear power, it warrants particular attention for its nuclear security status. In 2015, China installed 8.2GW of nuclear power and started construction on another 8.8GW. Thus far, China’s total operational nuclear power has reached 25.5GW, with 32GW under construction or approved. The scale of its ongoing capacity construction is the highest in the world.1 At present, China is running 30 nuclear power stations, with another 24 under construction. Its total nuclear power capacity, in terms of energy and number of power stations, including both operational and under construction, is ranked fourth and third in the world, respectively.2


Against this background, the three NTI reports have presented the following features of China’s performance in nuclear materials security. First, China’s score is relatively low. In 2012, it ranked 27th of 32 countries that have weapons-useable nuclear materials. In 2014, it was ranked 20th of 25 countries and in 2016, it is still 19th of 24 countries. Second, as can be seen, China’s ranking is improving steadily, albeit slowly. Third, for the five categories that make up the NTI index, China’s scores are around the average of all nations measured, with some higher and some lower.


At the outset, it might be difficult to measure China’s relevant performance with all NTI’s five main criteria, because for a long time, China’s fissile inventory and means of physical protection have remained opaque. Even now, China has not declared its inventory of weapons-grade materials, let alone their whereabouts. In addition to this, China has not made public its tangible security measures for the physical protection of nuclear materials, so this adds to the challenge for the NTI to evaluate China’s security score for these materials.


Obviously, China has taken firm state custody of these dangerous materials, but its risk environment is increasingly complicated. Combining the factors of corruption, social unrest and the peripheral environment, it is understandable that China’s score will not be satisfactory in this category. Overall, with regard to the criteria for the NTI index, the lack of transparency mentioned above is not helpful for China to attain a higher score.


That said, however, such a situation may not necessarily reflect China’s true competence in holding its nuclear materials in a secure way. Despite China’s lack of sufficient transparency comparable to the level that some other countries offer, China indeed has one of the most restrictive material-accounting and protection systems in the world. In some categories of the NTI criteria, China’s practices are very effective. China does not reveal much, but this does not mean that its current nuclear-security record is not world-class.


Quantities and sites


China’s nuclear materials are kept in both weapons and civilian inventories. As a nuclear-weapons state, China is not obliged to submit its civilian nuclear program to International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) safeguards, but it has long volunteered to do so. Thus, the world community should be able to access the information about China’s civilian nuclear development provided to the international body. Through partnering with the IAEA, China makes its information openly available on all civilian nuclear facilities and associated nuclear materials, either fuel rods or spent fuels. It is also understood that China has informed the IAEA of its civilian plutonium inventory. Of course, given China’s ambitious plan to expand its nuclear industry, it would be very helpful if the government would adopt an open plan for the disposal of its nuclear waste, which is by nature radioactive and a key element of nuclear security.


Therefore, there should not be a problem for the NTI team to assess China’s large number of civilian nuclear materials and their locations. But China scores rather low in this category: 27 out of 100 in 2012 and 34 in both 2014 and 2016. Probably, this is due to China’s lack of transparency of its weapons-grade fissile materials in terms of their size and even sites. China is unlikely to be ready to publicize such data anytime soon. Unlike other nuclear weapons states, which are either nuclear superpowers or their allies, China may feel that its size is too small to disclose without possible adverse impact on its national security.


Open access research indicates that China may possess somehwere between two to four tons of weapons-grade plutonium and some 10 to 20 tons of highly enriched uranium (HEU).3 China has indicated a virtual end to the production of weapons-grade fissile materials, though it has not announced an official moratorium. This means that China would have an upper limit of military-nuclear stockpiles, much smaller than that of the US and Russia, so Beijing could be reluctant to announce a formal production cutoff as well as its military inventory. Despite this lack of transparency, the risk factor for China’s nuclear materials security for its defense establishment is extremely low, if not zero. Therefore, the NTI index might avoid giving a low score simply because of a lack of “transparency.” Although understandable, it is likely to be mistaken and misleading with regard to the true picture in China.


Security and control measures


China’s scores in this category are somewhat higher. Out of 100, they are 58 (2012), 72 (2014) and 62 (2016). It seems that the NTI research team is not very satisfied with China’s provision of information on the nuclear materials security situation. According to the 2012 Index: “By providing the international community appropriate information about what security measures are in place, China could vastly improve confidence in its nuclear materials security conditions.”4


Looking closely at China’s nuclear security practices since it launched its civilian nuclear power program, it can be seen that the country has emphasized the legal aspects of its nuclear safety and security. On June 15, 1987, China’s State Council promulgated the PRC Regulation on Nuclear Material Control, with the goal of using nuclear materials securely and legally, and to prevent theft, sabotage, loss, illegal transfer and use, to protect the security of the state and the people. To this end, the regulations made clear the types of materials to be controlled and how to employ a license system to manage the control. On Sept. 25, 1990, China’s National Nuclear Safety Administration, Ministry of Energy and Commission of Science Technology and Industry for National Defense jointly promulgated the PRC Implementation Details of Regulation on Nuclear Material Control, detailing how to implement licensing, material accounting, and physical protection.


In 2008, China’s National People’s Congress approved the 2005 Amendment to the Convention on the Physical Protection of Nuclear Material (CPPNM). Then, in the aftermath of the Fukushima accident in 2011, China actively participated in the IAEA board meetings and general conference in Vienna in September 2011 to adopt the IAEA Nuclear Security Action Plan. For two years from April 2010, China had convened, in collaboration with the US and the IAEA, more than 20 seminars and training courses for over 500 nuclear security staff, more than 100 of them being foreign participants from a dozen Asia-Pacific countries. All these have facilitated international co-operation in nuclear safety/security and emergency response.


In practice, the Chinese system has entailed the following nuclear security protections:


• At any nuclear materials site, using armed police to control the stock of Class 1 nuclear materials (2kg of plutonium and above, or 5kg and above of uranium enriched to 20 percent); and accessing the storehouse with a specific document and a two-person, two-lock system;

• Using armed police to control the stock of the Class 2 nuclear materials (10g-2kg of plutonium, or 1kg-5kg of uranium enriched to 20 percent), accessing the storehouse with a specific document;

• Using dedicated staff to guard or place nuclear materials in secure equipment, for the stock of Class 3 nuclear materials (less than 10g of plutonium, or 10g-1kg of uranium enriched to 20 percent).5

Contrary to the judgment of the NTI report that China may not have “provided the international community appropriate information about what security measures are in place,” China provided the above information on security measures as early as 1990. In addition, the Implementation Details have demanded specific physical protection in terms of barriers, vaults, warnings, surveillance, transportation, etc. For nuclear materials accounting and control, China has set up a comprehensive accounting system, at national and facility levels, with monitoring points to trace the movement of all nuclear materials. For nuclear power plants, China has adopted the IAEA “threat-based design” to fortify its nuclear security, dividing its site into non-detection, control, protection, and critical areas, and implementing security control accordingly.


Even for its nuclear arsenal, China has informed the public that it has “de-mated” its warheads from carriers, and taken advanced security measures at its central depot, for nuclear security.6 The government said recently that “for more than 50 years, China has not lost a single gram or single piece of important nuclear material.”7 If the NTI Nuclear Index team acquaints itself with all such information, China’s score in this category might be raised to better reflect the reality.


Global norms


China’s scores in this category are 69 out of 100 (2012), 88 (2014) and 76 (2016). This is where China receives relatively high marks. Certainly, its participation in all major international agreements for building international confidence in nuclear materials security has helped. This includes its membership in the CPPNM Convention of 1979, the 2005 CPPNM Amendment and the International Convention for the Suppression of Acts of Nuclear Terrorism (ICSANT) of 2005.


The NTI index has not included the behavior of states in the Nuclear Security Summits (NSS). Otherwise, China’s score could increase further. Since US President Barack Obama took office, the NSS has become one of his signature initiatives, and possibly will remain his major presidential nuclear legacy. After the past three rounds of biennial summits in Washington DC (2010), Seoul (2012) and The Hague (2014), the last round will return to Washington DC at the end of March 2016.


China has attached great importance to the NSS. Presidents Hu Jintao and Xi Jinping have participated in all the past summits, and President Xi will join the next one, as well. Despite the tense relations between China and the US in early 2010 due to the US arms sales to Taiwan in January, President Hu still honored his commitment to participate in the inaugural summit in April 2010.


At that summit, China and the US agreed to collaborate on building a China-based Center of Excellence on Nuclear Security, the largest such center in the Asia-Pacific region. The two sides signed a Memorandum of Understanding for such a joint undertaking in January 2011. This center aims to promote international exchange and co-operation on nuclear security, nuclear materials management, and nuclear export control. This center, the largest nuclear co-operation project by the two governments, will also upgrade China’s own capacity to educate and train its technical personnel on nuclear security in line with global best practices.


Domestic commitments and capacity


Among all the five categories, China receives the highest score in this area: 82 out of 100 (2012) and 81 (2014 and 2016). China has sufficient will and rich resources to fulfill its commitment to nuclear security. In particular, President Xi proposed his “nuclear security perspectives” in The Hague in 2014, stressing the need for “four balances” between development and security, rights and obligations, self-reliance and collaboration, and temporary solutions and permanent cures.


With a commitment from the highest authority, in 2011 China set up the National Technical Center of Nuclear Security, with three mandates. First, this center is designated to provide technical support to the nation’s nuclear security, nuclear materials control, and nuclear import/export management. Second, it is responsible for intergovernmental exchange and co-operation in this regard. Third, it is assigned to build and operate the Chinese Center of Excellence on Nuclear Security.


In terms of capacity-building, China has set up a comprehensive system of nuclear security management, with an excellent nuclear security record. In the area of nuclear materials security, China has employed its license system in producing, using, stockpiling and processing nuclear material. As mentioned above, China has stringent requirements in the various links in nuclear materials circulation, in terms of application, tracing and accounting.


China is also working on combating illicit nuclear trafficking. Beijing is co-operating with Russia and Kazakhstan for this purpose. At the NSS, China pledged to cut HEU use as much as possible, depending upon the viability of its economy and technology. China is helping Ghana to convert its HEU-based research reactor to low-enriched uranium-based, making it less vulnerable to the threat of nuclear terrorism. China is also collaborating with the US to reconfigure Iran’s heavy water reactor in Arak, so it will be more proliferation resistant.


Taking all these into consideration, a future Nuclear Security Index should accord China a better score.


Societal factors/risk environment


This is another area where China has not been able to achieve a high score, ranking 28 out of 100 (2012), 38 (2014) and 40 (2016). It is primarily due to three reasons — political factors, social unrest and increasing tension with some of its neighbors.


But it is difficult to gauge quantitatively just how international disputes contribute to threats to China’s nuclear materials security; how social unrest adds to the risks of nuclear sabotage; and how corruption degrades China’s nuclear security system. These are unfavorable factors that lower China’s scores in the NTI index. For instance, China received “zero” for “pervasiveness of corruption” in 2012, which exaggerated the reality.




In sum, China’s performance in nuclear materials security is making steady headway, according to the three NTI reports. This seems to accord with the reality and general expectations. But China has been rated rather low, especially for information transparency, either in nuclear materials or political accountability. Largely this makes sense as a lack of transparency makes both NTI assessment and public accountability difficult. One should also note that China still has not enacted its Atomic Energy Act, an umbrella framework that would accord nuclear security an appropriate position in China’s nuclear development.


Meanwhile, it is necessary to strike a balance between transparency and antiterrorism. Due to the sensitivity of nuclear issues, transparency does not always provide public goods. This brief analysis has also pointed out that these NTI studies may have ignored some important information regarding China’s nuclear transparency, especially in material accounting and control. It also suggests that for the last category, risk environment, to have artificially precise quantification over a number of non-quantifiable performance indicators might distort the evaluation.


Shen Dingli is a professor and associate dean at Fudan University’s Institute of International Studies. His research includes China-US security relations, regional security and international strategy, arms control and nonproliferation, and the foreign and defense policy of China and the US. He received his PhD in physics from Fudan in 1989 and did post-doctoral work on arms control at Princeton University from 1989 to 1991.


1 Released by the 2016 National Energy Work Meeting, Beijing, Dec. 19, 2015.

2 White Paper, “China’s Nuclear Emergency Preparedness,” State Council of the People’s Republic of China, Beijing, Jan. 28, 2016.

3 Personal analysis based on Deng Liqun, Ma Hong and Wu Heng, Contemporary Chinese Nuclear Industry (Beijing: Chinese Social Science Press, 1987). See also, David Albright, Frans Berkhout and William Walker, World Inventory of Plutonium and Highly Enriched Uranium 1992 (Oxford: Oxford University Press for SIPRI, 1993).

4 Nuclear Materials Security Index: Building a Framework for Assurance, Accountability, and Action (Washington: NTI, January 2012), p. 33.

5 See, Article 27, “Implementation Details of PRC Regulation on Nuclear Materials Control,” National Nuclear Safety Administration, Ministry of Energy and Commission of Science Technology and Industry for National Defense, Sept. 25, 1990.

6 Yang Chenjun, “Improve Means and Capacity of Nuclear Security,”, Dec. 9, 2015.

7 69_2.html, March 26, 2012.

Back to Issue
    Despite making steady progress in a number of respects over the course of the three issues of the Nuclear Security Index produced since 2012 — the latest of which was published in January this year — China is likely performing better than it is being given credit for by those producing the index, writes Shen Dingli.
    Published: Mar 25, 2016
    About the author

    Shen Dingli is a professor and associate dean at Fudan University’s Institute of International Studies. His research includes China-US security relations, regional security and international strategy, arms control and nonproliferation, and the foreign and defense policy of China and the US. He received his PhD in physics from Fudan in 1989 and did post-doctoral work on arms control at Princeton University from 1989 to 1991.

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