Chinese nuclear security practices

By Fissile Materials Working Group | July 22, 2011

The 2010 Nuclear Security Summit in Washington, DC, was a milestone for nuclear security. Political leaders from 47 countries, including the United States, and multilateral organizations gathered to make a concerted global effort to protect vulnerable nuclear material and to prevent nuclear terrorism. Chinese President Hu Jintao — putting aside China-US disputes over arms sales to Taiwan and the Dalai Lama’s visit to Washington — attended the summit, speaking positively of China’s responsible and cooperative attitude toward international security.

As a country with one of the world’s most ambitious nuclear power plans, China’s nuclear safety and security is of crucial importance and may have great implications on the global nuclear renaissance. The Chinese government fully recognizes the significance of its nuclear power development and has taken tremendous efforts to strengthen security — especially after the Washington Nuclear Security Summit and the recent Fukushima nuclear incident.

Chinese nuclear security agencies. The functions of nuclear administration, regulation, and security are managed by a number of different agencies in China:

  • The National Administration of Energy (NAE) — which is under the National Development and Reform Commission — is the leading agency for the general planning of nuclear power development, providing an institutional framework for security and nonproliferation.
  • The Chinese Atomic Energy Agency (CAEA) — which is under the Administration of Science, Technology, and Industry of National Defense — is the leading agency for policy creation and implementation on all nuclear-related activities, including civilian and military ones. The CAEA provides guidance and assistance to the Chinese nuclear industry on security measures and cooperates with similar agencies around the world. The CAEA also develops emergency responses for nuclear accidents and acts as the interagency coordination body for such responses.
  • The China National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA) is an independent supervisory agency, which evaluates nuclear facilities’ safety, security, and design as well as issues licenses to nuclear power plants. The NNSA also publishes guidelines on the physical protection of nuclear materials and nuclear facilities.

In case of a nuclear or radioactive material loss, proliferation, or sabotage, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Ministry of Public Security, Ministry of Defense, Ministry of Health, and others will also have roles in notification, investigation, detection, and medical response.

Nuclear security legislation. Accountability, physical protection, and export controls are the key safeguards in preventing nuclear material from falling into the wrong hands or falling prey to sabotage. China has joined almost all international nuclear treaties, and its own laws and regulations have been enacted with the full consideration of the International Atomic Energy Agency’s (IAEA) security standards. Such legislation ensures complete coverage of nuclear materials throughout its entire life cycle — including possession, storage, transportation, transfer, and export control. In all intergovernmental cooperative agreements on civilian nuclear energy signed between China and other countries, the physical protection of nuclear materials and facilities is one of the prerequisites for export. So far, China has built a comprehensive regulatory system and has maintained a sound record on nuclear security.

In September 2009, China ratified the amendment of the Convention on the Physical Protection of Nuclear Materials, which has now been enacted in relevant regulations in China itself. In August 2010, China also ratified the International Convention for the Suppression of Acts of Nuclear Terrorism. Meanwhile, a draft of the China Atomic Energy Act, which focuses on the safety and security of nuclear materials and facilities, is ready to be introduced to government agencies for review. The act will provide a more comprehensive and operational legal basis for strengthening security and nonproliferation.

Nuclear security culture-building. Building a nuclear security culture is one of the most important elements of China’s security strategy. However, culture-building needs continuous and unrelenting effort from all stakeholders, including government, civil society, and, most important, industry. The CAEA has convened four workshops for managers of Chinese nuclear facilities since 2008 and even has a suggestion box in place at all nuclear facilities — each year a prize is given to the individuals with the best suggestions. This mechanism has stimulated workers’ interest and participation in nuclear security.

International cooperation. Prior to the 2008 Olympic Games, China organized a global workshop — jointly held with the IAEA in Beijing — that was pivotal in helping China draw up plans to prevent a nuclear terrorist attack during the Games. Technical assistance in nuclear- and radioactive-material detection and quick-response preparedness were provided both from the IAEA and the United States. In 2010, China and the IAEA signed the Practical Arrangement in the Field of Nuclear Security, which provides more space for both sides to strengthen existing nuclear security cooperation.

And, at the Washington Security Summit, President Hu announced plans to launch an Asia-Pacific regional nuclear security center in China. The center will provide a platform to promote international collaboration on nuclear security engagement throughout the region, as well as nuclear security training with a broader set of international participants. The center will develop and implement training courses on nuclear security as well as allow other states to share their own experiences. The center is now under construction with assistance from the US Department of Energy.

Moving forward. The complex and changing security situation in today’s world has highlighted nuclear security as a primary concern of the international community. As a major nuclear energy user and exporter, China’s nuclear security efforts are obviously of great importance. China faces two primary challenges to its nuclear security: first, the rapid growth of nuclear power plants in China and the shortage of professional staff with special expertise in nuclear security and, second, the traditionally skeptical attitude of the Chinese Authority on transparency. Overcoming these two challenges requires time and international cooperation. China is drawing deep and serious lessons from the Fukushima nuclear incident and is reviewing its approach to nuclear culture. Working more closely with international partners on securing China’s own nuclear material would be the best way to promote China’s interests as well as the global nuclear security regime.

Editor’s Note: This column was written by Li Hong, international partner of the Fissile Materials Working Group and secretary-general at the China Arms Control and Disarmament Association.

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