China’s rapidly expanding centrifuge enrichment capacity

By Hui Zhang | December 7, 2015

With the aftermath of the Iran agreement hanging in the air, words such as “centrifuge,” “enrichment,” and “uranium” are still appearing regularly in news coverage. Which means that now is a good time to look at the enrichment capacity of a much larger power, thousands of miles away: China. The country’s enrichment capacity is a topic about which little has appeared in the popular press—possibly because little is publicly known, and what information there is has to be assembled, verified, and evaluated from many different independent sources.

Yet we do know that when it comes to new reactor construction and the pace of nuclear development, China leads the world. As of November 2015, China has 31 nuclear power reactors in operation, giving it the capacity to generate a total of approximately 29.3 gigawatts of electricity, or GWe. (One gigawatt is equal to one billion watts. To give a sense of scale, when water levels are high and the hydroelectric plant at the Hoover Dam is working full-tilt, the facility generates about 2 GWe, or enough to power 700,000 homes. A typical nuclear power plant has the capacity to generate electricity in the range of an average of 1 GWe.)  

And China has another 21 units currently under construction, which are expected to generate another 23.4 GWe, and several new reactors totaling an additional 5 GWe are planned to be constructed within the year. All told, that means that China is on track to have close to 58 GWe in operation by 2020; another 30 GWe should be under construction by 2020, as was planned in 2012. As if that were not enough,many more reactors are under consideration for construction in the coming decades.

To supply the fuel for all these reactors, the Chinese government has been purchasing uranium on the world marketplace, establishing Chinese firms to mine uranium ore overseas, and getting the rest from its own domestic supply of ore. An approach like this will call for a massive increase in the country’s ability to enrich uranium—and China has proclaimed a policy of “self-sufficiency” in enrichment services. But how and where will China enrich the uranium needed to fuel its nuclear power plants? Especially when China’s demand for enriched uranium is expected to triple from about 3 million separative work units, or SWU (the standard unit for measuring a centrifuge’s output) in 2014 to about 9 million SWU in 2020?

Estimates based on satellite imagery, Chinese publications, and discussions with Chinese experts suggest that China is already operating civilian enrichment facilities with a capacity that may be in the range of 4.5 million SWU per year, with an estimated additional 2 million SWU per year under construction; China may well have the ability to continue at a rate that adds a million SWU of additional capacity annually. If true, then China has a lot more enrichment capacity now than we thought, with even more on the way.China has enough enrichment capacity to meet its nuclear fuel requirements for power reactors for the coming decade and beyond. If what I project is true, then China will have excess enrichment capacity and become a net exporter of commercial enrichment services. Because of the proliferation implications of this excess enrichment, China should take steps to assure the international community that it is implementing and properly enforcing nuclear materials export controls.

A brief history: Major developments in China’s uranium enrichment capacity. To understand how China got to this position, it is important to go back to some relatively recent history.

China’s uranium enrichment industry started in the late 1950s, as a way of producing highly enriched uranium for the country’s nuclear weapons program. China had conducted research and development on centrifuge technology since 1958, and by the mid-1970s it had begun to emphasize centrifuge work. By the mid-1980s, China had constructed a uranium enrichment plant in Shaanxi province known as Plant 405; this site contained a pilot centrifuge facility that apparently was equipped with “supercritical” centrifuges—those that are designed and built in such a way that they can spin at the high speeds necessary to separate out the uranium without causing the harmful vibrations that can break the machines. It’s a technological leap akin to breaking the sound barrier; in this case, it allows one to get a centrifuge to spin at the optimal speed and separate the maximum amount of useful material without causing damage to the machine itself.  

As China deepened its shift from military to civilian uses in the nuclear industry during the late 1980s, the country was eager to use less-costly centrifuge enrichment technology to replace its gaseous diffusion technology (which consumed more energy). Its first attempts did not work well, however, and China decided in the early 1990s to import a Russian centrifuge facility, under a scheme known as project 405-1A.

Under agreements in 1993, 1996, and 2008, China built Russian-supplied centrifuge facilities at its Hanzhong and Lanzhou plants in four distinct phases, for a total capacity of 1.5 million SWU. As Russian centrifuge facilities were imported, China started to use them as the starting point for designing its own, subcritical centrifuges and otherwise “buying local.” The country produced its first centrifuge in 2002 and then began industrializing the process of centrifuge production; the pace speeded up under what China’s leadership called the “active development” of nuclear power in 2004. After 2007, a government-affiliated entity, the China National Nuclear Corporation, started constructing its own, all-indigenous centrifuge facility at its Lanzhou plant, using it as a demonstration facility with a capacity of 0.5 million SWU per year; the project was commissioned in 2010. Since then, China has significantly increased its civilian enrichment capacity with the use of domestically produced centrifuge facilities at several sites, including the uranium enrichment plants at Lanzhou in Gansu province (also known as Plant 504), Hanzhong in Shaanxi province (Plant 405), and Plant 814 at Emeishan in Sichuan province—which has an additional facility at Jinkouhe.

China also operates two other enrichment facilities: one at the old Heping Gaseous Diffusion Plant and another at a smaller centrifuge plant near Emeishan. Both may be for non-weapons military uses, which could include enriching uranium for naval fuel and for tritium production. China is believed to have ended highly enriched uranium (HEU) production for weapons in 1987, when it shifted to making low-enriched uranium for civilian power reactors.

Increasing sharply civilian centrifuge capacity. As the country gained more experience with centrifuge technology, developments in that field began to accelerate. After the Lanzhou gaseous diffusion plant was closed in 2000, the plant began operating its first centrifuge facility with a capacity of 0.5 million SWU per year (referred to as the Russian-supplied Phase III).

Since 2007, the Lanzhou plant has started building three indigenous centrifuge facilities, which are now in various stages of completion: a demonstration project at Lanzhou that has a capacity of 0.5 million SWU per year and was commissioned in 2010; a commercial facility with an estimated capacity of 0.5 million SWU per year, known as Lanzhou CEP 3, and commissioned in 2012; and a larger commercial centrifuge facility known as Lanzhou Centrifuge Project 4 that will have an estimated capacity of 1.2 million SWU per year. The main processing buildings of this last project were half-finished by early 2015, and expected to be completed by the end of 2015.

At the same time, the Hanzhong plant has significantly expanded as well. Besides those previously mentioned three Russian-supplied centrifuge facilities built under Phases I, II, and IV of the China-Russian agreements, the Hanzhong plant is also operating a much larger indigenous centrifuge facility, referred to officially as the “North Expansion Centrifuge Project.” Construction started on January 4, 2012; the project was completed in 2013, and it began operations in 2014. The facility has a total estimated capacity of about 1.2 million SWU yearly.

To meet increasing demand for SWU for China’s nuclear power industry, a larger commercial centrifuge facility was built near the city of Emeishan about 2011. This facility probably began operating around 2013 and has an estimated capacity of 0.8 million SWU per year. Another project at Emeishan seems to be in the early stages of construction, with an estimated capacity of about 0.8 million SWU yearly as well. This facility could be commissioned as early as 2016. And judging from satellite imagery of the site, a spare space seems to be ready for a third centrifuge facility.

Even this may not be enough to meet the “self-sufficiency” requirement set by the government for the country’s ambitious nuclear power development plans. Besides the facilities at Lanzhou, Hanzhong, and Emeishan, China also reportedly plans to build a larger uranium-processing complex with an enrichment capacity of around 7 million SWU annually. Another large uranium processing complex is also under consideration.

Taken altogether, these facilities mean that China could easily have a total estimated enrichment capacity of 12 million SWU/year by 2020, which is about one-third more than its domestic industry is expected to require. Experts at the China National Nuclear Corporation emphasize that the company is merely following the policy of “meeting its domestic demand and targeting the international markets” in supply of enrichment services. China has been pursuing a fully independent enrichment capability, which includes research and development, engineering, manufacturing, and operations.

Enrichment capacity for non-weapon military uses, or dual use. And that’s not all—let’s not forget about the previously mentioned smaller facilities that China operates, such as at the Heping gaseous diffusion plant and a small centrifuge facility near Emeishan city. Both produce enriched uranium products for non-weapon military uses or dual use.

While the Heping gaseous diffusion plant is believed to have stopped the production of highly enriched uranium for weapons in 1987 as a result of China’s “military-to-civilian conversion” policy, some Chinese publications indicate that the facility continued operations. The Heping facility was estimated to have a capacity of 0.23 million SWU per year. (It is assumed to be operating for non-weapons military or dual uses, including producing low-enriched uranium for naval reactors and highly enriched uranium for tritium production reactors and research reactors.)

And the small facility near Emeishan city mentioned above (located about 3.6 miles from the larger commercial centrifuge plant) is likely to be a centrifuge facility as well, judging from features such as a larger roof and cooling system. A satellite image taken on March 16 of 2009 shows that the facility was completed by that time, and analysis showed that it could have an enrichment capacity of 0.25 million SWU per year. Given that the site is isolated from the public transportation system and has a dedicated road and secured entrance, it is most likely a facility for dual or military uses.

In short, based on information from multiple sources—such as satellite imaging—in my new estimates, China will have excess enrichment capacity and will soon become a net exporter of commercial enrichment services. The numbers tell the story: China is expected to need enough enriched uranium to fuel a fleet of nuclear power reactors (predominantly pressurized water reactors) generating 58 gigawatts of electricity by the year 2020. That would call for a total centrifuge enrichment capacity of 9 million separative work units (SWU) by that date. But at the rate that China has been building enrichment facilities, it will be producing at least 12 million SWU from purely commercial facilities—that is, not including the military and dual-use facilities, which produce their own enriched fuel (estimated at 0.5 million SWU). In addition, when China purchases foreign reactors, it often requires the foreign vendors to supply the first supply of fuel and a few subsequent loads. Those existing deals could further save China over 10 million SWU through 2020. Consequently, China is expected to have a surplus of SWU through at least 2020, when it will be looking to sell the excess on the international market.

The development of China’s enrichment capacity has gone far beyond the government’s stated policy of “self-sufficiency” in the supply of enrichment services. In light of this surge in enrichment capacity, China should address international concerns about the proliferation implications of its development of centrifuge technology. It is not enough to say that it is “targeting international markets.” While China has issued several regulations on nuclear export controls, the government should take further measures to assure effective implementation and enforcement of these regulations and policies. And it may be time for the world to take note.

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