(April 16, 2004) The German government is considering an export license for the mothballed Hanau MOX plant. The "Hanau-2" MOX fuel fabrication plant was 90% complete when halted in 1995. Between 1995 and 2000 there were attempts to sell the plant's equipment to Russia as past of a program for the reuse of nuclear weapon's plutonium but plans were cancelled due to a lack of funders (G-8 countries). Since December 2003, discussions have been ongoing on whether to export the plant to China. Wolfgang Liebert and Michael Sailer provide us with the background of the (proliferation) risks of exporting a MOX facility to China.
(608.5599) Wolfgang Liebert & Michael Sailer - The plant in Hanau, Germany, is designed so that ceramic uranium-plutonium mixed oxide (MOX) fuel elements can be produced in several chemical and mechanical process steps; these include pulverizing, compressing, sintering and grinding, as well as filling the fuel tablets into fuel rods. In principle, the plant in Hanau is capable of producing uranium fuel elements or MOX fuel elements with a plutonium content of around 5% for use in typical power reactors, or MOX fuel elements with a plutonium content of 40% or more for use in breeder reactors.
The technical design of such a plant is especially complex and expensive, because it is necessary to overcome an array of safety-related problems (the problem of criticality, the risks to employees from radiation and the risks posed by respirable radioactive dusts). As a consequence, processing operations in the plant are performed either under remote control or using "gloveboxes". In addition, there are elaborate shields against neutron radiation.
The Hanau fuel element plant was unable to go into operation in Germany because of fundamental misgivings, unresolved licensing issues under atomic energy law and the lack of economic competitiveness of MOX fuel rods in comparison with conventional uranium fuels. After relinquishment on the part of Siemens, the builder and operator, exportation of the plant to Russia was discussed from 1995 to 2000 (see also WISE News Communiqué 534.5201: "Fischer allows export of German MOX plant to Russia"). This idea came to nothing because of a lack of money and it was said that the plant would be scrapped (see WISE News Communiqué 553.5311: "Hanau MOX plant to be scrapped, not exported"). Consideration is now being given to exporting the plant to China, which in turn, throws up some serious questions.
Potential military use
The Hanau plant is of modular construction and could therefore - at least in part - also be used directly for military purposes. A nuclear weapon requires the production of plutonium metal (around 4-8 kilograms) in the form of hollow ball segments. Plant components for the cleaning of plutonium, for its chemical conversion into metallic form and for its dimensionally accurate mechanical processing could be used for this purpose. In principle, all the parts of the Hanau plant are suitable for the processing of weapons-grade plutonium. The Hanau plant's remote control equipment and its gloveboxes would facilitate the handling of weapons-grade plutonium. Indirect military use could also take place through the copying of essential subtechnologies of military relevance, which could then be used for warhead production.
An indirect form of military use might consist in the production of fuel for plutonium-producing reactors for the weapons programme. This could involve the production of uranium or MOX fuels for special production reactors or for power reactors, or of MOX fuels for a fast breeder reactor.
Nuclear weapons arsenal
As is well known, China is one of the five established nuclear powers with a permanent seat on the UN Security Council. The first nuclear weapons test using highly enriched uranium (HEU) took place as early as 1964. The first thermonuclear device, whose explosive force was of the order of magnitude of megatonnes, was detonated in 1967. It took until late 1968 to test the first plutonium weapon. In 1971 China succeeded in testing a fusion-boosted plutonium bomb. The first test of an intercontinental ballistic missile took place in August 1981 with the "Dong Feng 5".
Reliable information on China's nuclear weapons is limited because there are no detailed or comprehensive Chinese statements on which to rely. China's present arsenal of nuclear weapons is likely to include some 400 warheads. Its nuclear weapons systems consist of a variety of ballistic missiles of different ranges, bomber planes based on Russian technology and a nuclear-equipped submarine of limited usability. Of particular significance are around 20 intercontinental ballistic missiles of type Dong Feng 5 with a range of 13,000 km. China's fleet of bombers is considered to be obsolete, likewise the majority of its rocket systems. However, like all the other nuclear powers, China is modernizing its arsenal.
China is pushing ahead vigorously with its Dong Feng 31 programme, with a range of 8,000 km and work is under way to give it an intercontinental range. Multiple independently targetable re-entry vehicle (MIRV) warheads are also being developed for it and work on MIRV systems has been under way probably since the US missile defence programmes of the 1980s were launched. In 2000, knowledge was gained of a MIRV test involving, in particular, the release of decoy warheads suitable for defeating or penetrating missile defence systems. China is thought to have a MIRV capability, although its realization is apparently yet to be accomplished.
Fissile material production
China's production of fissile materials for nuclear weapons can only be estimated with great uncertainty on the basis of presumed production capacities. It is assumed that, between 1964 and 1987 or 1989, a quantity of between 15 and 25 tonnes of HEU was produced and that plutonium production began later. The latest estimate of Chinese plutonium production by the independent US researchers Wright and Gronlund from 2003 states that, by 1991, around two to five tonnes of plutonium had been separated. In the mid-1990s, China announced that it had stopped its production of fissile materials for nuclear weapons in 1991. However, China has for a number of years refused to work with the other nuclear powers to negotiate a treaty that would regulate, in internationally binding form, the cessation of such production. If one assumes that a few hundred warheads each contain 4-8 kilograms of plutonium, then China could have reserves of plutonium amounting to just a few hundred kilograms or up to around three tonnes.
Impending nuclear rearmament
US strategic planning has for some years been undergoing profound change. Accordingly, the main objectives include the ongoing maintenance and modernization of the nuclear weapons arsenal, its integration into the USA's offensive capabilities, the build-up of ballistic missile defences, the development of bunker-busting nuclear weapons intended for actual use, as well as preemptive warfare - in particular against the ABC weapons potentials of other countries. Regardless of whether a US ballistic missile defence system can ever work, China considers its limited nuclear deterrent potential to be under threat and possibly at risk of being knocked out in the medium term by a preemptive US attack.
According to the logic of nuclear strategists, the Chinese leadership must aim for the quantitative and qualitative upgrading of its arsenal in order to reduce its vulnerability to a US attack on its bunkered intercontinental ballistic missiles in combination with the possibly limited implementation of US ballistic missile defences. A suitable means of maintaining a Chinese "deterrent potential" would be to deploy a far greater number of modernized intercontinental ballistic missiles, and also to equip them with multiple warheads (possibly using decoys), which would have to be newly produced. In the case of a larger-scale rearmament programme, which must be expected, China would be dependent on resuming its production of plutonium.
Breeder project and dual use
With Russian assistance, an experimental breeder has been under construction since 2000 and could be completed by 2005. It will then require MOX fuel of an average fissile material enrichment of around 50% and will thus be dependent upon a MOX fuel element facility like the Hanau plant. The purpose of breeders is to produce additional plutonium from natural uranium, positioned in the so-called breeding blanket around the reactor core, using the therein-produced fast neutrons. This plutonium is of the highest weapons-grade quality. Consequently, the use of breeders would be particularly attractive for a nuclear rearmament programme.
In China there is no serious separation between the civil and military parts of the nuclear program. The China National Nuclear Corporation (CNNC) exemplifies this, a state-owned enterprise established in 1988 comprising some 200 enterprises and institutions with almost 300,000 employees. Its purpose is to satisfy both military and civil requirements in the nuclear field. This is a classic dual-use enterprise with the widest possible responsibility.
Will safeguards work?
The question is whether military use of the Hanau plant or parts of it could be rendered impossible by safeguards activities carried out by the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA). The IAEA monitoring system in non-nuclear weapons states presently provides for the complete accounting of all flows of fissile materials between a country's various installations in the form of the recording of incoming and outgoing materials. As a nuclear weapons state, China enjoys a privileged status and thus is under no obligation to allow such complete monitoring of all its nuclear installations. Consequently, there can be no accounting for the flows of fissile materials, making it near impossible to prevent indirect use of the Hanau plant to produce plutonium for a nuclear weapons programme. For this to succeed, a safeguards-based monitoring regime would have to include all transfers from the plant to all potential plutonium-producing reactors (including the experimental breeder) and their spent fuel elements, and would also have to include all transfers to further installations (notably reprocessing plants). IAEA monitoring of the Hanau plant itself would be completely inadequate and essentially futile.
Need for new types of inspections
Accounting for flows of fissile materials would do little to prevent direct military use of parts of the Hanau plant. An effective inspection regime for the plant, once re-erected in China, would have to include regulations on what specific starting, intermediate and end products (permitted materials) could be handled in the plant and what technical options could be used for an appropriate inspection regime (inspection methods, locations and intervals). Such an inspection regime does not presently exist and would have to be specially developed.
Equally, it would be necessary to implement safeguard inspections in the event that parts of the Hanau plant are re-erected in the civil-military nuclear industry elsewhere in China or in the event that copies of sensitive parts of the plant are made for use in the weapons programme. Once again, the conventional IAEA accounting system proves inadequate. An effective inspection regime would first have to record all parts of the plant in detail, oversee their re-erection in China, establish a reporting regime for any subsequent changes and define an inspection regime for all essential components covering the entire lifecycle of the components. Such a nuclear inspection regime is so far without parallel and would have to be specially developed.
Risks of the plutonium economy
The erection of the Hanau fuel plant in China would represent a clear step towards an extensive plutonium economy that China is reportedly planning. To date, however, there is still no sign of a major commercial reprocessing plant capable of separating sufficient quantities of plutonium from radioactive wastes for such a nuclear programme. The capacity of the Hanau plant, which could process five tonnes of plutonium per year, is at any rate massively oversized.
The separation and processing of plutonium, the transport of plutonium and its handling at many different sites with the aim of its use in a reactor creates diverse possibilities for plutonium to be diverted for weapons-related purposes. These aspects were already considered in the case of the abortive export of the Hanau plant to Russia. In the case of China, however, there is not even the intention to use the plant to make plutonium from disarmed warheads more inaccessible.
Where would the export of the plant lead?
High technology from the West obviously arouses fundamental desires in China. This gives cause for concern, because the structure of the Chinese nuclear complex is such that imported technology can be expected to be put not just to civil use, but may also resurface in a military context.
The possibility cannot be ruled out that parts of the Hanau plant will be used directly for the production of warheads as part of the nuclear weapons programme. This can serve the ongoing modernization of the Chinese nuclear weapons arsenal, since the high technical and safety standards of relevant components (or copies of them) must appear attractive. Equally, it must be expected that the plant will be used indirectly for military purposes to produce fuel for plutonium-producing reactors. Military use of the Chinese breeder programme would be especially attractive for the weapons programme.
It would be naive to assume that China will not react to the USA's new nuclear-strategic plans. Intensified Chinese nuclear rearmament would presumably require additional plutonium production, as well as expanded and/or modernized capacities for warhead production. The Hanau plant could thus become one important element within a Chinese rearmament programme.
Consequently, exporting the Hanau plant to China harbours a high risk of its being used directly or indirectly for military purposes, even if an inspection regime (IAEA safeguards) is established. Furthermore, China, a nuclear power, would have to declare itself willing to allow additional monitoring of flows of fissile materials in all potentially downstream installations. These include all possible plutonium-producing reactors, including breeder and reprocessing plants, as well as further installations. Such willingness, however, is most unlikely because China, as a privileged nuclear power, will not consent to any forms of monitoring of its civil-military nuclear programme which are not also established in the other nuclear power countries. In order to rule out the possibility of direct military use of parts of the plant, it would be necessary to develop and then establish a completely new inspection regime. This would have to focus on the real end products of the plant, on all sensitive components, their whereabouts, as well as their possible use in other locations.
If, in response to US policy, there is quantitative and qualitative nuclear rearmament on the part of China, with the export of the Hanau plant from Germany making its contribution to this process, this would be a fiasco for German non-proliferation and disarmament policy. Chinese nuclear rearmament can serve neither German nor global interests. Consideration should also be given in this regard to the further destabilization of East and Southeast Asia.
As a final point, the provisions of the German Foreign Trade and Payments Act stipulate that the possibility of military use of exported goods must be ruled out. In our opinion, such a possibility definitely cannot be ruled out.
[Please note that this is an abridged version of an article originally entitled "Export of the Hanau Fuel Element Plant and its possible Military Uses in China". Contact the authors for the full version.]
Source and Contacts:
Dr. Wolfgang Liebert, Interdisciplinary Working Group on Science, Technology and Safety (IANUS), Technical University of Darmstadt, Hochschulstr. 4a, D-64289 Darmstadt, Germany
Tel: +49-6151-16-3016, -4368
Michael Sailer, Öko-Institut (Institute for Applied Ecology) Darmstadt, Elisabethenstr. 55-57, D-64283 Darmstadt, Germany,