CCP Celebrates 50 Years of Nuclear Achievements

Publication: China Brief Volume: 5 Issue: 23

Fifty years ago the Chinese Communist Party (CCP)’s Central Secretariat held a meeting inside the Zhongnanhai compound to embark on the PRC’s nuclear weapons program. At the time of this gathering, China was still recovering from the Korean War that ended in 1953, and faced a newly formed U.S.-Japan alliance in East Asia. Excited about the recently discovered uranium sample from southwestern China presented by two prominent Chinese physicists, Mao made a strategic decision that would render China a nuclear power. That technology was later used in developing China’s nuclear power industry. Today, China is celebrating its achievements in both areas: a small but formidable nuclear deterrence force and a fast-growing, multi-billion dollar nuclear power industry.

Building a Small Nuclear Deterrence Program: 1955–1980

China successfully tested its first nuclear device in 1964, a feat that took less than ten years to achieve, and which was followed in 1967 by the detonation of its first hydrogen bomb. By the early 1970s, China launched its first satellite into space orbit and had developed its first nuclear submarine. A decade later, the Chinese military was in possession of the neutron bomb and small nuclear weapons technology. Now China’s missile technology, crucial to its nuclear weapons development, has matured enough to have put its own astronauts in space. A moon landing mission is well on schedule for 2017.

According to the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists, the PRC currently possesses a nuclear force of some 400 weapons (around 250 strategic and 150 tactical warheads) that can be carried and delivered by land, air, and sea. The Chinese military has been making steady progress in the range, mobility, delivery system and technical sophistication of its nuclear arsenal over the years. Although small compared with some 10,000 nuclear warheads that the United States and Russia each possess, China’s nuclear arsenal is considered effective. Washington, for its part, is clearly worried. A Pentagon report on the Chinese military issued in July warned that China is pursuing a missile modernization that “is intended to improve both China’s nuclear deterrence by increasing the number of warheads that can target the United States as well as operational capabilities for contingencies in East Asia.”

Yet the Chinese have insisted on the limited and defensive nature of their nuclear weapons program. Although a top general of the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) recently threatened that China would use nuclear weapons to head off a U.S. attack even at the expense of most Chinese cities, Beijing reaffirmed its official “no-first-use” policy. Last month, the PLA even opened the door of its strategic force command headquarters for the first time to U.S. Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld in his first visit to China. It was both a show of confidence and an effort to increase the transparency of the Chinese military. Throughout this year’s celebration activities, Deng Xiaoping’s statement has been quoted often: “If we had not possessed nuclear and hydrogen bombs, and launched satellites since the 1960s, China would not be regarded as an influential world power, nor would it have the international position it occupies today.”

Jump Starting the Nuclear Power Industry: 1980-2005

China’s intense focus on, and resources devoted to, the development of its nuclear weapons were to a large extent at the expense of many other pressing priorities over the decades. The civilian application of China’s nuclear technology and know-how only began in the early 1980s when China began to implement its reform and open-door policies.

The planning and construction of China’s first nuclear power plant began in 1980 at Qinshan and went into operation in 1991. Other plants are concentrated in three provinces in eastern and southern parts of the country. With only nine nuclear plants in operation and another two under construction (the U.S. has 104 licensed reactors), China produced 6,600 MW last year from nuclear power, accounting for just 2.3 percent of the country’s total annual electricity supply, according to the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA). This is much less than the world average of 16 percent, and far behind other major industrialized countries (78 percent in France, 30 percent in Japan, 32 percent in Germany, 20 percent in both the United States and Great Britain, and 15 percent in both Canada and Russia; figures from IAEA).

There are a number of factors that affect the relatively slow development of the nuclear power industry in recent years. First, China is the third largest energy producer with substantial deposits of coal, oil and gas resources, and robust hydropower potential in many parts of the country. The traditional form of energy centered on coal, which still constitutes roughly 70 percent of China’s overall energy supply. Second, the price of the traditional energy supply has been relatively low during the past 25 years. Third, China’s central planners did not feel the necessity for a speedy expansion of the nuclear power plants since China, although becoming a net oil importer in 1993, did not experience a severe energy shortage until recently.

Since 2001, however, China’s overall energy situation has worsened. World oil prices have increased sharply in the intervening years. The Chinese economy, hungrily moving forward at 9.5 percent annually for the past 25 years, requires ever more coal, oil, electricity, and transportation infrastructure. All these inputs are in short supply, causing power blackouts throughout the country and choking the sustainability of China’s modernization program. Statistics show that China’s coal output grew by 15 percent last year while installed power-generating capacity increased 14.5 percent—both world records (Xinhua, October 13). Yet 24 provincial regions were forced to ration their power supply.

“Great Leap Nuclear-ward:” 2005-2020 and Beyond

Facing the “coal-electricity-oil-transportation” bottleneck, China is undergoing the largest ever strategic adjustment in history to pursue energy security. The government adapted a medium to long-term energy security plan last fall, and a high-level energy task force was established, headed by Premier Wen Jiabao with the participation of major State Council ministers this summer. Major Chinese oil companies, implementing a “going out” strategy, are traveling around the world to purchase energy equity. Across the country, large-scale oil, gas and hydropower infrastructure is being built.

Nuclear electricity, now defined as the third pillar of China’s future energy after coal and hydro, is receiving considerable attention. Beijing announced in last year’s plan that China will build 32 nuclear power plants in the next 15 years, each one with a generating capacity of at least one million kilowatts. While the average number of nuclear power plants going into service was about one every three years in the past 25 years, the PRC is projected to put two 1,000 MW nuclear power plants into operation every year over the next 15 years, raising the percentage of nuclear contribution in its total electricity output to 4 percent by 2020 (PRC State Council Information Office, May 2005). Currently, Beijing has adopted international norms and guidelines to establish a rapid response system to deal with safety and nuclear accidents. This means China is well-positioned to expand its nuclear industry. China, however, can only independently build nuclear power stations up to the 600,000 KW-level, although it can produce some key components for the one million KW-level plants.

China’s growing appetite for nuclear electricity must therefore be satisfied with substantial external inputs and technological assistance. Last year, China invited foreign bids for four nuclear reactors with 1,000 MW capacity each. Framatone Corp. (France), Candu Corp. (Canada), Westinghouse Corp. (U.S.), and General Electric Company teamed with a Japanese engineering group, all submitted bids. According to the materials released by China’s State Council Information Office at the Fortune Global Forum in Beijing last May, the conservative estimate of China’s investment in nuclear power plants over the next 15 years exceeds $40 billion. The United States may provide China with some 20 of 32 nuclear power plants, worth $24 billion, according to the same materials. If so, nuclear power plants will replace civilian aircrafts as the largest products of U.S.-China trade in the coming years.

Beijing is aware of the fierce international competition for nuclear profits in China, and is poised to maximize its gains in the areas of technology transfer. By presenting a large cake to be shared internationally, China wants to acquire in particular the third generation nuclear power plant technology. The U.S. government, eager to support American companies in the international bidding war for China’s contracts, announced that it is ready to transfer nuclear reactor technologies to China (China Daily, October 26). In an unprecedented move, the U.S. Department of Energy held a nuclear power plant safety demonstration in Beijing last week—the first ever outside the U.S. territory or with any other country. According to U.S. press reports, the DOE will leave behind $6 million worth of nuclear security system technology as a demonstration model for the Chinese to emulate.

Meanwhile, Chinese scientists have set their eyes decades ahead and are speeding up the research and development of the fourth generation pebble-bed modular high-temperature gas-cooled reactor (HTGR). As the industrial leader in this area together with South Africa, China is the only other country besides Japan to operate a HTGR experiment unit. Many in China are betting on this technology as a major solution to China’s increasing electricity demands, projected at about 50 GW by 2030 and up to 240 GW by the middle of the century (as compared with today’s capacity of 7,000 MW; figures from the Asia Pacific Energy Research Center).

When Mao made the decision to develop nuclear bombs 50 years ago, there was nothing but PLA soldiers and devoted scientists who were willing to work in the remote enclaves for decades. With this year’s celebrations for the half-century achievements ongoing, some of the largest corporations in the world, supported by their governments, are ready to join hands with their Chinese counterparts for a great leap in nuclear power expansion. That will surely close the ranks between China and other industrialized countries.