Securing China’s Nuclear Energy Development

Hui Zhang

Hui Zhang

By Hui Zhang

Senior Research Associate, Project on Managing the Atom, Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs, Harvard Kennedy School

Chinese president Xi Jinping said in his address at the 2014 Nuclear Security Summit that, “we should place equal emphasis on development [of nuclear energy] and security, and develop nuclear energy on the premise of security.” He further emphasized that,developing nuclear energy at the expense of security can neither be sustainable nor bring real development. Only by adopting credible steps and safeguards can we keep the risks under effective control and develop nuclear energy in a sustainable way.”

Xi’s speech also signals that China will actively develop its nuclear energy.  By January 2014, China had 17 reactors in operation with an aggregate installed capacity of about 15 GWe. In addition, 31 reactors capable of producing a total of 34 GWe together are under construction–making the Chinese nuclear industry by far the fastest growing in the world. The Fukushima nuclear accident in March 2011 slowed China’s nuclear power construction momentarily, but China is now on pace to meet or exceed its pre-Fukushima development plans. China now plans to grow its total nuclear capacity to 40 GWe by 2015 and 58 GWe by 2020. However, such a goal must be guaranteed by a robust nuclear security system.

As the number of nuclear power plants in China is rapidly increasing, the risk of sabotage at a nuclear power plant poses an growing challenge to China’s nuclear security. In fact, the possibility of insider sabotage against nuclear facilities cannot be ruled out, as China becomes an increasingly market-oriented (and corrupt) society. Terrorist attacks by outsiders may also pose a real threat to China’s nuclear facilities—in particular, the terrorist forces of “East Turkestan,” which the Chinese government believes have long been recipients of training, financial assistance, and support from international terrorist groups includ­ing Al Qaeda. Such groups may be inspired by the disaster at Fukushima. In practice, a terrorist attack elsewhere would also doom China’s ambitious plan of nuclear power development. A security incident on the scale of Chernobyl would certainly damage the development of Chinese nuclear power.

While China has substantially advanced its physical protection system in recent years, more work is still needed.  The existing Nuclear Facility Physical Protection Guidelines require all civilian nuclear facilities to apply a security approach based on a “design basis threat” (DBT) including outsiders, insiders, and a collusion of both. However, they lack clearly defined standards for each nuclear facility. As Li Ganjie, the director of the NNSA, noted: the existing DBT for nuclear power plants could be unable to resist attacks from larger scale and well-organized terrorist groups with powerful weapons.

To improve China’s existing physical protection system, China should review and upgrade the basis used for designing physical protection for the nuclear reactors to ensure it reflects the threat as perceived after the 9/11 attacks. The DBTs should include the full spectrum of plausible adversaries and tactics. It is imperative to have at least a minimum DBT standard that includes protection against a modest group of well-armed and well-trained outsiders; a well-placed insider; and both outsiders and an insider working together, using a broad range of possible tactics.

Also, as the latest revision of the IAEA’s physical protection recommendations, China, like other countries, should carry out force-on-force exercises to test security at its nuclear power plants. Furthermore, China should promote a robust nuclear security culture. Moreover, security culture is linked closely with nuclear safety culture and safeguards culture. Enhancing “3 S” (safety, security, and safeguards) cultures are key enablers for large-scale nuclear energy growth as China plans.

This post is a version of the following article:

Hui Zhang, “Securing China’s Nuclear Power Plants,” Journal of Nuclear Materials Management, Vol. XLII, No.2, 2014;   http://www.jnmm-digital.com/jnmm/winter_2014#pg24

Read more on China’s nuclear security:

Hui Zhang and Tuosheng Zhang ,  Securing China’s Nuclear Future. Cambridge, Mass.: Report for Project on Managing the Atom, Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs, Harvard Kennedy School, March 14, 2014; http://belfercenter.ksg.harvard.edu/files/securingchinasnuclearfutureenglish.pdf

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