The recent AREVA agreement between France and China has raised fears over how Beijing will use reprocessed nuclear fuel.

French President Emmanuel Macron and Chinese President Xi Jinping. Credit: MARK SCHIEFELBEIN/AFP/Getty Images 

By Nevine Schepers, Research Analyst, Non-Proliferation and Nuclear Policy

Last week, on his first state visit to China, French President Emmanuel Macron called for the Europe–China partnership to ‘enter the 21st century’. One highlight of his trip was the signing of a memorandum of understanding worth more than €10 billion between a branch of France’s AREVA group and the China National Nuclear Corporation (CNNC) for the commissioning of a spent fuel reprocessing plant.

This agreement is an opportunity for France and its ailing nuclear sector, still recovering from AREVA’s near-bankruptcy and subsequent restructuring, to reassert their credentials after struggling to find new export business. Some media outlets hailed it as ‘a breath of fresh air’ for the French nuclear industry, and some went as far as depicting China as AREVA’s saviour. If the contract is finalised later this spring, a target that is still uncertain given the ten-year long negotiation process, it will provide AREVA with a much-needed financial boost and vote of confidence. But the agreement is significant beyond its impact on France’s nuclear sector. China is signalling a firm intention to close its nuclear fuel cycle, a policy it has pursued since 1983.

Nuclear fuel reprocessing explained

Reprocessing involves the recovery of plutonium and uranium from spent nuclear fuel, which can then be re-used, hence the term ‘closed’ fuel cycle. Open fuel cycles, by contrast, forgo reprocessing operations and instead store nuclear waste in high-level disposal facilities. Advocates of reprocessing argue that the process reduces the amount of radiological waste produced, as well as the need for natural uranium, and makes large-scale nuclear energy programmes more sustainable in the long-term. Reprocessing only reduces the amount of high-level waste, however, making disposal facilities still necessary, albeit on a smaller scale.

Reprocessing has a number of downsides, including the extremely high cost of building and operating suitable facilities. For instance, the estimated construction cost of Japan’s Rokkasho reprocessing plant reached US$25.7 billion last July following delays of more than 20 years. The total cost of constructing, operating and decommissioning the plant, which was built with the support and involvement of AREVA, will be approximately US$120 billion. Furthermore, by the end of 2016, Japan’s reprocessing activities at other sites had caused it to accumulate a stockpile of 9.8 tonnes of separated plutonium, with another 37.1 tonnes held in reprocessing facilities in France and the UK.

Japan’s large stockpile illustrates another serious downside of reprocessing: its potential to assist proliferation. Weapons-usable plutonium can be recovered from power-reactor spent fuel. For that reason, the United States has long sought to safeguard against this possibility in its nuclear trade. The 2009 nuclear cooperation agreement between the US and the United Arab Emirates set a non-proliferation gold standard whereby the UAE agreed to forgo uranium enrichment and plutonium reprocessing, establishing a benchmark for future nuclear cooperation agreements in the Middle East. Recent articles suggesting a US nuclear agreement with Saudi Arabia may not include a similar requirement have raised concerns in the non-proliferation community.

China pursues plan despite risks

Compared to the US, France has been manifestly less focused on pursuing a non-proliferation agenda in relation to reprocessing technologies. The country has come under fire in the past for pushing both Japan and China to develop such capabilities. Still, during AREVA’s lengthy negotiations with the CNNC, the proliferation potential was not entirely ignored. Concerns regarding the potential military use of plutonium seem to have been behind the change of location for the proposed reprocessing plant in Gansu province, which was originally to be close to military facilities.

Issues with China’s reprocessing ambitions range from extensive costs to safety and security risks. These have been discussed at length during IISS workshops with Chinese partners since 2014. Nevertheless, the recent AREVA agreement demonstrates that China remains intent on pursuing a closed fuel cycle policy. When the final deal is signed a key question will be if, and how, China plans to address these risks, and whether the country will clarify its policy on the use of reprocessed fuel. Concerned states will look for stronger reassurances that recovered material will only be used in civil applications. On an international level, China could alleviate some fears regarding the potential stockpiling of plutonium derived from reprocessing by introducing non-proliferation and nuclear security norms in its nuclear-cooperation arrangements with Pakistan.

Nuclear reprocessing around the world

In December the new South Korean government of Moon Jae-in announced it would re-examine the viability of a project on pyro-processing, a form of spent fuel reprocessing, and produce a final report on technical and economic feasibility by the end of January 2018. During the negotiations for the renewal of the country’s nuclear cooperation agreement with the US in 2015, South Korea had strongly pushed to obtain advance consent from the US to reprocess spent fuel. The Obama government agreed instead to a joint fuel cycle study, due for completion in 2021, before considering revisions to the agreement.

Independent of US restrictions on reprocessing, the progressive Moon government appears willing to take a different approach to its predecessors. In the Middle East, US talks with Saudi Arabia could lead to a renegotiation of Washington’s nuclear cooperation agreement with the UAE, should the ‘gold standard’ not be maintained. Recent events will likely spur on the debate on the risks and implications of commercial spent nuclear fuel reprocessing, in both nuclear and non-nuclear weapon states.

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