Civilian HEU: China

October 8, 2019

Part of the
Civilian HEU Reduction and Elimination Resource Collection


China is a nuclear weapon state (NWS) party to the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons (NPT), with both military and civil use stocks of highly enriched uranium (HEU). There is very little public information on China's civilian HEU holdings in regard to quantity, security, or production. The Institute for Science and International Security estimates that China has 1 metric ton of civilian HEU, about 240 kg of which is Russian-origin. [1] The government has not declared an official national policy regarding HEU, nor does China declare its HEU stockpiles in its annual plutonium declarations to the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) (INFCIRC/549). China has not declared any HEU as excess to its military needs. [2]

China uses low enriched uranium (LEU) fuels in its naval propulsion reactors and does not require HEU for civil maritime propulsion. [3] There are no reports of China using HEU for space propulsion. The country has been decreasing its dependence on HEU for civil purposes by converting or shutting down many reactors that utilize HEU. [4] In September 2015, China, in cooperation with the United States and the IAEA, successfully discharged and replaced the HEU-fueled core from the Miniature Neutron Source Reactor (MNSR) in Beijing, and replaced it with an LEU core. In early 2016 it was announced that the reactor passed all of its tests and was running at full power on LEU. [5] This success will serve as a model for future MNSR core conversions.

Production, Use, and Commerce

Information on HEU production in China is highly speculative. China is believed to have ended uranium enrichment for nuclear weapons, although this has never been officially announced by Beijing. [6] Albright and Hinderstein report that, based upon unofficial Chinese statements, fissile material production for military use ended by about 1991. In February 1997, a senior Chinese official "confirmed to the authors that production of fissile material for nuclear weapons in China had ceased." [7]

China has three uranium enrichment plants for the production of LEU: the Lanzhou plant, the Heping plant, and the Hanzhong plant. The Lanzhou enrichment plant ceased HEU production in 1979, and since 1980 has produced LEU for civilian power reactors. [8] The plant originally used gaseous diffusion technology, but the facility was closed in 2000, and has since been replaced with centrifuge facilities. [9] The Heping gaseous diffusion plant (the Jinkouhe facility, Plant 814) was also known to produce HEU. However, details on current production output or end use remain unclear. One report, based upon thermal infrared satellite imagery, noted that the Jinkouhe facility remains hot and therefore possibly still in operation. [10] The Hanzhong plant is believed to have only produced LEU for civilian purposes. [11]

China currently has three research reactors that utilize HEU. These include the CEFR Prototype Fast Power reactor, a Zero Power Fast Critical Assembly, and the MNSR reactor in Shenzhen. [12] The China Experimental Fast Reactor (CEFR) had an initial load of Russian-supplied HEU fuel. However, Beijing plans to use MOX fuel in subsequent loadings, as well as in its industrial-scale (600 MW) China Prototype Fast Reactor envisioned for 2020, and in the 1500 MW fast reactors planned for 2030. [13] China has shut down its MNSRs in Shanghai (2007) and Shandong (2008), both of which used HEU. China has also successfully converted the Min Jiang Test Reactor (MJTR) (2007), the High-Flux Engineering Test Reactor (HFETR) (2007), and the MNSR in Beijing (2016) to LEU fuel. [14]

China has exported HEU to a number of countries along with the sale of its MNSR reactors. These reactors require approximately 1 kg of HEU enriched to at least 90%, [15] and have been exported along with HEU fuel to Syria, Ghana, Nigeria, Pakistan, and Iran. Since the Nuclear Security Summits, China has assisted recipient countries with repatriation of Chinese-supplied HEU, leading to HEU-free status for Ghana (2017) and Nigeria (2018).

Efforts to Reduce or Eliminate Civilian HEU

While previously some Chinese officials had questioned the proliferation relevance of facilities with small amounts of material (reactors that have only about 1 kg of HEU fuel), they have subsequently recognized the importance of civil HEU minimization. [16] This has resulted in both domestic conversion efforts as well as international cooperation with both the United States and the IAEA on civil HEU reduction.

In 2015, the United States, China, and the IAEA successfully converted a Chinese MNSR as a model for future MNSR conversion efforts. [17] The converted MNSR began operating on LEU at full power in early 2016. [18] During the 2016 Nuclear Security Summit (NSS), China committed to converting its last HEU-fueled MNSR to LEU fuel, as well as offering conversion services for all Chinese-origin MNSRs worldwide. [19] In 2017, China assisted Ghana in the conversion of its MNSR (GHARR-1). [20] Then in 2018, China assisted Nigeria in converting its MNSR (NIRR-1) to LEU, and repatriated the remaining HEU to China. [21]

China has made substantial progress in HEU minimization efforts, and its commitment to helping convert MNSR reactors domestically and abroad are noteworthy steps in the direction of championing shared nonproliferation and nuclear security goals. China still has operational research reactors that use HEU fuel, and there is significant remaining ambiguity with regards to China’s HEU production and civilian stockpile. However, China has the opportunity to continue to play a large role in global HEU minimization and elimination.

[1] David Albright and Serena Kelleher- Vergantini, "Civilian HEU Watch: Tracking Inventories of Civil Highly Enriched Uranium," 7 October 2015,
[2] International Panel on Fissile Materials, "Increasing Transparency of Nuclear-warhead and Fissile-material Stocks as a Step toward Disarmament," 24 April 2013, pp. 3, 13,
[3] Hui Zhang, "Evaluating China's MPC&A System," Paper Presented at the INMM 44th Annual Meeting, Phoenix, Arizona, 13-17 July 2003.
[4] David Albright and Kimberly Kramer, "Civil HEU Watch: Tracking Inventories of Civil Highly Enriched Uranium," Institute for Science and International Security, February 2005, revised August 2005, p. 8, 11,
[5] “One of China’s MNSR reactors converted to LEU,” International Panel on Fissile Materials Blog, 29 March 2016,
[6] Ann MacLachlan, and Mark Hibbs, "China Stops Production of Military Fuel: All SWU Capacity Now for Civil Use," Nuclear Fuel, 13 November 1989. The 1987 data is from a personal communication to one of the authors of the Albright report from Hibbs, who was told in turn by the head of the China Nuclear Energy Industry Corporation. It is also cited in note 22: Chunyan Ma, Frank von Hippel, "Ending the Production of Highly Enriched Uranium for Naval Reactors," The Nonproliferation Review (Spring 2001): 99.
[7] David Albright and Corey Hinderstein, "Chinese Military Plutonium and Highly Enriched Uranium Inventories," The Institute for Science and International Security, 30 June 2005.
[8] Hui Zhang, “China’s Uranium Enrichment Capacity: Rapid expansion to meet commercial needs,” Harvard Kennedy School, Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs, August 2015.
[9] Hui Zhang, “China’s Fissile Material Production and Stockpile,” International Panel on Fissile Material, December 2017,
[10] Catherine Dill, “The Jinkouhe Gaseous Diffusion Plant Is Hot!” Arms Control Wonk, September 23, 2015,
[11] Hui Zhang, “China’s Uranium Enrichment Complex,” Science & Global Security 23, No. 3 (October 2015), p. 171-190.
[12] "Reducing the Use of Highly Enriched Uranium in Civilian Research Reactors," Committee on the Current Status of and Progress Toward Eliminating Highly Enriched Uranium Use in Fuel for Civilian Research and Test Reactors, The National Academies Press, 28 January 2016.
[13] Mark Hibbs, "Chinese Breeder Reactor Criticality Delayed until 2008," Nucleonics Week, 18 August 2005; "Chinese Fast Reactor Nears Commissioning," World Nuclear News, 7 April 2009,; Hui Zhang, "Approaches to Strengthen China's Nuclear Security," Project on Managing the Atom, p. 2,; Hui Zhang, "Rethinking Chinese Policy on Commercial Reprocessing," Project on Managing the Atom, p. 3,; Chen Huang, Baoyu Xu, Xian Xu, Peisheng Zhang, Bangyue Yin, "Fuel Development Status for Fast Reactor in China and Irradiation Test Plan on CEFR," presented at IPPE, Obninsk, Russia, 30 May – 3 June 2011, p. 7.
[14] China News Service, “China’s 1st Low-Enriched Uranium ‘Micro Reactor’ Operates at Full Power,” 28 March 2016,
[15] International Atomic Energy Agency, "CRP on Conversion of Miniature Neutron Source Research Reactors (MNSR) to Low Enriched Uranium (LEU)," IAEA Research Reactor Section, 27 July 2011,
[16] CNS interview with China Atomic Energy Agency official, 29 September 2005.
[17] Brian Waud, "U.S., China, and IAEA Advance International HEU Minimization Efforts," Defense Nuclear Nonproliferation Sentinel, Vol. 1, No. 3,
[18] “One of China’s MNSR reactors converted to LEU,” International Panel on Fissile Materials Blog, 29 March 2016,
[19] Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the People’s Republic of China, “US-China Joint Statement on Nuclear Security Cooperation,” 1 April 2016,
[20] “NNSA Spearheads International Effort to Convert Ghana Reactor to LEU Fuel,” National Nuclear Security Administration, 19 July 2017,
[21] The U.S. NNSA and the Nigerian Nuclear Regulatory Authority (NNRA) announced the repatriation of all HEU from Nigeria at the RERTR conference, November 2018.

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