The recent AREVA agreement between France and China has raised fears over how Beijing will use reprocessed nuclear fuel. 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. 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.
IISS 19th Jan 2018 read more »