March 13, 2023 | Policy Brief

Russia Is Fueling China’s Nuclear Weapons Expansion

A senior Department of Defense official on Wednesday confirmed media reports that Rosatom, Russia’s state-owned nuclear energy company, provided China with nuclear fuel for a key reactor that will enable Beijing to expand its nuclear weapons arsenal. Despite the company’s support for China’s atomic expansion and Moscow’s war in Ukraine, Rosatom remains free from U.S. and other Western sanctions.

Bloomberg News reported on February 28 that Rosatom engineers delivered an enriched uranium fuel load to China’s Changbiao Island near Taiwan in December. The Chinese island’s fast-breeder reactor can produce large amounts of weapons-grade plutonium, which, after further processing, Beijing would likely use to expand its atomic weapons arsenal.

During a hearing before the House Armed Services Subcommittee on Strategic Forces on Wednesday, John F. Plumb, assistant secretary of defense for space policy, called the Russian-Chinese cooperation “very troubling.” He explained, “There’s no getting around the fact that breeder reactors are plutonium, and plutonium is for weapons.” The Department of Defense highlighted Plumb’s testimony and the Pentagon’s concerns in a press release.

Last year, the Pentagon projected that China plans to expand its atomic arsenal to at least 1,500 warheads by 2035. Beijing currently has an estimated stockpile of more than 400 warheads. China has also built numerous silos for intercontinental ballistic missiles, upon which Beijing would likely deploy new nuclear warheads.

Countering China’s atomic expansion is a strategic priority for the United States in a new era of great power competition that requires Washington to simultaneously deter nuclear use by Beijing and Moscow.

Yet Russia and China’s nuclear cooperation also calls attention to the decision by the United States and Europe to refrain from sanctioning Rosatom. The West has not sanctioned the Russian corporation despite its role in overseeing Russia’s destructive occupation of Ukraine’s Zaporizhzhia Nuclear Power Plant (ZNPP), where Ukrainian workers are regularly subject to atrocities.

Washington and its European allies have been hesitant to penalize Rosatom because Western countries remain partially dependent on Russian nuclear supplies. All told, despite the war, Rosatom expects a 15 percent increase in export revenue in 2023.

The Biden administration should announce a phase-in of sanctions against Rosatom to penalize its assistance to China as well as its role in Russia’s occupation of ZNPP. To ease the transition, Washington should provide wind-down periods for governments and businesses that have relationships with Rosatom, to avoid needlessly roiling energy markets. A gradual transition would give the private sector time to plan for a shift away from Russia’s vast portfolio of nuclear reactor projects, reactor fuel, uranium, and other nuclear commodities and services.

An encouraging sign that the administration is taking Rosatom sanctions seriously: The State Department announced sanctions against three Rosatom subsidiaries last month. But Washington must do more. Congress can help by mandating a strategy from the administration within 180 days detailing how it intends to execute a wind-down of global nuclear business with the Kremlin.

Anthony Ruggiero is a senior fellow at the Foundation of Defense of Democracies (FDD), where he serves as senior director of the Nonproliferation and Biodefense Program. He previously served as the National Security Council’s senior director for counterproliferation and biodefense in the Trump administration. Andrea Stricker is a research fellow at FDD and deputy director of the Nonproliferation and Biodefense Program. For more analysis from the authors and FDD, please subscribe HERE. Follow Anthony and Andrea on Twitter @NatSecAnthony and @StrickerNonpro. Follow FDD on Twitter @FDD. FDD is a Washington, DC-based, nonpartisan research institute focused on national security and foreign policy.


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