The lack of Sino-U.S. cooperation in the nuclear realm is commonly lamented in strategic circles. Yet there are a number of arenas in which nuclear cooperation between Beijing and Washington has been not only robust, but also expanding. In the thirteenth installment of the “Arms Control Seminar Series,” Neile L. Miller, principal deputy administrator of the U.S National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA), met with a panel of Chinese experts at the Carnegie-Tsinghua Center for Global Policy to discuss these critical junctures of nuclear cooperation and how to enhance such measures in the future. Carnegie’s Lora Saalman moderated.

Nuclear Safety and Security Initiatives

  • Peaceful Uses of Nuclear Technology: U.S. participants described the achievements made under the U.S.-China Peaceful Uses of Nuclear Technology (PUNT) initiative, which addresses civil development of nuclear energy, as well as nuclear security, safety, and nonproliferation issues, through its five working groups:

    1. Nuclear Energy Technologies
    2. Safeguards and Security
    3. Environmental and Waste Management
    4. Nuclear Emergency Management
    5. Radiological Source Security

  • Centers of Excellence on Nuclear Security: China’s initiative of “Centers of Excellence on Nuclear Security” in collaboration with the United States drew praise from the experts in attendance. In addition to establishing a National Nuclear Security Technology Center in China, Beijing seeks to use these centers to promote nuclear security both domestically and among its neighbors. One U.S. participant noted that scientists and officials anticipate the center will be operational by 2015 or earlier.

Combating Nuclear Terrorism

  • Nuclear Material Protection and Tracking: Nuclear materials stolen from one country could be used against another, particularly given increasingly porous international borders, emphasized one U.S. participant. Given this threat, key points of Sino-U.S. cooperation include efforts to reduce quantities of vulnerable nuclear material and highly enriched uranium. To this end, the United States and China have been engaged in activities like nuclear reactor conversion to low-enriched uranium and combatting nuclear materials trafficking through enhanced export and border control coordination, as well as nuclear forensics detection and tracking.
  • Exchanges on Radiological Source Control: One U.S. expert maintained that radiological materials are an often overlooked, but significant threat in the world of non-state actors. Widespread use of radiological materials in medicine and agriculture offers opportunities for misuse or proliferation by terrorist groups, a fact recognized by both China and the United States, argued this participant. Given this fact, exchanges of best practices between the NNSA and the Chinese Institute of Atomic Energy on physical protection vulnerability analysis and standardization of regulatory practices are crucial.
  • Upgrading Screening Technology: Under the NNSA’s Megaports Initiative, which works to enhance nuclear and radioactive detection capabilities at global ports, China has installed new screening technologies at many strategic ports, including Dalian and Shanghai, said one U.S. expert. The participant noted that China’s customs offices have also developed a radiation detection training center that delivers “uniform consistent training” to help combat illicit trafficking. One of the U.S. participants highlighted the fact that Chinese counterparts have developed a strong stake in the network and training center. This level of ownership is important in recognizing that nuclear security is not just a U.S. concern, but a global one.

New Directions

  • Disposal of Nuclear Waste: The advent of nuclear weapons has led to a legacy of radioactive contamination and the need to regulate hazardous waste materials, argued one U.S. participant. Future collaboration between regulatory bodies in the United States and China is already in progress and interaction throughout the process has been positive, argued this expert.
  • Expanded Outreach and Education: One of the Chinese experts asked whether the United States has varied standards in engaging in nuclear cooperation with countries and how different cultures might affect these exchanges. A U.S. participant responded that when it comes to collaboration between scientists, culture, language, and politics are often marginalized. This expert emphasized that science has its own standardized language and means of interaction, enhancing the ability to engage in direct communication and reducing the chances for misunderstanding. Several of the Chinese strategic experts expressed surprise at the level of Sino-U.S. nuclear cooperation and advocated greater outreach and education for the broader community within China.

Discussants: Gu Zhongmao, Zou Yunhua, Martin Schoenbauer, Wang Jia, Zhai Dequan, Gu Guoliang, Han Hua, Liu Changxin, Hu Yumin, Ren Jingjing, Matthew Houlsby, Wang Haibin, Mao Jikang, Tang Zhichao, Chris Janiec, Sun Lizhou, Lu Wentao, Liu Ming, Crystal C. Yan, Matthew Griechen, Chris Cheng