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former IAEA Director-General

China Updates Nuclear Export Regulations
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Paul Kerr

For the first time in almost 10 years, China has updated its export controls on nuclear technology. China’s State Council published the changes Dec. 1, the official Xinhua News Agency reported.

According to Xinhua, the regulations, originally issued in 1997, are intended to give the government “more control over the end use” of exported nuclear technology. The revised regulations also provide more explicit guidance for importers and exporters of Chinese nuclear technology.

For example, the regulations give what appears to be new power to China’s customs authorities, which may now request that Chinese exporters obtain proper documentation of their shipments.

The regulations also describe more specific penalties for export control violations. The previous regulations said only that violators would be punished according to the relevant laws.

Furthermore, recipients of Chinese uranium-enrichment technology are now prohibited from using it to produce uranium containing more than 20 percent uranium-235.

Uranium enrichment, which increases the concentration of the fissile isotope uranium-235, can be used to produce both nuclear reactor fuel and fissile material for nuclear weapons. Uranium used as fuel in nuclear power reactors is typically enriched to less than 5 percent uranium-235; enriched uranium used in nuclear weapons typically is about 90 percent uranium-235.

The revised regulations also place new emphasis on preventing nuclear attacks by terrorists, adding, for example, “guarding against nuclear terrorist acts” as a rationale for controlling nuclear technology. Moreover, the regulations contain a new provision that allows Beijing to “suspend” nuclear exports to a recipient “if there is the danger of…nuclear terrorism.”

These changes continue a positive trend. In 1998, Beijing issued regulations governing the export of dual-use nuclear items. In 2004, China joined the Nuclear Suppliers Group (NSG), a voluntary group of states that have agreed to coordinate their export controls governing transfers of civilian nuclear material and technology. (See ACT, June 2004.)

The regulations do not appear to affect China’s 2004 agreement, completed before its accession to the NSG, to supply Pakistan with a nuclear reactor. Although governments are not obliged to follow NSG standards for any contracts completed before joining the group, the deal has been controversial because it is inconsistent with NSG guidelines.

Beijing also has been strengthening other types of export controls. For example, in 2002 it adopted regulations governing the export of missiles and related components, as well as chemical and biological materials and related equipment. (See ACT, January/February 2004.)

U.S. statements acknowledge that Beijing has improved its efforts to prevent nuclear proliferation but also claim that Chinese entities continue to aid certain countries’ nuclear programs.

For example, Paula DeSutter, assistant secretary of state for verification, compliance, and implementation, told the U.S.-China Economic and Security Review Commission in September 2006 that China’s nuclear export control system “appears designed to ensure adequate review for those [nuclear materials and technology] exports that come to the attention” of the relevant authorities. But Washington is concerned about “whether these authorities choose to properly exercise their authority,” she added.

Similarly, a CIA report covering 2004 stated that “ China’s record is strongest with respect to nuclear nonproliferation, as Beijing has largely curtailed government-sanctioned assistance to most countries.”

However, an August 2005 Department of State report indicates that Beijing may be aiding two unnamed countries’ nuclear weapons programs. U.S. intelligence officials have testified as recently as 2004 that Chinese entities have provided such assistance to Iran and Pakistan.

Posted: January 1, 2007