UCS Blog - All Things Nuclear (text only)

NRC’s Project Aim: Off-target?

A handful of years ago, there was talk about nearly three dozen new reactors being ordered and built in the United States. During oversight hearings, Members of Congress queried the Members of the Nuclear Regulatory Commission on efforts underway and planned to ensure the agency would be ready to handle this anticipated flood of new reactor applications without impeding progress. Those efforts included creating the Office of New Reactors and hiring new staffers to review the applications and inspect the reactors under construction.

Receding Tide

The anticipated three dozen applications for new reactors morphed into four actual applications, two of which have since been cancelled. The tsunami of new reactor applications turned out to be a little ripple, at best.

The tide also turned for the existing fleet of reactors. Unfavorable economics led to the closures of several reactors and the announced closures of several other reactors in the near future.

The majority of the NRC’s annual budget is funded through fees collected from its licensees. For example, in fiscal year 2017 the owner of an operating reactor paid $4,308,000 for the NRC’s basic oversight efforts. For extra NRC attention (such as supplemental inspections when reactor performance dropped below par and for reviews of license renewal applications), the NRC charged $263 per hour.

Still, the lack of upsizing from new reactors and abundance of downsizing from existing reactors meant that NRC would have fewer licensees from whom to collect funds.

Enter Project Aim

The NRC launched Project AIM in June 2014 with the intention of “right-sizing” the agency while retaining the skill sets necessary to perform its vital mission. Project Aim identified 150 items that could be eliminated or performed more cost-effectively. Collectively, these measures were estimated to save over $40 million.

Fig. 1 (Source: Nuclear Regulatory Commission)

Project Aim Targets

Item 59 was among the highest cost-saving measures identified by Project Aim. It terminated research activities on risk assessments of fire hazards for an estimated savings of $935,000. The NRC adopted risk-informed fire protection regulations in 2004 to complement the fire protection regulations adopted by the NRC in 1980 in response to the disastrous fire at the Browns Ferry Nuclear Plant in Alabama. The fire research supported risk assessment improvements to better manage the fire hazards—or would have done so had it not been stopped.

Item 61 was also a high dollar cost-saving measure. It eliminated the development of new methods, models and tools needed to incorporate digital instrumentation and control (I&C) systems into probabilistic risk assessments (PRAs) with an estimated savings of $735,000. Nuclear power reactors were originally equipped with analog I&C systems (which significantly lessened the impact of the Y2K rollover problem). As analog I&C systems become more obsolete, plant owners are replacing them with new-fangled digital I&C systems. Digital I&C systems fail in different ways and at different rates than analog I&C systems and the research was intended to enable the PRAs to better model the emerging reality.

Item 62 eliminated development of methods, models, tools, and data needed to evaluate the transport of radioactive materials released during severe accidents into aquatic environments. For example, the 2011 severe accident at Fukushima involved radioactive releases to the Pacific Ocean via means not clearly understood. This cost-saving measure seems to preserve that secret.

Fig. 2 (Source: Nuclear Regulatory Commission)

Project Aim Off Target?

The need to reduce costs is genuine. Where oh where could savings of $935,000 come if not from killing the fire research efforts? Perhaps the Office of Management and Budget (OMB) has the answer. On May 11, 2012, OMB issued Memorandum M-12-12 that capped the amount federal agencies spent on conferences at $500,000. This OMB action pre-dated Project Aim, but seems consistent with the project’s fiscal responsibility objectives.

But the NRC opts not to abide by the OMB directive. Instead, the NRC Chairman signs a waiver allowing the NRC to spend far more than the OMB limit on its annual Regulatory Information Conferences (RICs). How much does the RIC cost? In 2017, the RIC cost the NRC $932,315.39—nearly double the OMB limit and almost exactly equal to the amount fire research would have cost.

987 persons outside the NRC attended the RIC in 2017. So, the NRC spent roughly $944.60 per outsider at the RIC last year. But don’t fixate on that amount. Whether the NRC had spent $1,000,000 per person or $1 per person, the RIC did not make a single American safer or more secure. (It also did not make married Americans safer or more secure, either.)

Eliminating the RIC would save the NRC nearly a million dollars each year. That savings could fund the fire research this year, which really does make single and married Americans safer. And next year savings could fund the development of digital I&C risk assessment methods to better manage the deployment of these systems throughout the nuclear fleet. And the savings the following year could fund research into transport of radioactive materials during severe accidents.

Fig. 3 (Source: Nuclear Regulatory Commission)

If the cliché “knowledge is power” holds any weight, then stopping fire research, development of digital I&C risk assessment methods, and many other activities leaves the NRC powerless to properly manage the associated risks.

RIC and risk? Nope, non-RIC and lower risk.

Clinton Power Station: Déjà vu Transformer Problems

The Clinton Power Station located 23 miles southeast of Bloomington, Illinois has one General Electric boiling water reactor with a Mark III containment that began operating in 1987.

On December 8, 2013, an electrical fault on a power transformer stopped the flow of electricity to some equipment with the reactor operating near full power. The de-energized equipment caused conditions within the plant to degrade. A few minutes later, the control room operators manually scrammed the reactor per procedures in response to the deteriorating conditions. The NRC dispatched a special inspection team to investigate the cause and its corrective actions.

On December 9, 2017, an electrical fault on a power transformer stopped the flow of electricity to some equipment with the reactor operating near full power. The de-energized equipment caused conditions within the plant to degrade. A few minutes later, the control room operators manually scrammed the reactor per procedures in response to the deteriorating conditions. The NRC dispatched a special inspection team to investigate the cause and its corrective actions. The NRC’s special inspection team issued its report on January 29, 2018.

Same reactor. Same month. Nearly the same day. Same transformer. Same problem. Same outcome. Same NRC response.

Coincidence? Nope. When one does nothing to solve a problem, one invites the problem back. And problems accept the invitations too often.

Setting the Stage(s)

The Clinton reactor was operating near full power on December 8, 2013, and on December 9, 2017. The electricity produced by the main generator (red circle labeled MAIN GEN in Figure 1) at 22 kilovolts (KV) flowed through the main transformers that upped the voltage to 345 KV (345,000 volts) for the transmission lines emanating from the switchyard to carry to residential and industrial customers. Some of the electricity also flowed through the Unit Auxiliary Transformers 1A and 1B that reduced the voltage to 6.9 and 4.16 KV (4,160 volts) for use by plant equipment.

The emergency equipment installed at Clinton to mitigate accidents is subdivided into three divisions. The emergency equipment was in standby mode before things happened. The Division 1 emergency equipment is supplied electrical power from 4,160-volt bus 1A1 (shown in red in Figure 1). This safety bus can be powered from the main generator when the unit is online, from the offsite power grid when the unit is offline, or from emergency diesel generator 1A (shown in green) if none of the other supplies is available. The Divisions 2 and 3 emergency equipment is similarly supplied power from 4,160-volt buses 1B1 and 1C1 respectively, each with three sources of power.

Fig.1 (Source: Clinton Individual Plant Examination Report (1992))

The three buses also provided power to transformers that reduced the voltage down to 480 volts for distribution via the 480-volt buses. For example, 4,160-volt bus 1A1 supplied 480-volt buses A and 1A.

Stage Struck (Twice)

On December 8, 2013, and again on December 9, 2017, an electrical fault on one of the 480-volt auxiliary transformers caused the supply breaker (shown in purple in Figure 2) from 4,160-volt bus 1A1 to open per design. This breaker is normally manually opened and closed by workers to control in-plant power distribution. But this breaker will automatically open to prevent an electrical transient from rippling through the lines to corrupt other equipment.

When the breaker opened, the flow of electricity to 480-volt buses A and 1A stopped, as did the supply of electricity from these 480-volt buses to emergency equipment. It didn’t matter whether electricity from the offsite power grid, the main generator, or emergency diesel generator 1A was supplied to 4,160-volt bus 1A1; no electricity flowed to the 480-volt buses with this electrical breaker open.

Fig. 2 (Source: Clinton Individual Plant Examination Report (1992))

The loss of 480-volt buses A and 1A interrupted the flow of electricity to emergency equipment but did not affect power to non-safety equipment. Consequently, the reactor continued operating near full power.

The emergency equipment powered from 480-volt buses A and 1A included the containment isolation valve on the pipe supplying compressed air to equipment inside the containment building. This valve is designed to fail-safe in the closed position; thus, in response to the loss of power, it closed.

Among the equipment inside containment needing compressed air were the hydraulic control units for the control rod drive (CRD) system (shown in orange in Figure 3). The control rods are positioned using water pistons. Supply water to one side of the piston while venting water from the other side creates a differential pressure causing the control rod to move. Reversing the sides that get water and get vented causes the control rod to move in the opposite direction. Compressed air keeps two scram valves for each control rod closed against coiled springs. Without the compressed air pressure, the springs force the scram valves to open. When the scram valves open, high pressure water is supplied below the pistons while water from above the pistons is vented. As a result, the control rods fully insert into the reactor core within a handful of seconds to stop the nuclear chain reaction.

Fig. 3 (Source: Nuclear Regulatory Commission)

Ten minutes after the electrical breaker opened on December 8, 2013, an alarm in the control room sounded to alert the operators about low pressure in the compressed air system. The operators followed procedures and responded to the alarm by manually scramming the reactor.

Four minutes after the electrical breaker opened on December 9, 2017, an alarm in the control room sounded to alert the operators about low pressure in the compressed air system. Two minutes later, other alarms sounded to inform the operators that some of the control rods were moving into the reactor core. They manually scrammed the reactor. (The timing difference between the two events is explained by the amounts of air leaking from piping inside containment and by the operation of pneumatically controlled components inside containment that depleted air from the isolated piping.)

The event had additional complications. The loss of power disabled: (1) the low pressure core spray system, (2) one of the two residual heat removal trains, the reactor core isolation cooling system, and the normal ventilation system for the fuel handling building (the structure on the left side of Figure 3). These losses were to be expected – subdividing the emergency equipment into three divisions and then losing all the power to that division de-energizes about one-third of the emergency equipment.

Fortunately, the loss of some emergency equipment in this case was tolerable because there was no emergency for the equipment to mitigate. The operators used non-safety equipment powered from the offsite grid and some of the emergency equipment from Divisions 2 and 3 to safely shut down the reactor. The operators anticipated that the loss of compressed air to equipment inside containment would eventually cause the main steam isolation valves to close, taking away the normal means of removing decay heat from the reactor core. The operators opened other valves before the main steam isolation valves close to provide an alternate means of sustaining this heat removal path. About 30 hours after the event began, the operators placed the reactor into a cold shut down mode, within the time frame established by the plant’s safety studies.

Staging a Repeat Performance

Workers replaced the failed Division 1 transformer following the December 2013 event. Clinton has five safety-related and 24 non-safety-related 4,160-volt to 480-volt transformers, including the one that failed in 2013. Following the 2013 failure, a plan was developed to install windows in the transformer cabinets to allow the temperature of the windings inside to be monitored using infrared detectors. Rising temperatures would indicate winding degradation which could lead to failure of the transformer.

But the planned installation of the infrared detection systems was canceled because the transformers were already equipped with thermocouples that could be used to detect degradation. Then the owner stopped monitoring the transformer thermocouples in 2015.

Plan B (or C?) involved developing a procedure for Doble testing of these 29 transformers that would trend performance and detect degradation. The Doble testing was identified in October 2016 as a Corrective Action to Prevent Recurrence (CAPR) from the 2013 transformer failure event. The Doble testing procedure was issued on November 18, 2016.

Clinton was shut down on May 8, 2017, for a refueling outage. The activities scheduled during the refueling outage included performing the Doble testing on the Division 2 4,160-volt to 480-volt transformers. But that work was canceled because it was estimated to extend the length of the refueling outage by three whole days. So, Clinton restarted on May 29, 2017, without the Doble testing being conducted. As noted by the NRC special inspection team dispatched to Clinton following the repeat event in 2017: “…the inspectors determined that revising the model work orders [i.e., the Doble test procedure] alone was not a CAPR. In order for the CAPR to be considered implemented, the licensee needed to complete actual Doble testing of the transformers.”

The NRC’s special inspection team also identified a glitch with how some of the non-safety-related transformers were handled within the preventative maintenance program. A company procedure required components whose failure would result in a reactor scram to be included in the preventative maintenance program to lessen the likelihood of failures (and more importantly, costly scrams). In response to NRC’s questions, workers stated that three of the non-safety-related transformers could fail and cause a reactor scram, but that these transformers were not covered by the preventative maintenance program.

Plan C (or D?) now calls for replacing all five safety-related transformers: the two Division 2 transformers in 2018 and the single Division 3 transformer in 2021. The two Division 1 transformers have already been replaced following their failures. A decision whether to replace the 24 non-safety-related transformers awaits a determination about seeking a 20-year extension to the reactor’s operating license.

NRC Sanctions

The NRC’s special inspection team identified two findings both characterized as Green in the agency’s green, white, yellow and red classification system.

One finding was the violation of 10 CFR Part 50, Appendix B, Criterion XVI, “Corrective Actions,” for failing to implement measures to preclude repetition of a significant condition adverse to quality. Specifically, the fixes identified by the owner following the December 2013 transformer failure were not implemented, enabling the December 2017 transformer to fail.

The other finding was the failure to follow procedures for placing equipment within the preventative maintenance program. Per procedure, three of the non-safety-related transformers should have been covered by the preventative maintenance program but were not.

UCS Perspective

Glass half-full: Clinton started operating in 1987 and didn’t experience a 4,160-volt to 480-volt transformer failure until late 2013. Apparently, transformer failures are exceedingly rare events such that lightning won’t strike twice.

Glass half-empty: All the aging transformers at Clinton were over 25 years old and heading towards, if not already in, the wear out region of the bathtub curve. Lightning may not strike twice, but an aging jackhammer strikes lots of times (until it breaks).

Could another untested, unreplaced aging transformer fail at Clinton? You bet your glass.

Fig. 4 (Source: Nuclear Regulatory Commission)

Trump’s Nuclear Posture Review: Top Take-Aways

The Trump administration’s Nuclear Posture Review (NPR), to be released today, lays out a policy that will make the use of nuclear weapons more likely and undercut US security. (The final version is reportedly little changed from the draft version that was leaked two weeks ago.)

It includes a wide range of changes to US nuclear weapons policy and calls for deploying additional types of nuclear weapons. Some of these changes can take place relatively quickly—within the time remaining in President Trump’s term—and others will take years to realize. In the latter case, however, political repercussions could occur well before completion of the effort.

This post looks at some of the near-term changes and consequences. In a future blog, I’ll talk about some of the longer-term implications of the NPR.

  1. Preparing for nuclear war-fighting

One of the most significant changes to US policy outlined in the NPR is the tighter integration of US nuclear and conventional forces, including training and exercising with these integrated forces, so US forces can operate “in the face of adversary nuclear threats and attacks [emphasis added].” The NPR states (line numbers refer to the draft NPR text):

US forces will strengthen their ability to integrate nuclear and non-nuclear military planning and operations. Combatant Commands and Service components will be organized and resourced for this mission, and will plan, train, and exercise to integrate U.S. nuclear and non-nuclear forces and operate in the face of adversary nuclear threats and attacks. (lines 906-910)

The document asserts the new US policy “is not intended to enable, nor does it enable, ‘nuclear war-fighting.’” For a regional conflict, “nuclear war-fighting” refers to using nuclear weapons in an ongoing way once a conventional conflict has expanded to include nuclear weapons.

And if training to use nuclear and conventional forces in an integrated way isn’t preparing for nuclear war-fighting, what is? Russia and China will certainly view it that way, and the exercises themselves will be provocative. The new policy deliberately blurs the line between nuclear and conventional forces and eliminates a clear nuclear fire break. Doing so is not in US security interests.

Low-yield, accurate nuclear weapons are often described as “suited for war-fighting,” and would be an important component of the integrated nuclear and conventional force that the administration is planning for. As discussed below, the administration plans to deploy a new lower yield weapon on submarines. But the United States already has two types of low-yield weapons that it could use as part of an integrated force.

The United States currently deploys 100 B61 bombs in the United States for delivery by long-range bombers, and 150 B61 bombs at US airbases in five NATO countries—Belgium, Germany, Italy, the Netherlands, and Turkey—that would be delivered by pilots from those countries using their short-range aircraft. (Hundreds more are in storage.) These bombs allow the user to choose the yield of the weapon; depending on the variant, the yield ranges from 0.3 to 170 kilotons. The lowest yield of 0.3 kilotons is 50 times smaller than the yield of the bombs that destroyed Hiroshima and Nagasaki—which certainly qualifies as a warfighting weapon.

The United States also deploys 200 nuclear air-launched cruise missiles in the United States for delivery by long range bombers. These have variable yields ranging from 5 to 150 kilotons.

With these weapons the US military can begin planning, training and exercising with an integrated force of conventional and nuclear weapons—including low-yield weapons—within a year or two.

  1. Broadening scenarios for using nuclear weapons first

The new policy described in the NPR broadens the scenarios under which the United States would use nuclear weapons first, thus lowering the threshold for first use. The document explicitly lists a wide array of non-nuclear attacks that could constitute grounds for a US nuclear response. These “include, but are not limited to, attacks on the U.S. allied or partner civilian population or infrastructure, and attacks on U.S. or allied nuclear forces, their command and control, or warning and attack assessment capabilities.” (918-920)

Ironically, the Trump NPR makes a very strong case for a no-first-use policy. It states:

Russia must … understand that nuclear first-use, however limited, will fail to achieve its objectives, fundamentally alter the nature of a conflict, and trigger incalculable and intolerable costs for Moscow. Our strategy will ensure Russia understands that any use of nuclear weapons, however limited, is unacceptable. (1055-1059)

Surely, the same is true for the first use of nuclear weapons by the United States. However limited, US nuclear first-use will “fundamentally alter the nature of a conflict, and trigger incalculable and intolerable costs.” Any such use is “unacceptable.”

  1. Deploying new lower-yield submarine-launched weapons

The NPR states that the United States will replace some of the warheads on its submarine-launched Trident ballistic missiles with “low-yield” versions. These warheads would have a yield of roughly five kilotons; for comparison, the W76 and W88 warheads currently deployed on submarines have yields of 100 and 455 kilotons, respectively. Such a low-yield warhead can be produced by modifying an existing two-stage W76 or W88 warhead so that just the first stage explodes, which can be done relatively quickly. These weapons can—and likely will—be deployed during this presidential term.

As noted above, the United States already deploys low-yield bombs and air-launched cruise missiles with yield options that range from 0.3 to 150 kilotons. But the NPR argues that the new weapon will offer several advantages: it will not require “host nation support,” it will provide additional diversity, and it will be able to penetrate defenses. These arguments are spurious. The United States can deliver its bombs and air-launched cruise missiles using long-range bombers based in the United States—these require no host nation support. It is a truism that adding new types of weapons increases diversity, but it is irrelevant. It is also true that a ballistic missile will be able to penetrate defenses (especially since none exist), but this does not give it an advantage over the existing systems. The B-2 stealth bomber is designed to evade sophisticated air defenses, and the air-launched cruise missile can penetrate air defenses.

But the ultimate rationale the NPR gives for the low-yield Trident warhead is that it “will help counter any mistaken perception of an exploitable ‘gap’ in U.S. regional deterrence capabilities.” (392-393) Regardless of what the military thinks US nuclear weapons are deterring other countries from doing, to argue that the current arsenal is inadequate but will become adequate if we throw in a few low-yield Trident warheads is just silly.

  1. Undermining the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty

The NPR describes the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) as the cornerstone of the nuclear non-proliferation regime. However, the new US policy undercuts the treaty in several ways:

Ignores NPT obligation to take measures toward nuclear disarmament

While claiming that the United States “continues to abide by its obligations” under the NPT, the NPR ignores the US obligation to take effective measures toward nuclear disarmament. Since the end of the Cold War, the United States has made progress—albeit slow progress—in reducing the number, types, and role of US nuclear weapons. The new policy reverses that progress. The non-nuclear weapon states are already fed up with the slow progress of the United States and Russia, and in response last year they negotiated a treaty banning nuclear weapons. The Trump NPR is a giant slap in their face.

Walks back from negative security guarantees.

Negative security guarantees—in which the nuclear weapon states assure countries without nuclear weapons that they will not be subject to a nuclear attack—are vital to the NPT.  Such guarantees reduce the incentive for countries to acquire their own nuclear weapons to counter threats from the nuclear weapon states. They were also key to the 1995 decision by the non-nuclear weapon states to extend the treaty indefinitely.

Current US policy is:

The United States will not use or threaten to use nuclear weapons against non-nuclear weapons states that are party to the NPT and in compliance with their nuclear nonproliferation obligations.

The Trump NPR reiterates this policy but follows it with a disclaimer:

Given the potential of significant non-nuclear strategic attacks, the United States reserves the right to make any adjustments in the assurance that may be warranted by the evolution and proliferation of non-nuclear strategic attack technologies and U.S. capabilities to counter that threat. (924-927)

In other words, don’t count on it.

Rejects CTBT Ratification

For 50 years now, the NPT non-nuclear weapon states have made it clear that they place high importance on achieving a treaty prohibiting nuclear explosive testing. The 1968 preamble to the NPT discusses the imperative of negotiating such a treaty, and when the non-nuclear weapons states agreed to indefinitely extend the NPT in 1995, it was predicated on their understanding that the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty (CTBT) was near completion. The CTBT was opened for signature in 1996. The United States has signed, but not ratified the treaty. Over 20 years later, the treaty has still not entered into force, in part because the United States has not ratified it.

In another slap in the face of the non-nuclear weapon states, the NPR explicitly states, “the United States does not support ratification of the Comprehensive Nuclear Test Ban Treaty.” (529)

Stay tuned for future blogs on the new US policy!

China and Trump’s Nuclear Posture Review

Chinese Vice Premier and Foreign Minister Qian Qichen signs the Comprehensive Nuclear Test Ban Treaty (CTBT) on September 24, 1996.

The Trump administration’s Nuclear Posture Review (NPR) repeats one of the most pervasive misconceptions about the current state of the US nuclear arsenal: that it does not compare well with the nuclear arsenals of Russia and China, which are supposedly engaged in nuclear modernization efforts the United States is neglecting.

China is making steady incremental improvements to its nuclear arsenal. But the gap between China and the United States is too wide to argue the United States is lagging behind in any meaningful way. We’ve laid out the details in a new white paper.

A Quick Comparison

China’s nuclear force is much smaller and far less capable than the nuclear force of the United States. Consider the following:

  • China’s nuclear arsenal is smaller than the US nuclear arsenal was in 1950.
  • China has a few hundred nuclear warheads and enough weapons-grade plutonium to make only several hundred more. The United States has 4,480 nuclear warheads (active and reserve) and enough weapons-grade plutonium to make approximately 5,000 more.
  • China conducted 45 nuclear weapons tests to develop and certify the nuclear warheads it has in its arsenal today. The United States conducted 1,056 nuclear weapons tests.
  • China can deliver 75 to 100 nuclear warheads to targets in the United States via ground-based intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs).  The United States currently deploys 400 ICBMs and has another 400 nuclear warheads it could put on those ICBMs.
  • China does not currently deploy any nuclear weapons aboard ballistic missile submarines, although it could possibly deliver 60 nuclear warheads to targets in the United States aboard the five submarines it will have when the fifth one, currently under construction, is completed. The United States currently deploys about 900 nuclear warheads on ballistic missile submarines and its 248 missiles could carry as many as 2,976.

A Limited Force for a Limited Purpose

Despite the enormous disparity between Chinese and US nuclear forces, the leaked NPR about to be released by the Trump administration claims the United States needs new nuclear weapons because “China is expanding and modernizing its considerable nuclear forces” and because China “pursues entirely new nuclear capabilities tailored to achieve particular national security objectives.” The new NPR also expresses concern about the “increasing prominence” of nuclear weapons in Chinese defense policy, including possible Chinese first use of nuclear weapons.

There is little evidence China is pursuing “entirely new” nuclear capabilities.

The NPR implies China’s ability to put multiple warheads on its silo-based ICBM, its ability to deploy ballistic missile submarines and its ability to deliver nuclear weapons by aircraft are new. That needs to be considered in context.

China has had the ability to put multiple warheads on its largest silo-based ICBM for decades. It only did so recently with some of its ICBMs, adding a total of 20 warheads. Adding warheads to the rest of these ICBMs would add only another 20 total warheads. So the decision to utilize the capability to add multiple warheads does allow for a modest increase in the number of warheads China can deliver to the United States. But it is a small increase and it is misleading to characterize it as an “entirely new” capability. The United States deployed its first ICBM with multiple warheads in 1970.

The same is true for China’s ballistic missile submarines and bombers. China has had the capability to put nuclear-armed ballistic missiles on submarines for quite a while. It commissioned its first ballistic missile submarine in 1981. It began conducting sea trials of the submarine class it is building today in 2006. It has still not actively deployed them.

China does have a new nuclear capable air-launched cruise missile but US intelligence sources state it does not currently have a nuclear mission.

There is little compellng evidence that nuclear weapons are more prominent in China’s military strategy or that China intends to use nuclear weapons first.

Authoritative Chinese military sources state that the only national security objective China aims to achieve with its small nuclear force is to maintain an ability to retaliate if another state launches a nuclear attack against China first. Those same sources also confirm China remains committed to its longstanding policy of not using nuclear weapons first.

The limited size and capabilities of China’s nuclear force lends credibility to Chinese statements about the limited role of nuclear weapons in its military strategy.

Of course, China has been incrementally improving the quality and increasing the quantity of its nuclear forces since its first test of a nuclear-armed missile in 1966. The pace of these improvements has been steady but slow, especially when compared with the growth of China’s economy. As noted above, after a half-century of continuous incremental “modernization,” China’s nuclear arsenal remains smaller than the US nuclear arsenal was in 1950.

How to Keep China’s Nuclear Force Small and Limited

President Trump and many members of Congress from both parties seem to believe the United States is in a new nuclear arms race with China. There is no evidence China is engaged in a substantive build-up of its nuclear forces. But even so, for those who are concerned, the best thing the United States can do to win this hypothetical nuclear arms race with China is to limit China’s ability to build new warheads.

China cannot dramatically enlarge its nuclear force without producing more weapons-grade plutonium. And China cannot develop new lighter, variable-yield or low-yield nuclear warheads—like the United States already possesses—without resuming nuclear testing.  It stands to reason, therefore, that US and allied officials concerned about the future size and capabilities of China’s nuclear arsenal should take every measure possible to prevent China from producing more fissile material for nuclear weapons and from testing new nuclear warheads.

For the moment, China says it is still willing to negotiate a fissile material control treaty (FMCT) that would verifiably ban new production of fissile material for nuclear weapons.

In addition, China stopped nuclear testing in 1996 and signed the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty (CTBT). Chinese nuclear arms control experts say their government is still willing to permanently end nuclear testing and ratify the CTBT as soon as the United States does. Entry into force of the CTBT would verifiably ban China from testing new nuclear warheads.

The Trump administration’s plan to develop and deploy new nuclear weapons does nothing to prevent China from expanding its nuclear forces. However, ratifying the CTBT and beginning negotiations on the FMCT would cap the size of China’s nuclear arsenal at its current level. Working towards the entry into force of these two arms control treaties, then, should be the top two priorities for anyone genuinely concerned about the future size and capability of China’s nuclear forces.

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