Reprocessing in China: Separating fact from fiction

On 11 January 2010, the Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS) published a brief analysis of last week's announcements in several media (incl. Reuters, The Guardian, AP/NYT) of a major "breakthrough in spent fuel reprocessing technology" in China. The international media coverage was triggered by a short report on Chinese state television network (CCTV) on 3 January 2011 announcing the start-up of a pilot scale commercial reprocessing plant in Gansu Province, which took place on December 21, 2010. The media stories suggested that "a new technology" was involved to separate plutonium and uranium from spent fuel. However, the "breakthrough", UCS clarifies, refers to "something that was a first for China, not a breakthrough in reprocessing technology." The attention given to the announcement is all the more surprising considering that the facility is believed to have been completed as early as 2004 and a six-year long start-up phase seems excessive. There is no publicly available explanation for the delay. In a detailed comment on the story, Carnegie Endowment senior associate Mark Hibbs suggests that Chinese safety authorities might have been holding back from granting the Chinese National Nuclear Corporation (CNNC) permission to activate the plant. The facility is believed to have an annual capacity of 50-100 tons.