Canadian uranium and China’s nuclear weapons arsenal

Exporting uranium to any state with nuclear weapons should obviously proceed only with the greatest of caution. Hence, this two-fold question: Is Canada taking sufficient care to ensure that Canadian uranium will never end up in a Chinese bomb; can Canada ensure that new supplies of uranium for China’s growing civilian needs will not free up uranium from domestic sources to facilitate expansion of its nuclear arsenal?[i]

As a non-nuclear weapon state party to the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT), Canada is required to verifiably ensure that no Canadian-origin nuclear materials are diverted from peaceful purposes to nuclear weapons.  To that end, the backgrounder supplied by the Prime Minister’s office in support of the new nuclear cooperation deal with China[ii] declares that the agreement does indeed meet, as one would expect it to, all of Canada’s non-proliferation policies and obligations. [iii]

In elaboration of that assurance, officials also confirm that any uranium supplied by Canada will ultimately be used exclusively in facilities covered by International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) safeguards. China, as a nuclear weapon state, is not required by the NPT to place any nuclear facilities under safeguards, but like all five nuclear weapon states, China has voluntarily placed some of its civilian facilities under safeguards through a Voluntary Offer Agreement with the IAEA.[iv]

But under the deal, the Canadian uranium ore concentrate, or yellow cake, that China receives will require further processing before it is transferred to facilities under IAEA safeguards, so there will be a requirement to fill that gap in the safeguards system with separate arrangements to verify the non-diversion of any of these materials before they enter the safeguarded facilities.

Such supplemental verification arrangements are to be developed during the detailed negotiations of the final deal, a bilateral treaty that will take the form of a protocol[v] attached to the 1994 Canada-China agreement on cooperation in the peaceful uses of nuclear energy.[vi]

The Globe and Mail’s report on the deal notes that Canada will “rely on general assurances that all Canadian uranium is used for appropriate civilian purposes,”[vii] and while officials do not dispute that characterization, they promise a more “robust” verification system than that developed by Australia in its nuclear cooperation deal with China.

In the case of Australia, instead of specifically tracking Australian uranium ore until it reaches safeguarded facilities, it allows for fungibility, i.e. the substitution of an equal amount of material. The Government of Australia explains it this way: “In accordance with long-standing international principles of accounting for nuclear material, on receipt of [Australian uranium ore] (yellowcake) in China an equivalent quantity of converted natural uranium in the form of uranium hexafluoride will be added to the inventory of a facility designated for safeguards.”[viii] In effect, Australian uranium goes into a non-safeguarded common pot, but an equivalent amount is then taken out of that pot and put under safeguards.

In the Canadian case, the implication is, the Canadian uranium ore will be specifically tracked throughout the Chinese conversion process until such time as it gets to a safeguarded facility – at which time the IAEA safeguards system takes over the job of verifying that no materials are diverted for weapons purposes. The details of that tracking await the final agreement.

Another concern is the possibility that China, with abundant supplies of Canadian and Australian uranium available to fuel its burgeoning civilian nuclear programs, could use more of its domestically-sourced uranium for military purposes. It is the same fear that accompanies Canada’s plans to sell uranium to India – while Canadian uranium would be kept out of India’s weapons program, India’s access to foreign-sourced uranium for its civilian program would allow it to use more of its limited supplies of domestic uranium to accelerate its production of fissile material for weapons purposes.

There are, however, important differences between India and China. While India remains bent on producing as much bomb-fuelling fissile material as possible, China has said that it has not been producing fissile material for weapons purposes since the early 1990s. [ix] In addition, expert estimates say that China has sufficient stock-piles of weapons-grade plutonium and weapons-grade uranium to build several hundred warheads in addition to the 240 it already has in its inventory.[x] So, given China’s long record of relative restraint in building up its arsenal (maintaining less than 300 warheads throughout the Cold War when Russia and the United States expanded to tens of thousands of warheads), it may be reasonable to assume that China is not interested in more uranium to produce fissile material for its military program.

That sounds reasonable, but it doesn’t quite square with China’s behaviour at the UN Conference on Disarmament (CD). The best guarantee against Canadian uranium ever ending up in China’s nuclear arsenal is a multilateral one – namely, that states in the CD finally pass a verifiable global ban on all production of fissile material for weapons purposes. Negotiating just such a fissile materials cut-off treaty (FMCT) has topped the nuclear disarmament agenda at the CD since 1995, but all substantive work within this UN consensus-based negotiating body has been blocked for more than a decade. It is a stalemate now linked to Pakistan and not China, but it is a situation that seems to suit China just fine.[xi]

China supports the global move toward a world without nuclear weapons, but it has not finally ruled out the possibility of increasing its arsenal – notably in response to India’s growing stockpile of weapons grade fissile materials and to US missile defence developments and deployments.

China is also probably the state best positioned to persuade Pakistan to end its repeated blocking of consensus approval of a CD program of work that would include immediate negotiations on an FMCT. Its failure to do so raises concerns about the level of China’s commitment to a continuing moratorium on producing fissile materials for weapons purposes.

China’s nuclear relationship with Pakistan more broadly, involving assistance in the construction of warheads as well as warhead delivery vehicles,[xii] should also give pause to those states seeking to increase China’s access to nuclear material. Much of China’s assistance to Pakistan’s nuclear programs occurred before China signed on to the NPT in 1992, but it is a relationship that has continued with ongoing nuclear cooperation that is intended to advance China’s strategic objectives and offers little in the way of restraining Pakistan. In 2003 the Canadian academic and non-proliferation expert T.V. Paul put it this way:

“Through its continued supply of nuclear and missile materials to Pakistan, China has become a cause of, and a contributor to, nuclear proliferation in the region. Although this relationship with Pakistan also offers China some means for limiting the extent and scope of the nuclear arms race between India and Pakistan, China has shown little inclination to restrain its ally, largely because the Chinese policy towards South Asia is driven by balance of power and containment considerations.”

Nuclear cooperation agreements with India and China obviously signal a Canadian commitment to expanded uranium export to, of all places, states with nuclear weapons. Canada, of course, has a long history of supplying uranium to states with nuclear weapons, notably the United State and France[xiii] — although, currently, only for strictly non-military uses. Now Canada is actively expanding the roster of states with nuclear weapons to which it is prepared supplu uranium. At a minimum, that expansion should be attended by the highest levels of Parliamentary monitoring and public vigilance along with the highest level of governmental transparency.


[i] Uranium exports can also be legitimately opposed on grounds that nuclear power expansion is an inappropriate response to China’s burgeoning energy needs. That perspective was effectively advanced by the late Fred Knelman in 1994 in response to the announcement by the Government of Prime Minister Jean Chretien of the sale of two CANDU reactors to China (a deal that was cancelled a decade later). “By encouraging China to embrace more nuclear energy,” said Knelman, “Canada is inevitably discouraging China’s renewable [energy] initiatives.”  It is an issue that warrants debate, but the focus here is on the implications of Canadian uranium supplies for China’s nuclear weapons program. [“Loss of Canada’s CANDU Nuclear Reactor Sales to China Should be Celebrate Not Lamented,” Posted by Joan Russow, 13 June 2005.

[iii]Agreement with China on Canadian uranium exports, 9 February 2012.

[iv] According to the International Panel on Fissile Materials, China operates three civilian uranium enrichment plants, one of which is under safeguards, another has been offered for safeguarding, and the third is not safeguarded.

[v] Agreement with China on Canadian uranium exports, 9 February 2012.

James F. Keeley, A List of Bilateral Civilian Nuclear Cooperation Agreements, Volume 2, 2009.

[vii] Campbell Clark and Shawn McCarthy, “Harper relaxes accountability rules for China’s use of uranium,” The Globe and Mail, 09 February 2012.

[viii] Australia-China Nuclear Material Transfer Agreement and Nuclear Cooperation Agreement, Frequently Asked Questions, November 2007.

[ix] “Four nuclear-weapon states (the United States, Russia, Britain and France) have announced that they have ended their production of plutonium and HEU for weapons and China has privately communicated that it has not been producing these materials for weapons since approximately 1991.” Hui Zhang and Frank von Hippe, “Building confidence in a fissile materials production moratorium using commercial satellite imagery,” Open Forum, Disarmament Forum, Issue 3, 2000.

[x] These are widely agreed estimates, and estimates they must be because China, like most other nuclear weapon states, does not publicly disclose its weapons and fissile materials inventories.

“Banning the Production of Fissile Materials for Nuclear Weapons: Country Perspectives on the Challenges to a Fissile Material (Cutoff) Treaty (Companion Volume to Global issile Material Report 2008),” p. 8.

[xi] The most recent General Assembly vote on an FMCT had China voting in favour of it (while Pakistan and DPRK cast the only “no” votes), but abstaining on a separate vote on paragraph 2 which promised to explore alternative negotiating venues if the CD continued to b e stalemated.

Annex XVI.

[xii] Siddharth Ramana, “China-Pakistan Nuclear Alliance,” Institute of Peace and Conflict Studies, New Delhi, August 2011.

T.V. Paul, “Chinese-Pakistani Nuclear /Missile Ties and the Balance of Power, the Nonproliferation Review, Summer 2003.

Shirley A. Kan (Specialist in Asian Security Affairs), China and Proliferation of Weapons of Mass Destruction and Missiles: Policy Issues, US Congressional Research Service, 9 November 2011 (RL31555). Available at:

[xiii] Approximately 85 per cent of Canada’s uranium yield is exported. In 2007, the value of Canadian-origin uranium exports amounted to approximately $710 million. Exports are chiefly to the United States, the European Union and Japan. Natural Resources Canada.

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