RPI Author Hui Zhang on China’s Nuclear Security Efforts

RPI Author Hui Zhang on China’s Nuclear Security Efforts


President Barack Obama speaks with then-President Hu Jintao of China at the 2010 Nuclear Security Summit in Washington, DC.

President Barack Obama speaks with then-President Hu Jintao of China at the 2010 Nuclear Security Summit in Washington, DC.

Dr. Hui Zhang, a participant in the Rising Powers Initiative’s Nuclear Debates in Asia project and a senior scholar at Harvard University’s Project on Managing the Atom, wrote a series of articles on China’s nuclear policies ahead of this month’s Nuclear Security Summit. Dr. Zhang’s piece in the Science and Global Security journal was featured in the most recent Nuclear Debates in Asia Digest. This blog post offers highlights of his on-going research on nuclear security efforts in China.


First, in a report for the Belfer Center for Science and International Security co-authored with Tusosheng Zhang, Dr. Zhang discusses China’s progress to secure its nuclear material and where significant gaps still remain to prevent nuclear and radiological terrorism. Drawing upon interviews and communications with Chinese nuclear experts and officials, the report concludes:

-“Chinese perceptions of the threat of nuclear terrorism have evolved in three major phases over the past 20 years”: 1) from the end of Cold War to 9/11 with China focused on strengthening its nuclear non-proliferation measures at the national level; 2) from 9/11 to 2008 with Beijing still less concerned about nuclear terrorism than the United States and other Western powers, but supportive of relevant UN resolutions; and 3) from 2009 to the present with the Chinese government paying “much more attention to nuclear security.”

-While Chinese nuclear experts believe it is “implausible for Chinese nuclear weapons to be stolen” or for China’s fissile material to be diverted, these individuals assess the risk of sabotage of civilian nuclear facilities as “plausible” and the chance  terrorists would use a “dirty bomb” as “a very real threat.”

-The report provides several recommendations for improving China’s nuclear security, including updating and clarifying the requirements for a national level design basis threat, focusing on insider threats, cooperating their efforts with the United States and the International Atomic Energy Agency, further consolidating nuclear material stocks, and strengthening China’s nuclear security culture.

Second, in an analysis piece for the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists, Dr. Zhang warns that since “Chinese experts continue to doubt that there is a credible threat to Chinese nuclear materials and facilities,” the international community “cannot count on the authorities to effectively battle a danger they do not believe is real.” Dr. Zhang further argues:

-Chinese nuclear experts are likely “underestimating the threat” of nuclear terrorism and the diversion of Chinese nuclear material, especially as the country’s civilian nuclear program rapidly expands.

-The consequences of terrorists detonating a nuclear bomb, while less likely than a “dirty bomb,” are “vastly greater” and no country “can ignore the real and urgent danger of nuclear terrorism.”

-Chinese authorities must “overcome the complacency that exists at all levels of the nuclear infrastructure” and rethink the threat of nuclear terrorism.

Be sure to follow the Rising Power Initiative’s Nuclear Debates in Asia project on Twitter @westmyer and this blog as events develop for more news and analysis.