U.S.-China Nuclear Security Exchanges Hampered by Lingering Suspicions

Plutonium pits for the U.S. nuclear arsenal are cast at Los Alamos National Laboratory in 2005. Years after the United States accused China of nuclear espionage, the issue of whether to resume laboratory-to-laboratory exchanges for nuclear security purposes remains a touchy subject.
National Journal
Rachel Oswald
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Rachel Oswald
July 17, 2014, 10:13 a.m.

Years after Wash­ing­ton ac­cused China of nuc­le­ar es­pi­on­age, the sub­ject of re­sum­ing labor­at­ory-to-labor­at­ory ex­changes among sci­ent­ists re­mains a sens­it­ive one.

It has been 15 years since a con­gres­sion­al com­mit­tee ac­cused China of ad­van­cing its nuc­le­ar weapons pro­gram in the 1980s and 1990s by steal­ing ther­mo­nuc­lear war­head designs from the United States. And 14 years have passed since the FBI’s es­pi­on­age case against former Los Alam­os phys­i­cist Wen Ho Lee col­lapsed and he was re­leased from jail.

For at least one ex­pert, that is enough time for the United States to now con­sider re­sum­ing nuc­le­ar labor­at­ory ex­changes with China in or­der to as­sist the lat­ter coun­try in im­prov­ing its nuc­le­ar se­cur­ity prac­tices. In an on­line post pub­lished last week by the Na­tion­al In­terest, Hui Zhang, a phys­i­cist and ex­pert on China’s nuc­le­ar arms policies, ar­gues that bi­lat­er­al labor­at­ory ex­changes con­duc­ted from 1995 to 1998 should con­tin­ue, be­gin­ning with “less sens­it­ive activ­it­ies that are iden­ti­fied as mu­tu­ally be­ne­fi­cial.”

The lab-to-lab pro­gram was can­celed in the af­ter­math of al­leg­a­tions made in 1999 by a U.S. House se­lect com­mit­tee led by then-Rep­res­ent­at­ive Chris­toph­er Cox (R-Cal­if.) that China was us­ing the sci­entif­ic ex­changes to pil­fer clas­si­fied nuc­le­ar weapons in­form­a­tion.

In re­cent years, re­ports have sur­faced that the En­ergy De­part­ment was con­tem­plat­ing re­start­ing the labor­at­ory con­tacts as a means of build­ing two-way un­der­stand­ing about each side’s nuc­le­ar arms policy.

Cur­rently, Wash­ing­ton and the Chinese gov­ern­ment are jointly fund­ing the con­struc­tion of a nuc­le­ar-se­cur­ity train­ing cen­ter in Beijing that is to fo­cus on com­bat­ing the il­li­cit traf­fick­ing of atom­ic sub­stances and tech­no­lo­gies in the re­gion. Last week, U.S. En­ergy Sec­ret­ary Ern­est Mon­iz dis­cussed the is­sue of re­du­cing the use of highly en­riched urani­um in re­search re­act­ors with the head of China’s Atom­ic En­ergy Au­thor­ity.

At the same time, con­cern has been rising in the United States about cy­ber es­pi­on­age com­mit­ted by Chinese hack­ers. Last year, a De­fense De­part­ment ad­vis­ory board al­leged that cy­ber at­tack­ers from China had gained ac­cess to the design plans for a num­ber of U.S. bal­list­ic mis­sile de­fense sys­tems. And a Pentagon re­port re­vealed a not­able in­crease in re­cent years in the amount of mil­it­ary cy­ber es­pi­on­age — un­der­stood to ori­gin­ate from the Asia-Pa­cific re­gion — on ra­di­ation-hardened elec­tron­ics. So-called “rad-hard” tech­no­lo­gies have ap­plic­a­tions in nuc­le­ar weapons and bal­list­ic mis­siles.

Beijing of­fi­cially denies or­der­ing di­git­al in­tru­sions against the net­works of U.S. de­fense com­pan­ies and gov­ern­ment agen­cies. Chinese of­fi­cials have ar­gued Wash­ing­ton is be­ing hy­po­crit­ic­al in its al­leg­a­tions, giv­en re­cent rev­el­a­tions by former U.S. in­tel­li­gence con­tract­or Ed­ward Snowden about wide­spread Na­tion­al Se­cur­ity Agency elec­tron­ic spy­ing.

Still, Zhang, a seni­or re­search­er at Har­vard Uni­versity’s Pro­ject on Man­aging the Atom, re­com­mends that nuc­le­ar labor­at­ory con­tacts be re­star­ted. He’d like to see them be­gin with com­pre­hens­ive bi­lat­er­al dis­cus­sions on best prac­tices for re­mote mon­it­or­ing of nuc­le­ar war­heads, track­ing and ob­ser­va­tion of fis­sile-ma­ter­i­al ship­ments, and safe­guard­ing atom­ic ar­sen­als. If these ex­changes pro­ceed smoothly, he pro­poses that, “based on the ex­per­i­ence from U.S.-Rus­si­an co­oper­a­tion, China and the United States may con­sider mu­tu­al vis­its and joint work at se­lec­ted key sites.”

For oth­er re­search­ers, such as Mi­chael Aus­lin of the Amer­ic­an En­ter­prise In­sti­tute, re­in­vig­or­at­ing nuc­le­ar labor­at­ory con­tacts with China is a dan­ger­ous pro­pos­i­tion.

“Re­sum­ing nuc­le­ar labor­at­ory co­oper­a­tion with China … is a ter­rible idea,” Aus­lin, an ex­pert on U.S.-Asia re­la­tions, wrote in an email re­sponse to ques­tions from Glob­al Se­cur­ity News­wire. “It sounds like it would be a good way to pro­mote trust and best prac­tices, but in real­ity has the high like­li­hood of be­com­ing a Tro­jan Horse whereby the Chinese gain sens­it­ive, if not vi­tal, in­form­a­tion about how we pro­tect against threats and eval­u­ate our nuc­le­ar pro­grams.”

Aus­lin found par­tic­u­larly ob­jec­tion­able Zhang’s re­com­mend­a­tion that Chinese spe­cial­ists be al­lowed to ob­serve “force-on-force” ex­er­cises at U.S. ci­vil­ian atom­ic sites that are de­signed to as­sess a nuc­le­ar power op­er­at­or’s abil­ity to pro­tect sens­it­ive ma­ter­i­als from theft or dis­turb­ance by po­ten­tial in­truders. To do so “is an in­vit­a­tion to give away our deep­est plans for de­fense of nuc­le­ar fa­cil­it­ies,” he said.

Lora Saal­man, an as­so­ci­ate pro­fess­or at the Asia-Pa­cific Cen­ter for Se­cur­ity Stud­ies, said she found some of Zhang’s re­com­mend­a­tions for best-prac­tice ex­changes worth ex­plor­ing. But she ar­gued that, at present, the sug­ges­tions ap­peared to be more be­ne­fi­cial to China than to the United States. To get back­ing from the U.S. gov­ern­ment and poli­cy­makers, a stronger case should be made on how re­sum­ing the labor­at­ory con­tacts would be good for the United States, she said in an email.

“To my un­der­stand­ing, there is already some mo­mentum in U.S. of­fi­cial chan­nels to re-start the lab-to-lab ex­changes, but there has been long­stand­ing re­luct­ance on the Chinese side,” which has pre­vi­ously de­man­ded an of­fi­cial apo­logy for the al­leg­a­tions made in the Cox re­port, Saal­man said.

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