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China-Russia Nuclear Industry Cooperation

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  • China Aerospace Studies Institute

     In May 2021, Russian president Vladimir Putin and Chinese president Xi Jinping presided over a groundbreaking ceremony for their countries’ biggest joint nuclear energy project to date: the construction of four new nuclear reactors in China’s Jiangsu and Liaoning Provinces. The 20 billion renminbi (RMB) ($2.81 billion USD)iii construction project is part of a package of strategic cooperation agreements signed by Russia and China in 2018. More generally, it is a manifestation of growing China-Russia cooperation in the nuclear field since the 1990s, which has accelerated in recent years due to both countries’ ambitious nuclear energy goals and increasingly close relationship.
     The two countries are natural partners in this sector. Russia, a historic pioneer in the field of nuclear energy, is today the world’s top exporter of nuclear reactors and holds the record for the greatest number of nuclear reactors under construction simultaneously. Its history of providing China with nuclear technology and expertise dates back to the 1950s, when the Soviet Union sold China its first nuclear reactor.
     China is rapidly expanding its domestic nuclear capacity as part of an effort to reduce its dependence on coal power, which has caused severe pollution and made China the world’s largest carbon dioxide emitter. Furthermore, as Russia becomes increasingly isolated in the world due to its 2014 annexation of Crimea and 2022 invasion of Ukraine, it has grown more reliant on China to prop up its economy – and its energy sector, in particular.
     Nuclear energy, while making up a smaller share of Russia and China’s economies and electricity generation than fossil fuels, is a key strategic technology that has grown steadily in both countries. Despite this, it has received relatively little attention from Western observers. English-language literature on the subject tends to focus on Russian and Chinese nuclear energy developments independently of one another, or on Russia and China as competitors in the global nuclear energy market.3 Work that specifically centers on cooperation between China and Russia in the nuclear energy sector remains scarce.
     This report will attempt to fill this gap in the literature by examining the nature of nuclear cooperation between China and Russia over the past three decades. It finds that while collaborative efforts remain a relatively small proportion of the two countries’ respective nuclear industries, they have grown steadily and promise to grow further as the two enjoy increasingly close relations. In March 2023, China and Russia signed an agreement to deepen their nuclear energy cooperation, especially in development of fast reactors, production of uranium-plutonium fuel, and handling of spent nuclear fuel.
     However, this relationship is disproportionately focused on projects in China, and rapidly transforms into a competitive relationship in the international nuclear energy market, where both states are vying for market share. In this way, nuclear energy can be seen as a microcosm of the greater China-Russia relationship: increasingly closely aligned out of mutual self-interest, but still wary and prone to competition when the two states’ interests diverge.
     Further, while the larger China-Russia partnership has become increasingly lopsided with Russia finding itself in the position of junior partner, nuclear energy is a rare area where Russia continues to play the more senior role. However, this dominance is also likely to wane in the coming years as China’s nuclear industry continues to mature.

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