Belgium authorities and French GDF-Suez set for MOX fuel technology transfer to China

Belgian and Chinese authorities agreed to cooperate to build a pilot plant for the fabrication of mixed oxide fuel (MOX) in China, as part of the country's plans to implement large-scale spent fuel reprocessing and plutonium re-use as part of its ambitious nuclear program.

The deal is set in a Framework Agreement signed on October 6th, 2010 in the presence of the Chinese Prime Minister Wen Jibao during his visit to the Belgian Prime Minister Yves Leterme. The agreement paves the way for a Belgian support to the construction of a pilot MOX fuel fabrication plant for the state company China National Nuclear Corporation (CNNC). Belgian companies involved include:

  • Belgian Nuclear Research Center SCK-CEN, which developed the Belgian MOX program from the 1960s throughout 1987,

  • Belgonucleaire (BN), which operated Belgium's MOX fabrication plant in Dessel, producing from 1986 to 2006, and

  • Tractebel Engineering (TE), a subsidiary of French utility GDF-Suez, which served as architect for the use of MOX fuel in Tractebel's nuclear power plants in Belgium between 1990 and 2006.

The agreement, which appears to have been negotiated out of public scrutiny, could have far-reaching implications. According to SCK-CEN, "this Framework Agreement can lead within a relatively short term to a commercial agreement including technology transfer and technical assistance by the Belgian partners".

China has already attempted to secure a transfer of MOX fabrication technology from Europe in the past, at least once. In December 2003, then German Chancellor Gerhard Schröder was forced to give up a deal being discussed for the export of a mothballed German MOX fuel fabrication plant after a state visit to China when the project was disclosed. The plant in question, in Hanau, was built by Siemens and would have been the largest MOX fuel production in Europe if started when completed in 1991, but due to a political turn in Germany's nuclear strategy it never went on-line. Opponents to the project, including the Greens as government coalition partners, feared that the facility would exceed the needs of the Chinese civilian program and could be used for a military program, through the fabrication of fuel for fast breeder reactors producing weapon-grade plutonium.

In early 2008, Chinese were also reported to insist that some technology transfer relating to reprocessing of spent fuel be included in the deal as a condition to the order of two European Pressurized Ware Reactors (EPR) from Areva, an agreement signed during a visit to Beijing by French President Sarkozy. Areva has eventually created a joint venture with its partner, the China Guangdong Nuclear Power Company (CGNPC), agreed to a technology transfer to this joint venture, and started to study the feasibility of building a reprocessing plant in China.

Besides non-proliferation concerns, the participation of GDF-Suez to the Belgian deal is a serious blow to French champion Areva, a world leader in reprocessing and MOX fuel fabrication. The company, who spearheads the technologies involved, runs the world's largest MOX fabrication plant, MELOX, in Marcoule, France, and develops projects for building MOX fuel facilities in Russia and the US. The deal is also a blow to Nicolas Sarkozy's strategy to get the French companies united in nuclear activities as a "national team".

Meanwhile, the deal reactivates Belgian activities in the field of MOX production that had ceased with the closure of the Dessel P0 MOX facility in July 2006. Belgium, however, remains active in the field of new nuclear technologies for reactors and the fuel cycle, which will serve as a broader field of cooperation with China. A Memorandum of Understanding between SCK-CEN and the Chinese Academy of Sciences (CAS), also signed on October 6th, 2010 plans for the exchange of expertise in civilian research, relating in particular to the Multipurpose HYbrid Research Reactor for High-tech Applications (MYRRHA project), an Accelerator Driven System (ADS) research reactor to be built in Mol, Belgium, by 2023.