China’s Nuclear-Power Chief: A Spy?

Revelations from a top-ranking Chinese general appear to reveal that the head of China’s nuclear-power program, Kang Rixin, was a spy. From the New Yorker:

When Kang Rixin, the head of China’s nuclear-power program, was sentenced to life in prison last November for taking bribes, it was a troubling enough piece of news. Given the speed, scale, and ambition of China’s nuclear program—it has more plants in the planning stage than the rest of the world combined—it did not project reassuring evidence that China has shielded this crucial program from the kind of construction-corruption that has dogged the high-speed rail system.

Today brought startling news. Midway through a video leaked on the Chinese Web, a senior military official explains previously unknown details about major spying cases uncovered in recent years, including the fact that bribery was hardly the most serious accusation against Kang. He is accused of selling secrets about China’s nuclear power industry to foreign countries. “Kang’s case can’t be made public because the damage he has done by selling secrets was a lot more devastating than economic losses,” Major General Jin Yinan said in the video.

If true, it would make Kang one of China’s highest-ranking figures to be accused of spying. (Before his downfall, he was a member of the Communist Party’s elite Central Committee and the Central Disciplinary Committee.) Before we start conjuring images of a Chinese A. Q. Khan, it’s worth remembering that Kang had no (known) involvement with the weapons programs, and that selling secrets is a flexible notion in China; accusations that might lead to charges of simple bribery one day can be upgraded to divulging “business secrets” the next.

More details on the alleged spying of Kang Rixin. From South China Morning Post:

According to Jin, Kang Rixin , general manager of China National Nuclear, was one of the most senior officials involved in espionage cases in the nation’s history.

While state media said Kang was jailed for life late last year on bribe-taking and other unspecified corruption charges, Jin said Kang was involved in selling critical national secrets about China’s nuclear power industry to foreign countries.

The case of Kang – who was a member of the Communist Party’s elite Central Committee and the Central Disciplinary Committee – dropped a political bombshell within the party’s innermost circle, and prompted President Hu Jintao to launch a sweeping investigation of top party and government officials.

“Kang’s case can’t be made public because the damage he has done by selling secrets was a lot more devastating than economic losses,” Jin said in the speech.

Rumours were rife on the internet after the arrest of Kang in 2009 that he had leaked “business secrets” to international nuclear power companies from France and the US in 2006, during the public tender process for two nuclear projects worth up to 1.8 billion yuan (HK$2.2 billion).

In other news regarding China’s nuclear program: newly released Wikileaks cables indicate that China is using outdated nuclear technology in its nuclear plants, which may increase its chances of nuclear accidents. From the Guardian:

In August, 2008, the embassy noted that China was in the process of building 50 to 60 new nuclear plants by 2020. This target – which has since increased – was a huge business opportunity. To keep up with the French and Russians, the cable urged continuous high-level advocacy on behalf of the US company Westinghouse to push its AP-1000 reactor.

This is crucial, according to the cable dated 29 August 2008 from the American Embassy in Beijing, because “all reactor purchases to date have been largely the result of internal high level political decisions absent any open process.”

For the US embassy, a bigger concern was that China seemed more interested in building its own reactors – the CPR-1000 – based on old Westinghouse technology, at Daya Bay and Ling Ao.

“As the CPR-1000 increases market share, China is assuring that rather than building a fleet of state-of-the-art reactors, they will be burdened with technology that by the end of its lifetime will be 100 years old,” reads another cable dated 7 August 2008.

For the past 10 years the CPR-1000 has been the most popular design in China. In 2009, the state news agency Xinhua reported that all but two of the 22 nuclear reactors under construction applied CPR-1000 technology.

The cable suggests this was a dangerous choice: “By bypassing the passive safety technology of the AP1000, which, according to Westinghouse, is 100 times safer than the CPR-1000, China is vastly increasing the aggregate risk of its nuclear power fleet. ”

“Passive safety technology” ensures that a reactor will automatically shut down in the event of a disaster without human intervention. Plants without this feature are considered less safe as they rely on human intervention which can be difficult to provide in a crisis situation.

China says it has updated and improved the technology on which the CPR-1000 is based, but the government recognises that it is less safe than newer models. China’s national nuclear safety administration and national energy administration are currently drafting new safety plans, which are thought likely to include a stipulation that all future plants have to meet the higher standards of third-generation reactors like the AP-1000 or thorium technology.

Source: China’s Nuclear-Power Chief: A Spy? – The New Yorker

General Lets Spy Secrets Slip – South China Morning Post


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