Can systems analysis counter nuclear terrorism in China?

china power plant
A view shows the 4th unit of Tianwan Nuclear Power Plant under construction after its ground-breaking ceremony in Lianyungang, Jiangsu province Sept. 27, 2013. Reuters


China is building more nuclear power plants than any other country today, with 21 plants up and running, 28 under construction and another 58 planned for development. The world’s most populous country is anxious to reduce its reliance on air-polluting fossil fuels and focus on alterative sources for a growing middle-class that is consuming more energy.

This rapid expansion in the number of nuclear power plants and associated nuclear fuel-cycle operations, such as fuel fabrication, possible fuel recycling and waste disposal, pose enormous nuclear safety and security challenges. Safety concerns were exacerbated by the 2011, tsunami-induced Fukushima Daiichi nuclear disaster in Japan.

Security concerns also stem from the fact that nuclear materials must be safeguarded to stay out of the hands of non-state actors and the facilities protected from potential terrorist attacks. These issues are of great concern to Chinese and Americans, so it stands to reason that China and the United States should want to join forces.

Four CISAC scholars – including veterans of Track II diplomacy, Siegfried Hecker and Chaim Braun – are working behind the scenes trying to get both sides to do just that.

The four traveled in October to China for meetings with Chinese scientists and policy analysts to discuss new approaches to nuclear security at a weeklong conference in Hangzhou and a one-day workshop in Beijing. The conference hosted top international nuclear energy and security experts. It was one in a continuing series featuring CISAC scholars and colleagues from several Chinese nuclear institutes and think tanks.

“We’re certainly back on a very positive slope with the Chinese,” said Hecker, a senior fellow at CISAC who first began visiting his counterparts in China in 1994 as head of the Los Alamos National Laboratory. “They are very keen to foster continued cooperation on all things nuclear. It’s important in terms of national security – and it’s of great benefit to both sides.”

The Chinese have been a nuclear weapon state for decades, but are relative latecomers to nuclear electricity. While it only produces some 3 percent of the world’s nuclear energy today, China is on its way to become a world leader in nuclear power production and technology exports by 2020.

“The Chinese are taking a really pragmatic view of nuclear power,” said Jason Reinhardt, a MacArthur Nuclear Security Fellow at CISAC and national security systems analyst at Sandia National Laboratories. He traveled with Hecker and Braun to attend the conference, along with Larry Brandt, a visiting scholar at the center.

“All of us are better off if countries like China and Russia and the U.S. work together on nuclear proliferation and terrorism issues,” Reinhardt said. “So part of that is just going over there and seeing what they want to do and how they want to collaborate.”


Reinhardt is working on his Ph.D. at Stanford in decision and risk analysis with advisor Elisabeth Paté-Cornell, a professor of engineering and CISAC affiliated faculty member. He believes systems analysis can provide insights to improve capabilities to counter nuclear terrorism, facilitate nuclear agreements and reduce the risks of nuclear accidents.

“I think that the way policies are formed and the way technical information is used to inform policies is very different in China, as a matter of history and culture,” Reinhardt said. “So I’m trying to create a compelling story as to why systems analysis is a great way to collaborate between countries.”

Reinhardt said China and the United States have different priorities and approaches to nuclear security, with Beijing placing a high priority on preventing radiological and power plant attacks. The United States has done much since 9/11 to protect its nuclear power plants. Washington’s concerns are focused more on terrorist attacks with nuclear bombs and the potential of radiological, dirty bomb attacks. 


What is systems and risk analysis with regard to nuclear security?

Systems analysis is a structured scientific approach to tough problems, used to inform decision-making, Reinhardt said. One of the best sets of tools available – particularly when there is a lot of uncertainty – is decision and risk analysis.

And nuclear security is rife with uncertainty. What might an attack look like? Who are the attackers? What would the consequences be? How might the attackers change their strategy given our investments in countermeasures?

The questions are many and the connections complex. Risk analysis can borrow from probability theory, game theory and economics to bring some order to this chaos and provide insights that can inform policymakers.

“Systems analysis is using science and engineering techniques to answer policy questions for government,” said Reinhardt, whose work at Sandia includes projects with the U.S. Department of Homeland Security focusing on countering nuclear terrorism, promoting international engagement, and strengthening border security.

“We talk about concepts and taxonomies and ways to organize thinking, then mathematical models to help explore trade-offs – and then there are physical models and we go out in the field and experiment to try and get smarter,” Reinhardt said. “All of these help us understand the implications of proposed policies.”


china dinner


Reinhardt gave a presentation in China in which he proposed a joint study to develop a common framework. Moving forward, the study would primarily be academically focused in an effort to inform policymakers – not to set policy.

“I said that building a common framework for analysis and exercising those together would be a really powerful tool for creating collaboration at a very high level,” he said. “The United States and China have cooperated in areas of nuclear security in the past. These new efforts will build on that success and take them to a new cooperative level.”

He suggested they begin to work together to create a model that would:


  1. Develop a list of potential attack scenarios, compile a list of potential perpetrators, and estimate probabilities of attack;
  2. Compare the efficacies of different types counterterrorism measures to ward off radiological terrorism attacks;
  3. Determine which countermeasures can and should be the focus of collaborative technical research;
  4. And determine the next steps to develop Chinese and U.S. collaborations on countermeasures.    


The CISAC team will follow up with their Chinese colleagues during a visit in February and work to bring a young Chinese researcher to the center during the first half of the academic year.

“They’re trying to understand what they can implement to reduce internal and regional nuclear risks,” he said. “This requires that you first consider how to understand, assess, and measure these risks. Doing that together, I think we can come up with some answers that are valuable to both countries.”


A Growing Focus on Nuclear Power and Climate Change

The meetings in China came just as Washington and Beijing announced a landmark pact to significantly cut greenhouse gas emissions by the world’s two largest consumers of energy. China is increasingly turning to nuclear power to address the adverse consequences of fossil fuels. As China expands its research and dependence on nuclear power – which in turn will cut down on greenhouse gas emissions – CISAC intends to help the Asian powerhouse protect its nuclear energy resources from potential accidents and deliberate attacks.


chaim china


Braun, a consulting professor at CISAC and an expert on nuclear proliferation smuggling rings and power plants around the world, also attended the conference and was invited along with Hecker to visit the Qinshan Nuclear Station about 50 miles southwest of Shanghai.

“For me, the visit to Qinshan’s Phase 3 plant was especially exciting, as I worked on the early phases of the construction of Qinshan Phase 3 while at Bechtel,” said Braun, who earlier in his career belonged to the Bechtel Power Corporation’s Nuclear Management Group and led studies on plant performance and maintenance.

Braun said Qinshan Phase 3 is now used as an experimental station to explore reprocessed uranium recycling and experiment with an alternate nuclear fuel, namely thorium.

According to the Pew Charitable Trusts, China leads the global clean-energy race, and last year attracted $54.2 billion in investment for alternative energies. That includes exporting safe, reliable nuclear technology to other countries that want to do the same.

“Russia and China are the two most important technological relationships we should be building right now,” Reinhardt said. "Any prospects for the future of arms control and reductions are all predicated on continued relationships with Russia and China.”