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Republicans urge White House to crack down on Russia-China nuclear co-operation

Top Republicans are urging the White House to crack down on nuclear co-operation between Russia and China following reports that Moscow’s state-owned nuclear energy company is providing highly enriched uranium to Beijing.

In a letter sent to US National Security adviser Jake Sullivan on Thursday, the chairs of the House armed services, foreign affairs and intelligence committees expressed concern that Russia’s Rosatom is supplying uranium for Chinese fast-breeder reactors.

These facilities are used to produce plutonium that could help China increase its stockpile of nuclear warheads.

“​​We call on the administration to view this co-operation for what it is, a direct threat to US security and more evidence that Russia and China are working in tandem against the United States,” said the letter from Mike Rogers, Michael McCaul and Michael Turner.

“The administration should use all tools at its disposal to stop Rosatom and the PRC’s dangerous co-operation,” it added.

Last month the Biden administration sanctioned three Rosatom subsidiaries, saying they formed part of Moscow’s broader effort to use nuclear energy resources to exert political and economic pressure on its customers globally.

The state-owned civilian nuclear power conglomerate is reportedly also supplying Russia’s arms industry, helping to fuel Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine.

The lawmakers praised the initial sanctions measures but urged the White House to apply additional sanctions and export controls to curtail Rosatom’s activities. The US National Security Council did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

“Rosatom’s pivotal role in helping the Russian military get around the international sanctions regime and its support for China’s strategic nuclear build-up are threats to US national security,” McCaul told the Financial Times. “It’s far past time to use the tools at our disposal to stop these destructive actions.”

John Plumb, assistant secretary of defence for space policy, told the armed services committee last week that Russia and China’s nuclear co-operation is “very troubling”.

“There’s no getting around the fact that breeder reactors are plutonium, and plutonium is for weapons,” he said. “The department is concerned, and of course, it matches our concerns about China’s increased expansion of its nuclear forces as well, because you need more plutonium for more weapons.”

US military officials have repeatedly warned about China’s nuclear weapons ambitions, saying it has accelerated its nuclear expansion in recent years. According to the Pentagon’s most recent report to Congress on the Chinese military, Beijing has developed 400 nuclear warheads and is on track to expand its arsenal to 1,500 weapons by the middle of the next decade.

The report also highlighted the importance of weapons-grade plutonium to China’s nuclear programme and warned specifically about China’s fast-breeder reactors.

China has pushed back on Washington’s concerns and insisted it has fulfilled its non-proliferation obligations.

The concerns about Chinese-Russian nuclear co-operation come at an already fraught moment in relations between Washington and Beijing, particularly after then-House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s visit to Taiwan last year, and the downing of a suspected Chinese spy balloon by the US in February.

Anthony Ruggiero, a former NSC official who worked on proliferation issues and is now at the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies, said any effort to crack down on Rosatom’s activities will require significant co-operation with US allies and partners.

“There’s not an easy solution. It’s going to require a deep dive into Rosatom’s current activities, working with our allies on understanding what the alternative suppliers are.”

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