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U.S. and China cooperate to thwart nuclear smuggling

U.S. Energy Secretary Ernest Moniz.

U.S. Embassy New Delhi/Flickr (CC BY-ND 2.0)

U.S. and China cooperate to thwart nuclear smuggling

The United States and China are deepening nuclear security cooperation, with new technical collaborations and the expected participation of Chinese President Xi Jinping  at the 2016 Nuclear Security Summit in Washington, D.C., later this month, Energy Secretary Ernest Moniz said Thursday. Moniz also addressed U.S. work with China on implementing the recent Iran nuclear pact.

Moniz met with reporters in Beijing between talks with Chinese counterparts on nuclear security and climate change. The agency signed an agreement this week to broaden an established program through which the United States provides China with training and technology to detect “illicit movements, smuggling of nuclear materials and logical sources.” The two powers share an interest in preventing global smuggling of nuclear materials, he said, and have taken tangible steps to work together in combatting the threat.

“My discussions up until now have certainly reinforced the importance of those relationships and the shared interest in extending them going forward,” Moniz said.

China’s new Center of Excellence on Nuclear Security near Beijing is a jointly funded collection of labs, test sites, and training facilities partly based on U.S. installations.

The new center seeks to detect the smuggling of materials that can either be used in nuclear weapons or dirty bombs. Eventually, the center will provide training for nuclear detection experts from other countries in the region, but the initial focus is on building up China’s capabilities. The United States has also trained Chinese customs agency officers to detect illicit nuclear materials under a separate ports agreement.

“Controlling those materials, whether going out or coming in, is clearly important,” Moniz said.

Moniz pointed to recent news reports that the Islamic State group may be on the hunt for raw materials to develop weapons. The potential threats for both China and the United States are serious, and the two countries are addressing them as such.

“We are working very hard together in very concrete ways,” Moniz said.

Moniz also mentioned that Xi will attend the 2016 Nuclear Security Summit slated for 31 March to 1 April in Washington, D.C. This will be the fourth and likely last such summit, targeting efforts to combat potential nuclear terrorism. Chinese officials have made no mention of a planned American trip for the president, something that surprised Moniz.

“To my knowledge, he will be there,” he said.

Iran nuclear pact

Moniz also described how the United States and China are co-chairing the technical working group formed under the Iran nuclear pact.

The Chinese "have certainly engaged the Iranians several times already in getting this going,” he said.

On longer term issues under the deal, Moniz said once the major points of the plan are implemented, he expects ideas to emerge for scientific collaboration. He said that scientist-to-scientist engagement between the United States and the Soviet Union during the Cold War was critical to breaking down barriers, and such cooperation with Iran could have similar benefits.

“Certainly it’s not ruled out that the United States science community could collaborate on some basic science,” Moniz said. “It will take time; obviously we don’t start with a robust relationship.”

Moniz also spent time in China discussing climate change and energy policy with Chinese officials and said he is pleased with progress here. The secretary has lauded China’s work in recent months, particularly in agreeing to tangible emissions caps at the Paris climate talks last year. He said he expects that momentum—which puts significant pressure on U.S. politicians to do likewise—to continue.