China: U.S. Companies Sell Dual-Use Nuclear Equipment

American companies are not allowed to build reactors and other specialized nuclear facilities in China because Washington has never ratified its 1985 nuclear cooperation agreement with Beijing. U.S. exporters, however, are permitted to sell dual-use nuclear equipment and materials to Chinese buyers. Though nuclear trade with China is growing, exporters must pay close attention to the end-uses of their products to determine whether an export license is needed.

Last year, the Commerce Department announced a new general license, the GLX, that decontrolled many exports to China, including high-speed computers, telecommunications equipment and electronics. Exporters must keep in mind, however, that the GLX cannot be used to export controlled nuclear dual-use items or missile technology. Nor can it be used for sales to military buyers or to help build nuclear weapons.

The top U.S. exports to China in 1994 were digital computers, assemblies and related equipment. According to a U.S. government analyst who tracks China’s nuclear program, American firms are “selling high-speed oscilloscopes to China by the boat load.” Oscilloscopes can be used to record the brief events at the heart of an atomic bomb before it flies apart, but they are also widely used to research, test and develop high-speed electronics such as computers, radar and communications equipment. Oscilloscopes are controlled for export because of their nuclear applications, but they are also needed to develop guidance, control and tracking systems for missiles.

U.S. export controls require that an exporter obtain a validated license when he or she “knows or has reason to know” that an export will be used for nuclear explosive activities, uninspected nuclear activities, or for activities related to the processing of fissile materials or the production of heavy water. This is true regardless of who the importer is.

The table below shows the most important nuclear-related sales approved by the U.S. Commerce Department last year for Chinese buyers. All of the exports are dual-use, meaning they can be used for nuclear weapon development as well as civilian purposes. The Commerce Department does not publish the names of the buyers or the sellers, or list the specifications of the equipment licensed. The information is derived from Commerce Department’s Export Administration Annual Report 1994.

Top 25 U.S. exports of nuclear-related dual-use equipment to China in 1994

Nuclear-related equipment (Commerce Control List number) Value

1) Digital computers/assemblies and related equipment (4A03) $ $921,793,659

2) Numerical control units/motion control boards (2B01) $11,537,050

3) Vacuum/controlled environment furnaces (1B50) $3,673,188

4) Dimensional inspection/measuring systems or equipment (2B06) $2,654,331

5) Cathode ray oscilloscopes and components (3A52) $1,137,550

6) Cameras (6A03) $1,117,458

7) Isostatic presses (2B44) $750,000

8) Electronic devices/components (3A01) $630,378

9) Isostatic presses not controlled by 2B04A (2B24) $408,423

10) Mass spectrometers (3A51) $349,429

11) Piping/fittings/valves made/lined with named alloy (2A51) $297,774

12) Specially designed pressure measuring instruments (1B51) $220,640

13) Optical equipment lasers (6A05) $209,954

14) Filament winding machines (1B41) $177,770

15) Hybrid computers/assemblies (4A02) $110,000

16) Commodities on the International Atomic Energy list (2A19) $102,000

17) Vibration test equipment using digital control technology (9B26) $91,000

18) Technology for the “use” of hot isostatic presses (3A01) $80,000

19) Fibrous/filamentary materials used in matrix structures (1C10) $73,800

20) Switching devices (3A43) $39,850

21) Crucibles resistant to liquid fissile metals (1A44) $34,220

22) Items on the International Atomic Agency list (1C19) $27,930

23) Helium isotopically enriched in the Helium-3 isotope (1C55) $25,997

24) Cameras/components/photographic media not controlled (6A43) $23,625

25) Ruggedized electronic computers/related equipment (4A01) $19,585