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China's new nuclear power stations could be used to make weapons-grade plutonium, it has been claimed.
The country is developing fast breeder reactors and reprocessing facilities as it seeks to reduce dependence on coal, a top source of carbon emissions.
But the plants also produce plutonium that could be used to make nuclear weapons.
The stark warning was made to American lawmakers by Navy Admiral Charles Richard, the head of the US Strategic Command.
He told the Senate Committee on Armed Services that with "a fast breeder reactor, you now have a very large source of weapons grade plutonium available to you".
Admiral Richard said that "will change the upper bounds of what China could choose to do if they wanted to, in terms of further expansion of their nuclear capabilities”.
US officials learned recently about how quickly China is moving to build its civilian nuclear programme, he added.
Admiral Richard said that about a week ago, "we became aware of that and started the process to understand the implications”.
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The US Strategic Command oversees the US’s nuclear weapons arsenal.
In a statement before he gave his evidence, the command said the US “must account for the possibility of conflict leading to conditions which could very rapidly drive an adversary to consider nuclear use as their least bad option”.
China’s first fast breeder reactor is projected to come on line in 2023.
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There is no evidence China intents to divert its potential plutonium stockpile to weapons use.
But concern has grown as Beijing is expected to at least double its number of nuclear warheads over the next decade from the low 200s.
Last month, a report said China has started to build a second plant to reprocess spent nuclear fuel that could be commissioned before 2030.
Nuclear waste reprocessing has not been practised for decades in the US after being halted on proliferation concerns.
China's embassy in Washington did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
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