VIENNA — In a surprise move, China told the International Atomic Energy Agency on Tuesday that it will open some of its civilian nuclear installations to international inspection and safeguards.
"We wish to state here that the Chinese government has decided to voluntarily offer to place some of its civilian nuclear installations under IAEA safeguards at an appropriate time," Chinese delegate Zhou Ping said in a speech at the annual general conference of the atomic agency.
The Chinese delegate did not say which nuclear units would be opened. This appeared to depend on further discussions with the agency.
China's announcement surprised delegates to the 112-nation conference. It is the only one of the five acknowledged nuclear-weapons powers that has not submitted any civilian nuclear facilities to international safeguards.
Tuesday's announcement followed the first inspection of such facilities in the Soviet Union last month in line with Moscow's decision to accept agency safeguards for some plants earlier this year.
Agency's Stature Gains
The other three powers, the United States, France and Britain, already allow inspections.
Western diplomats said China's decision will boost the stature of the agency, which aims to detect any diversion of civilian nuclear materials for military purposes.
They also saw it as a move to increase international confidence in China, which has an ambitious civilian nuclear power program.
The atomic agency, set up under the aegis of the United Nations, promotes peaceful use of nuclear power. It acts as a watchdog for the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty.
Agency members who have not signed the treaty can voluntarily open their nuclear facilities to inspection, partly as a confidence-building measure.
In another development, Israel, apparently trying to forestall a move to oust it from membership in the agency, circulated a letter pledging not to attack nuclear facilities devoted to peaceful purposes.
Israel attacked and destroyed an Iraqi nuclear installation that was under construction in 1981.