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Chinese Nuclear Facilities

In late 1963 and throughout much of 1964 the US government considered possible military actions to destroy Chinese nuclear weapons facilities, in advance of the first Chinese nuclear weapons test. A relatively heavy non-nuclear air attack would have been required to put installations "permanently" out of business (i.e., destroy them so completely that any rebuilding effort would have to start virtually from scratch). Covert action seemed to offer the politically most feasible form of action. Direct action against the Chinese Communist nuclear facilities would, at best, put them out of operation for a few years (perhaps four to five).

As of mid-1963 the American intelligence assessment was that there was a small air-cooled reactor at Baotou [Pao Tou] with capacity to produce about 10 kilograms of plutonium per year. The US thougt this plutonium production facility might have gone into operation as early as 1962, though the October 1964 estimate was that it went into operation in late 1963 or early 1964.

US intelligence had detected the existence of a suspected graphite-moderated water-cooled reactor at Jiuquan in the vicinity of Yumen, which was first photographed in 1962 and again in February 1964; at the latter date the reactor apparently was not operational however it may have been shut down for change of fuel elements and hence it was possible, though by no means certain, that the reactor might have been operational in 1962.

As of mid-1963 the American intelligence assessment was that the gaseous diffusion plant at Lanzhou would probably not be able, under the most advantageous circumstances, to produce weapon-grade U-235 before 1966. As of 15 October 1964 the US intelligence community was aware of the existence of this U-235 plant, but it was assessed as being incomplete and was not expected that it would be in operation for 2 to 3 years.

In a Special National Intelligence Estimate issued in August 1964 it was concluded that, on balance, a Chinese nuclear test probably would not occur before the end of 1964. At that time, continuing construction in September 1963 at the only known Chinese plutonium production site indicated a probable startup of the reactor at that site in early 1964. This in turn indicated a date around mid-1965 for first availability of sufficient plutonium for a nuclear test. The estimate admited that "Obviously, it is incongruous to bring a test site to a state of readiness ... without having a device nearly ready for testing." Subsequent information confirmed that preparations for a test were essentially completed at the Lop Nor nuclear test site by October 1964. Thus, an assessment prepared on 15 October 1964 concluded that evidence on plutonium availability did not justify the judgment reached in August 1964. A restudy of the Pao-t'ou reactor site indicated to US intelligence that adequate primary and backup electric power circuits for reactor operation had been installed by March 1963.

On 16 October 1964 China joined the nuclear club by conducting its initial atomic test at Lop Nor, in western China. This was the prelude to a series of increasingly sophisticated test shots. Initial estimates noted the probability but not the certainty that the Chinese weapon was made of plutonium (an assumption that was challenged by evidence from debris October 19, 1964). In fact, Communist China's first nuclear test was of an implosion fission device with U-235 as the fissionable material. The most likely source of the U-235 was uranium first brought to partial enrichment in the gaseous diffusion facility at Lanchou and then further enriched by the electromagnetic process.

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One Billion Americans: The Case for Thinking Bigger - by Matthew Yglesias

Page last modified: 05-07-2011 14:05:34 ZULU