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Weapons of Mass Destruction (WMD)


China's Nuclear Stockpile - Size

By 2021 China was believed to have 350 nuclear weapons based on unclassified estimates. Thomas B. Cochran and Henry D. Sokolski reported in March 2021 that China had "approximately 350 nuclear warheads, of which roughly 272 are for delivery by more than 240 operational land-based ballistic missiles, 48 sea-based ballistic missiles, and 20 nuclear gravity bombs assigned to bombers." These calculations assume very little MIRVings on the part of land based missiles, and substantially understate the number of SLBMs deployed at that time [72 vs 48].

Cochran and Sokolski reported that China could have "roughly 480 weapons we believe China could make from the weapon-grade plutonium (WGPu) we believe it has stockpiled but not yet weaponized.... China has an estimated 2.9 ± 0.6 t of stockpiled WGPu. This would be enough to make 830 ± 210 nuclear weapons or more, assuming 3.5 ± 0.5 kg WGPu per device." If in fact all the plutonium has been weaponized, China would have a bit more than 800 warheads, and possibly as many as 1,000 warheads. Although warhead loadings on MIRVed missile are uncertain, plausible loadouts suggest 335 warheads on ICBMs and 288 warheads on SLBMs, for a total of a bit over 600 warheads. Under this calculuation, about 200 warheads would remain to be divided among shorter range missiles, theater bombs, and other tactical delivery systems.

The US Defense Department said 01 September 2020 China's stockpile of nuclear warheads, currently estimated in the low 200s, is projected to at least double over the next decade. The Pentagon's annual report on Chinese military trends included for the first time an estimate of the country's nuclear arsenal. US Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for China Chad Sbragia said, "Just looking at the number of warheads by itself is not the entire picture or doesn't paint a holistic understanding of where the Chinese are." He said China had developed submarine and air-launched nuclear missiles, and is adding silo-based underground intercontinental ballistic missiles.

“The number of warheads on ... land-based ICBMs capable of threatening the United States is expected to grow to roughly 200 in the next five years,” the report said. “China’s nuclear forces will significantly evolve over the next decade as it modernizes, diversifies, and increases the number of its land-, sea-, and air-based nuclear delivery platforms,” it said.

Between January 1971 and late 1972 a second set of new nuclear facilities was identified in the West. This included a gaseous diffusion plant at Chinkouho which was estimated to be able to produce more U-235 then the original plant at Lanchou. This new facility was predicted to begin partial production in late 1972 with full operation in late 1974. There was an additional reactor for production of plutonium at Kuangyuan and additional weapons grade material could enter the stockpile by 1974-75. Also, there was a possible new weapons fabrication facility located at Tzutung. All of these new facilities would give the PRC the capability of becoming the third largest nuclear power in the world. Based on their production capability, DIA assessed in 1972 that the Chinese could have as many as 120 thermonuclear warheads and 260 fission nuclear weapons in their stockpile.

Other estimates of the country's production capacities suggested that by the end of 1970 China had fabricated around 200 nuclear weapons, a number which could have increased to 875 by 1980.

In the late 1980s it was generally held that China was the world's third-largest nuclear power, possessing a small but credible nuclear deterrent force of 225 to 300 nuclear weapons. In 1994 the Natural Resources Defense Council estimated that China had about 450 nuclear weapons. But in 2006, Robert S. Norris and Hans M. Kristensen reported "Newly available information on the Chinese nuclear arsenal requires us to reassess our previous estimate of Beijing's stockpile (see "Chinese Nuclear Forces, 2003," November/December 2003 Bulletin).

They reported " If we are to believe a reference included in a 2004 Chinese Foreign Ministry fact sheet on nuclear weapons, the arsenal is smaller than previously thought. The document’s crucial sentence reads, “Among the nuclear-weapon states, China . . . possesses the smallest nuclear arsenal.” ... In 2005, the Defense Department published a detailed breakdown of the Chinese missile force, as part of its 2005 Annual Report on the Military Power of the People’s Republic of China (otherwise known as Chinese Military Power 2005). Taken together with a vague 2004 Chinese Foreign Ministry declaration about the size of the Chinese nuclear arsenal and other information, we estimate that China deploys approximately 130 nuclear warheads for delivery by land-based missiles, sea-based missiles, and bombers. Additional warheads are thought to be in storage for a total stockpile of approximately 200 warheads."

The traditional Western estimate of China’s nuclear missile strength was 200-250 nuclear bombs. This is a ridiculous number and may cause some confusion. This seems to give the impression that these estimates are propaganda content aimed at persuading the local society to believe that China and Russia are different and will not threaten the world. Moreover, the pro-China lobbying forces are also very happy to agree with this Western estimate, telling the magical fairy tale of "moderate and accurate" Chinese nuclear forces.

With an average annual production of 75 nuclear weapons during the 1980s, some estimates suggested that by the mid-1990s the Chinese nuclear industry had produced around 2,000 nuclear weapons for ballistic missiles, bombers, artillery projectiles and landmines. The retired Russian General Viktor Yesin, former chief of staff of the Russian Strategic Missile Forces, claimed that China’s HEU stockpile was actually 40 tons, and a plutonium inventory of up to 10 tons. He said that these are the best estimates of Russian experts. Based on these estimates of nuclear weapon material production, Yesin estimated that China could have 1,600 to 1,800 warheads.

In 2011, a group of students at the Georgetown University, working under Phillip Karber, a former Pentagon official, concluded China has a stockpile of nuclear weapons far larger than anybody ever suspected. According to Karber, judging from the scale of China's underground network of tunnels, China's nuclear warheads could be as many as 3,000.

In a July 2012 Bulletin of Atomic Scientists report, Hui Zhang put the total number of Chinese warheads at 170 - with 110 operationally deployed. Jeffrey Lewis writes that "China operated exactly two nuclear reactors for the production of military plutonium through 1991. Open-source estimates reliably band China’s production of plutonium at 2-5 metric tons. Classified Department of Energy estimates, leaked to the press, provide a narrower band of 1.7-2.8 metric tons. (Hui Zhang, a former colleague of mine at Harvard who previously worked in the Chinese nuclear weapons establishment, calculates Chinese production as being on the low end of that estimate in the most recent International Panel on Fissile Materials report.) Using a conservative estimate of 4-8 kilograms of plutonium per warhead, that yields a total force of probably no more than 375 warheads, with an extreme upper bound of no more than 700 warheads."

Hui Zhang argued in 2012 that "... China has an existing military inventory of about 1.8 tons of plutonium and 16 tons of weapons-grade HEU. China stopped production of highly enriched uranium in 1987 and had cut off plutonium production by 1990. ... US and Russian warheads, which contain about 4 kilograms of plutonium in their primary stage and about 20 kilograms of highly enriched uranium in the secondary, 1.8 tons of plutonium could produce about 450 warheads; those warheads would also use about nine tons of HEU in their secondaries. The remaining seven tons of highly enriched uranium in China’s stockpile might produce another 230 or so warheads (assuming 10 kilograms of HEU for the primary stage of the weapon and 20 kilograms for the secondary). So the Chinese stockpile of fissionable material would support perhaps 680 thermonuclear warheads."

In a declassified document, the CIA estimates China’s total stockpile at between 200 and 300 warheads in 1996. In 2006, the US Defense Intelligence Agency estimated that “China currently has more than 100 nuclear warheads.”

Krypton 85 is an inert, gaseous product of the fission of uranium 235 or plutonium 239 which is ordinarily released into the atmosphere when spent nuclear fuel is reprocessed. The U.S. intelligence community monitors atmospheric concentrations of krypton 85 and could estimates the Chinese contribution by subtracting the contributions of other known sources from total releases. Estimates of the releases of krypton- 85 to the atmosphere from Soviet reprocessing assume the same proportionality between the krypton-85 release and plutonium production as in the United States. The error bars on Russia's HEU and plutonium stockpiles are the largest, but the 20–30 percent uncertainties in the estimates for France and China also are significant. David Albright suggested in 1997 that "For the UK, estimates of strategic warhead numbers are still subject to considerable uncertainty, while in the case of China estimating warhead numbers is still largely a matter of guesswork."

Henry Sokolski wrote "China has ambitious plans. It is negotiating with France for AREVA to build by 2025 a copy of Japan’s Rokkasho plant. China plans to operate this plant for at least 15 years. It will be designed to produce 8 metric tons of nuclear-weapons-usable plutonium a year — again, enough to make roughly 2,000 nuclear warheads each year. By 2040, when China hopes to load some of this plutonium into its first commercial fast reactor, it will have amassed roughly 30,000 weapons’ worth of plutonium (compare this with the 200 to 400 warheads most experts believe China now has..."

The International Panel on Fissile Materials (IPFM) in January 2018 estimated that (including current warheads and in stocks that could be used for additional warheads) China had 14 ± 3 tons of highly enriched uranium [lower than previous estimates] and 2.9 ± 0.6 tons of weapon-grade plutonium [significantly larger than the previous estimate]. The IPFM reported that this estimate is "at the high end of the U.S. Department of Energy’s estimated range in 1999 of 1.7–2.8 tons of weapon plutonium. It also is higher than other recent non-governmental estimates." As recently as August 2016, the IPFM estimated China's stockpile of fissile materials to includes 18 ± 4 tonnes of HEU and 1.8 ± 0.5 tonnes of weapon-grade plutonium. At that time the IPFM reported that China's nuclear arsenal was estimated to include 240 nuclear weapons, of which about 180 are believed to be operationally deployed.

Gregory Kulacki [not a panda-basher] wrote in January 2018 that "Assuming China’s weapons each use 4 to 6 kg of plutonium, then if the IPFM estimates of China’s plutonium stocks are accurate, these numbers imply that it could produce a total of between 380 and 880 nuclear warheads. If reports that China uses more plutonium than average in its nuclear warhead designs are correct, the total could be in the low end of that range." A mid-point of about 630 weapons.

China is building two large reprocessing plants (the first likely to come on line in 2025; the second sometime before 2030) and two large fast breeder reactors (projected to begin operation in 2023 and 2026). In March 2021 a report called “China’s Civil Nuclear Sector: Plowshares to Swords”, said China has started building a second plant to reprocess spent nuclear fuel that could be commissioned before 2030. The senior-most nuclear nonproliferation policy officials of both the Trump and the Obama Administrations — Christopher Ford and Thomas Countryman — coauthored the report’s preface and endorsed its determinations. The report’s key finding is that given China’s large fast reactor program, China could conservatively produce 1,270 nuclear weapons by 2030 simply by exploiting the weapons-grade plutonium this program will produce.

A new generation of nuclear power facilities that China is developing could produce large amounts of plutonium that could be used to make nuclear weapons, the head of the US Strategic Command warned lawmakers in April 2021. China 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 first fast breeder reactor is projected to come on line in 2023.

“With a fast breeder reactor, you now have a very large source of weapons grade plutonium available to you, 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,” Navy Admiral Charles Richard, commander of the US Strategic Command, told the Senate Armed Services Committee on 20 April 2021. STRATCOM oversees the US nuclear weapons arsenal.

There is no evidence that China intends 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. China says its nuclear program is for peaceful purposes. The Chinese embassy in Washington did not immediately respond to a request for comment.




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Page last modified: 18-10-2021 15:47:01 ZULU