28 January 2019

The history of fissile-material production in China

This article reconstructs the history of China’s production of highly enriched uranium and plutonium for nuclear weapons based on newly available public sources. It begins with discussion of China’s first set of fissile-material production facilities, which China started building in 1958. It then details the first and second “third-line” construction campaigns, initiated in 1964 and the late 1960s, respectively. Finally, the article considers the policy implications of the history of China’s fissile-material production, particularly its influence on China’s attitude toward negotiating a fissile-material cutoff treaty.

In 1955, China initiated its nuclear-weapon program with assistance from the Soviet Union.11 More can be read from China’s official nuclear history: Li Jue, Lei Rongtian, Li Yi, and Li Yingxiang, eds., Dangdai Zhongguo de Hegongye [China Today: Nuclear Industry] (Beijing: China Social Science Press, 1987). Selections were translated and published by the US Foreign Broadcast Information Service, JPRS-CST-88-002, January 15, 1988; and JPRS-CST-88-008, Washington, DC, April 26, 1988.View all notes In 1958, Beijing approved a plan to build “five plants and three mines” as key facilities to produce fissile materials and nuclear weapons. The five plants included Plant 272, the Hengyang uranium-processing mill in Hunan Province; Plant 202, the Baotou nuclear-fuel-fabrication plant in Inner Mongolia; Plant 504, the Lanzhou gaseous-diffusion plant (GDP) in Gansu Province; Plant 404, the Jiuquan plutonium-production complex in Gansu; and Plant 221, the nuclear-weapon laboratory at Haiyan in Qinghai Province, the predecessor of today’s Chinese Academy of Engineering Physics at Mianyang in Sichuan Province. This article will focus on the development of those plants which perform uranium enrichment, plutonium production, and nuclear-fuel fabrication.

Moscow withdrew its nuclear experts in August 1960, when China had only just started construction of its first set of fissile-material production facilities. China had to rely on its own efforts to continue its highly enriched uranium (HEU) and plutonium-production programs, and finally began HEU production at the Lanzhou GDP in 1964 and plutonium production at the Jiuquan complex in 1966.

In 1964, given Beijing’s serious concerns about its deteriorating relationship with the Soviet Union and the growing military presence of the United States in Asia, China began to build a second set of production facilities for plutonium and HEU in interior “third-line” areas to protect them from Soviet or US attacks. The first third-line construction campaign included Plant 814, the Heping GDP in Sichuan, a backup to Plant 504; Plant 816, the Fuling plutonium-production complex in Sichuan (now found within the Chongqing Municipality), a backup to the Jiuquan complex; and Plant 812, the nuclear-fuel-fabrication plant at Yibin in Sichuan, a backup to Plant 202. In 1968, anticipating an armed conflict with the Soviet Union, Beijing initiated a second campaign to build additional nuclear-material production facilities in the third-line area. The campaign included Plant 821, the Guangyuan plutonium-production complex in Sichuan, a backup to the Jiuquan complex; Plant 405, the Hanzhong uranium-enrichment facility in Shaanxi Province; and Plant 813, the Hanzhong nuclear-fuel-fabrication facility in Shaanxi, another backup to Plant 202.

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