Inside China's Nuclear Weapons Program

Dan Stillman
Retired from Los Alamos National Laboratory

October 10, 2001

This presentation is based on nine trips to nuclear weapon facilities in China during the 1990s that are described in a book currently undergoing security review by the government. The purpose of the book is to record for historical purposes my unique travels and experiences in China during the last few years of China's underground nuclear weapons testing, China's entry into a moratorium on nuclear weapons testing, the aftermath of the US bombing of the Chinese embassy in Belgrade, and the release of the Cox Committee report on Chinese nuclear weapons espionage.

On my visits to China, I gathered information on the names and locations of Chinese nuclear weapon facilities, descriptions of the main activities at these facilities, and the known interactions between facilities. I was hosted by the director of the China Academy of Engineering Physics (CAEP), China's main nuclear weapon organization, and visited all of China's nuclear weapons laboratories with the exception of their equivalent of PANTEX, the US facility that assembles US nuclear weapons.

My first introduction to Chinese nuclear weapon scientists was in June 1988 when I met Professor Yang Fujia then director of the Shanghai Institute of Nuclear Research. I expressed an interest in whether China had a Prompt Burst Reactor (PRB), a reactor of the type that I had helped design for the United States. After he showed me the location of the Chinese PRB on a map I asked if I could visit the facility. He replied "sure" and told me to send a resume and a list of other facilities that I would want to visit. The trip was scheduled for September and October of 1989 but was canceled following the events in Tiananmen Square in June 1989. In 1990, Yang Fujia renewed the invitation for a visit in April.

I visited China with my deputy and we were the first American visitors to these nuclear weapon facilities. The visit provided a unique opportunity to gather insights into the Chinese nuclear weapons complex. The Chinese inquired about nuclear verification measures, nuclear effects data, diagnostic techniques, and arms control issues but did not inquire about specific American nuclear weapons, components or materials. All of the information we provided our Chinese hosts was based on public information in the form of brochures, press releases, or technical reports.

On this trip and subsequent visits, I visited virtually all of China's nuclear weapons laboratories. In Shanghai, I visited Fudan University and the Shanghai Institute of Nuclear Research, where work was conducted on neutron initiators and sources. In Mianyang, near Chengdu, I visited the headquarters of the CAEP, which is China's equivalent to our Los Alamos, Sandia, and Lawrence Livermore nuclear laboratories and is composed (at that time) of twelve institutes. These institutes are responsible for research on applied electronics, nuclear physics and chemistry, fluid physics, structural mechanics, chemical materials, electronic engineering, and computing applications.

I also visited the Northwest Institute of Nuclear Technology (NINT), which designed and produced diagnostic equipment to monitor nuclear weapon tests, assembled the instrumentation trailers used in each test, and conducted radiochemical analysis after the test to determine the yield of the explosion. I also traveled to Malan in northwest China, where their nuclear weapon tests were conducted. China's nuclear weapons test site is seven times bigger than the Nevada Test Site and was manned by 2,000 Chinese military and 8,000 civilian personnel. The Chinese provided me with a tour of several vertical hole test sites and I was able to walk into a tunnel that they had previously used for a horizontal test. I was told that China's first seven nuclear weapon tests all used highly enriched uranium (93.5% U-235) as primaries because the Soviets had pulled their support for China's plutonium production reactor. China's third test was China's first use of thermonuclear material. By the sixth test, China had developed a thermonuclear weapon with a yield of 3.3 megatons. My trip to this facility was unique: more Americans have walked on the Moon than on China's nuclear weapons test site.

In Beijing, I met with Chinese nuclear weapon designers who worked for the Institute of Applied Physics and Computational Mathematics. China's nuclear weapons are not designed to be one-point safe like American weapons. (One-point safe means there is only one in a million chances of exceeding greater than four pounds of high explosive equivalent yield.) Since their nuclear weapons are not one-point safe, excess amounts of fissile material can be used in the weapon to ensure that they will work properly.

My visits to China allowed me to be an eyewitness to the Chinese nuclear weapon establishment from its original concept to its final test. The information I received was remarkably detailed and it was provided without any apparent reservations. My hosts told me of their methods, achievements, failures, and future plans. China's nuclear weapon scientists are eager to cooperate with their American colleagues, but the China Lab-to-Lab program was halted by the Department of Energy after the Cox report and the US bombing of the Chinese embassy in Belgrade. In my opinion, the failure to cultivate relations with these Chinese scientists is a mistake. The information the Chinese scientists willingly gave to me and my fellow travelers would have cost the government several millions of dollars to collect by traditional intelligence methods. There is no substitute for having been there, seen it and touched it.

Dan B. Stillman worked for 32 years at the Los Alamos National Laboratory, the Lawrence Radiation Laboratory, and the Nevada Test Site. Since April 1990, he has made ten extended trips to China to visit nuclear weapons laboratories in Beijing, Shanghai, Xi'an, and Mianyang, as well as the Chinese nuclear test site near Malan.

Rapporteur: Gregory Koblentz

back to seminar schedule, Fall 2001