China Conducts Atmospheric Nuclear Test Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

The Chinese set off a nuclear explosion in the atmosphere, the fallout of which began to pass over the West coast of the United States four days later.

Summary of Event

On October 16, 1980, the People’s Republic of China (PRC) set off a powerful nuclear explosion in the atmosphere. China had last set off an atmospheric test on December 14, 1978. The PRC was not a signatory of the 1963 Limited Test Ban Treaty Limited Test Ban Treaty (1963) or of the 1968 Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (1968)[Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty] which applied only to nations that did not yet possess nuclear weapons. The 1980 test was conducted at Lop Nur, a salt lake in Xinjiang Uygur Autonomous Region in far northwestern China. Lop Nur is at the eastern end of the Tarim Basin, which contains the Taklimakan Desert. It is on these salt flats that China’s nuclear testing took place. China;nuclear weapons Nuclear weapons;China [kw]China Conducts Atmospheric Nuclear Test (Oct. 16, 1980) [kw]Atmospheric Nuclear Test, China Conducts (Oct. 16, 1980) [kw]Nuclear Test, China Conducts Atmospheric (Oct. 16, 1980) China;nuclear weapons Nuclear weapons;China [g]East Asia;Oct. 16, 1980: China Conducts Atmospheric Nuclear Test[04300] [g]China;Oct. 16, 1980: China Conducts Atmospheric Nuclear Test[04300] [c]Science and technology;Oct. 16, 1980: China Conducts Atmospheric Nuclear Test[04300] [c]Environmental issues;Oct. 16, 1980: China Conducts Atmospheric Nuclear Test[04300] Zhao Zhongyao Wang Ganchang Zhang Wenyu Qian Xuesen Qian Sanqiang Zhu Guangya Jiang Shengjie He Cehui Zhang Jiahua

By December 20, the radioactive fallout from the October, 1980, test had begun to drift eastward across the Pacific Coast of the United States. The explosion, which had been enormously powerful, was estimated at between 200 kilotons and 1 megaton, the equivalent of as much as one million tons of trinitrotoluene (TNT). The blast was ten times more powerful than the atomic bomb dropped by the United States on Hiroshima, Japan, on August 6, 1945, which had resulted in more than 100,000 deaths and widespread destruction of the city. If a nuclear bomb equivalent to China’s October bomb were exploded near the ground level of a populous city, it would produce winds of between 300 and 600 miles per hour for a distance of about two miles from the blast and would affect an area of about 775 square miles. Hardly anyone exposed within that area would survive. Furthermore, it would take about five years for the radiation in the blast area to decay to levels safe for human habitation.

As a result of the Manhattan Project Manhattan Project undertaken by the U.S. Army during World War II, the United States was the first nation to make and explode an atomic bomb that made use of the fission process. The first atomic bomb was exploded in the Alamogordo Desert about 160 miles southeast of Albuquerque, New Mexico, on July 16, 1945. This test was followed a few weeks later by the uranium-235 bomb named Little Boy, which was dropped on Hiroshima, and the implosion-type plutonium bomb named Fat Man dropped three days later on Nagasaki. As a result, approximately 210,000 people died and 120,000 were seriously injured, and two cities were almost completely destroyed.

The U.S. nuclear monopoly was, however, short-lived. The Soviet Union exploded its first atomic bomb in August, 1949. Great Britain followed suit in 1952, France in 1960, and, to the surprise and shock of the world, the PRC in 1964. China’s test blast was said to have met with some degree of approval in Asia and Africa, where despite disapproval of U.S. atomic tests, there was a certain satisfaction that another “white man’s monopoly” had been broken. The Soviets were particularly chagrined, since the 20-kiloton Chinese atomic bomb, dropped from a 228-foot tower, was made with uranium 235 from a uranium-enrichment plant the Soviet Union had built for China in Manchuria.

At about this time, the nuclear nations also began the development and testing of the hydrogen bomb, which was based on the fusion principle. In late 1952, the United States exploded a 10-megaton thermonuclear bomb on the Enewetak Atoll. This bomb, called Mike, was a thousand times more powerful than the bomb dropped on Hiroshima. In November, 1955, the Soviet Union began a series of hydrogen-bomb tests that culminated in an explosion of about 60 megatons. In 1967, the PRC, again catching the Soviet Union and the United States by surprise, set off a 3-megaton hydrogen bomb that preceded France’s hydrogen bomb by one year.

In the early 1970’s, China began to test controlled or guided ballistic missiles, including long-range intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs). Intercontinental ballistic missiles Missiles;intercontinental ballistic China fired an ICBM from a base in southern Jilin Province in Manchuria that traveled to a target 2,500 miles away in the Taklimakan Desert in the Xinjiang region. After this success, the Chinese on May 18 and 21, 1980, launched two long-range missiles from the small town of Shuangchengzi, located in Gansu Province at the western end of the Gobi Desert. The target was a spot in the Pacific Ocean about 6,800 miles away, in the vicinity of the Marshall Islands. There, eighteen Chinese naval vessels awaited the missile, including a Luda-class guided-missile destroyer, a submarine, a replenishment tanker, and a space-support ship. According to reports, the first missile was so accurate that the waiting divers recovered the nose capsule in a little more than five minutes. It was reported, however, that the second missile of May 21 arrived about 800 miles short of the target. China nevertheless showed that it would soon be able to hit targets in the Soviet Union and possibly also in the United States.

Between October, 1964, and October, 1980, China conducted at least twenty-seven nuclear tests. The tests’ delivery systems varied. Tests were conducted from towers, in dug-out horizontal shafts at Lop Nur (underground), from dug-out vertical shafts at Lop Nur (atmospheric), and dropped from aircraft.


The international response to China’s October 16, 1980, atmospheric nuclear test was mild. U.S. Defense Department officials considered the test to affect primarily the Soviet Union. U.S. health officials declared that the radioactive fallout that had moved across the Pacific Coast on October 20 posed little or no danger to the health of U.S. citizens. French president Valéry Giscard d’Estaing, Giscard d’Estaing, Valéry who had been visiting China at the time of the explosion, reported that China’s leaders agreed with his position that the United States and the Soviet Union ought not to have a monopoly on the exercise of power. Between October, 1980, and October, 1993, China continued to test nuclear devices and ballistic missiles, but it refrained from further nuclear testing in the atmosphere and concentrated on underground explosions. Indeed, Premier Zhao Ziyang announced on March 21, 1986, that China would not in the future test nuclear devices in the atmosphere, and he urged the United States and the Soviet Union to end the production of nuclear weapons altogether. In the same year, Chinese Communist Party secretary Hua Guofeng called for the complete prohibition and destruction of nuclear weapons.

In early 1983, U.S. president Ronald Reagan Reagan, Ronald [p]Reagan, Ronald;Strategic Defense Initiative called for a long-term program of research and development of a system to intercept enemy ballistic missiles. His Strategic Defense Initiative Strategic Defense Initiative (SDI), which came to be known as “Star Wars,” was designed to be based primarily in space and managed only by supercomputers. On August 5, 1985, Chinese leader Deng Xiaoping Deng Xiaoping severely criticized the scheme, declaring that it “must not be implemented because it would cause a qualitative change in the arms race.”

On September 29, 1988, China tested its first neutron bomb, Neutron bombs which produced a yield between 200 kilotons and 1 megaton. China thus joined the United States, the Soviet Union, and France in having the neutron bomb in its nuclear arsenal. Such bombs have greater neutron yields than fission bombs and therefore produce relatively little blast and radioactive fallout. Neutron bombs were designed to kill enemy soldiers while limiting the destruction of buildings and vehicles.

On May 21, 1992, China produced its most powerful blast in a decade, with a yield of between 660 kilotons and 1 megaton. It far exceeded the 150-kiloton limit observed by the United States and the Soviet Union under the 1990 treaty. U.S. president George H. W. Bush Bush, George H. W. responded by expressing his disappointment at China’s action and urging restraint by all nuclear nations. China’s explosion had been so powerful that it sent a pulse of seismic energy through Earth’s mantle, grazing the planet’s core and revealing the presence of an object the size and thickness of a mountain range about two thousand miles beneath the surface. The discovery suggested that the inner structure of Earth might be more complex than previously thought.

China’s next two nuclear tests were conducted on September 25, 1992, and October 5, 1993. Both were underground, and both had relatively small yields, but the second test aroused the anger of President Bill Clinton, Clinton, Bill who had begged China not to break the informal testing moratorium then in effect. French president François Mitterrand, Mitterrand, François however, said that he sympathized with the Chinese effort to gain nuclear parity with the United States and the Soviet Union, since China’s position was similar to that of France. However, the trend between the United States and Russia during the late 1980’s and early 1990’s was toward disarmament and reduction of nuclear forces under the Strategic Arms Reduction Talks, which produced the treaties known as START I and START II. START I (1991)[Start 01] START II (1993)[Start 02] Issues of nuclear parity then were very much in flux, and in 1996, China decided to sign the Comprehensive Nuclear-Test-Ban Treaty, Comprehensive Nuclear-Test-Ban Treaty (1996)[Comprehensive Nuclear Test Ban Treaty] in keeping with the general movement among nuclear powers toward disarmament.

The nuclear explosion of October 16, 1980, marked the approximate midpoint of China’s first thirty years of development of nuclear weaponry and delivery systems. At the same time, China had not been unmindful of the peaceful uses of nuclear energy. Indeed, in December, 1980, the first Chinese-made reactor was successfully put into operation in Sichuan, near Chengdu, with a power capacity of 125,000 kilowatts. In 1986, plans were made to construct a nuclear power station near Shanghai with an output of 300,000 kilowatts; another power station was to be built at Daya Bay, in Guangdong Province, thirty-one miles from Hong Kong. In the mid-1980’s China also advanced its space technology and installed well-equipped centers and carrier rockets for launching satellites for communication, navigation, and reconnaissance of various kinds. China;nuclear weapons Nuclear weapons;China

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Craig, Paul R., and John J. Jungerman. Nuclear Arms Race: Technology and Society. New York: McGraw-Hill, 1986. A technically able, uncomplicated presentation of the scientific basis of the arms race. Includes a few historical errors.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Jiang, Arnold Xiangze. The United States and China. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1988. A study of Sino-American relations from the Marxist-Leninist viewpoint of the People’s Republic of China. By a history professor at Tsung-shan (Zongshan) University.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Kaplan, Fred. The Wizards of Armageddon. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1983. Lively description of the collaboration between officers of the Strategic Air Command (SAC) and RAND intellectuals to forge a nuclear strategy for the United States against potential enemies such as the Soviet Union and China.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Lewis, John W., and Xue Litai. China Builds the Bomb. Stanford, Calif.: Stanford University Press, 1988. A detailed account of how Communist China, despite vast economic development problems and lack of high-technology assets, developed nuclear capabilities.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Liu, Leo Yueh-yun. China as a Nuclear Power in World Politics. New York: Taplinger, 1972. Short but excellent study of Communist China’s nuclear-weapons development, its foreign policy objectives, and its prospects as a possible major nuclear power. Contains an invaluable bibliography (1964-1971), especially of Chinese sources.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Overholt, William. The Rise of China: How Economic Reform Is Creating a New Superpower. New York: W. W. Norton, 1993. Account of China’s development in the second half of the twentieth century.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Ryan, William L., and Sam Summerlin. The China Cloud: America’s Tragic Blunder and China’s Rise to Nuclear Power. Boston: Little, Brown, 1967. Impressive research study of how the United States unwittingly furnished China with the scientific knowledge to build the atomic bomb.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Thomson, David B. A Guide to the Nuclear Arms Control Treaties. Los Alamos, N.Mex.: Los Alamos Historical Society, 2001. Overview of the nuclear arms control treaties negotiated since the end of World War II.

India Joins the Nuclear Club

The United States Announces Production of Neutron Bombs

Reagan Proposes the Strategic Defense Initiative

Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty

Bush Announces Nuclear Arms Reductions

United States and Russia Reach Nuclear Arms Reduction Agreement

U.S.-North Korea Pact

Third Taiwan Strait Crisis

France Resumes Nuclear Testing

Categories: History Content