China Explodes Its First Nuclear Bomb Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

The Chinese government exploded an atomic bomb in 1964 after developing its own uranium mines, fuel-processing technology, bomb design, and test facilities. In effect, China had joined the global “nuclear club,” which included the United States, the Soviet Union, the United Kingdom, and France.

Summary of Event

In 1964, China became the fifth country in the world to explode an atomic bomb, joining the United States (1945), the Soviet Union (1949), the United Kingdom (1952), and France (1960) as a nuclear power. Little information was available about the Chinese nuclear program until the 1980’s. In 1984, Nie Rongzhen, the military head of the strategic-weapons development program, published his memoirs, giving names, dates, and places for the key accomplishments of the program. The following year, the ministry of nuclear industry released an account of the steps that had led up to the 1964 test explosion. In 1988, an authoritative history of China’s nuclear weapons program, China Builds the Bomb China Builds the Bomb (Lewis and Xue) by John W. Lewis and Xue Litai, was at last published by Stanford University Press Stanford University Press as part of its Contemporary China series of more than two hundred volumes. Nuclear weapons;testing Nuclear weapons;proliferation Nuclear weapons;China China;nuclear weapons Cold War;China [kw]China Explodes Its First Nuclear Bomb (Oct. 16, 1964) [kw]Nuclear Bomb, China Explodes Its First (Oct. 16, 1964) [kw]Bomb, China Explodes Its First Nuclear (Oct. 16, 1964) Nuclear weapons;testing Nuclear weapons;proliferation Nuclear weapons;China China;nuclear weapons Cold War;China [g]Asia;Oct. 16, 1964: China Explodes Its First Nuclear Bomb[08230] [g]China;Oct. 16, 1964: China Explodes Its First Nuclear Bomb[08230] [c]Cold War;Oct. 16, 1964: China Explodes Its First Nuclear Bomb[08230] [c]Science and technology;Oct. 16, 1964: China Explodes Its First Nuclear Bomb[08230] [c]Engineering;Oct. 16, 1964: China Explodes Its First Nuclear Bomb[08230] [c]Physics;Oct. 16, 1964: China Explodes Its First Nuclear Bomb[08230] Nie Rongzhen Mao Zedong Zhou Enlai Khrushchev, Nikita S. [p]Khrushchev, Nikita S.;and China[China] Qian Sanqiang

The Chinese Communists had come to power in 1949 after defeating the Nationalist army of Chiang Kai-shek and forcing him to flee to the island of Taiwan. The People’s Republic of China (PRC) was established under the dictatorial leadership of Mao Zedong. The United States had provided military aid to Chiang Kai-shek, and after his defeat, an atmosphere of mutual hostility existed between the two countries.

During the Korean War, fighting between U.S. and Chinese troops led to many casualties on both sides. Presidents Harry S. Truman and Dwight D. Eisenhower both considered the tactical use of nuclear bombs, but eventually, a precarious armistice was signed. Soon after, new crises with China developed over the islands of Matsu and Quemoy in the Taiwan Strait and over Indochina. The Chinese believed that the United States was intent on imperialistic domination in Asia and was using nuclear threats to intimidate nonnuclear nations.

In January, 1955, Mao presided over a meeting of the senior members of the Politburo to discuss the possibilities for a Chinese nuclear-weapons program. The nuclear scientist Qian Sanqiang, later to become director of the Institute of Atomic Energy, outlined the technical requirements for producing a nuclear explosion and demonstrated with a Geiger counter how uranium ore could be detected by its radioactivity. At the end of the meeting, Mao approved a major effort in nuclear research.

The Soviet Union provided aid to the PRC’s nuclear program from 1955 to 1960. The Soviets supplied a cyclotron, or particle accelerator, and a nuclear reactor with uranium fuel, and gave several thousand Chinese technicians specialized training in nuclear technology. Soviet geologists helped organize prospecting surveys to locate Chinese uranium resources, in return for which China promised to sell any surplus uranium to the Soviet Union. The Soviets even agreed to supply a prototype atomic bomb and missiles, but this contract was never fulfilled because of the 1960 political break between Nikita S. Khrushchev and Mao.

The Chinese nuclear program followed a path that in many ways closely paralleled that of the U.S. Manhattan Project of 1942-1945. To purify fissionable uranium 235 fuel from ordinary uranium and process it into a gaseous compound, a gas-diffusion plant was built at Lanzhou, in central China, which resembled the one at Oak Ridge, Tennessee. A plutonium production reactor and reprocessing facilities, comparable to the U.S. installation near Hanford, Washington, were built near Subei, west of the Gobi Desert.

The work on the bomb itself was started in Beijing and then moved to Qinghai, a remote location in northwest China. There, construction workers built a research center with laboratories, housing for several thousand technical people and their families, and the necessary facilities for transportation, communication, water supply, and electric power. The weapons-design center at Qinghai, which was given the code name “Ninth Academy” so as to keep its military mission a secret, has been compared to the Los Alamos Laboratory in New Mexico, where J. Robert Oppenheimer had guided the U.S. bomb design project during World War II.

For their first bomb, the Chinese chose to use enriched uranium 235 Uranium rather than plutonium because the diffusion plant was able to deliver weapons-grade uranium well before the plutonium reactors could be brought into operation. It was decided to detonate the bomb using an implosion mechanism consisting of a small sphere of fissionable uranium surrounded by chemical explosives. The explosives were fired in a carefully synchronized sequence so as to compress the uranium very rapidly. By early 1964, the availability of uranium fuel and design of the bomb were far enough along to allow the first test explosion.

The site chosen for China’s nuclear weapons tests was in the desert of the Xinjiang Autonomous Region, about 2,000 miles west of Beijing, where an isolated tract of more than 30,000 square miles was set aside for the Lop Nor Nuclear Weapons Test Base Lop Nor Nuclear Weapons Test Base . Later, the same region was used as the impact zone for China’s missile test flights. The construction of access roads, an airfield, observation buildings, and necessary utilities was begun in the early 1960’s.

The date for the first bomb explosion was set by the Party Central Committee for October 16, 1964. The bomb assembly was mounted on a steel tower, and the uranium core was loaded on October 15. The test-site control room was about 12 miles from ground zero. The countdown proceeded on schedule. The resulting explosion, as well as the emotions of the observers, were remarkably similar to those at the Trinity test at Alamogordo, New Mexico, in 1945. With the mushroom cloud in view above ground zero, a report of the successful test was phoned to Chinese premier Zhou Enlai in Beijing, who communicated it immediately to Mao. A few hours later, Chinese radio broadcast the news to the world.

Significance

After the success of its first atomic explosion, China proudly boasted that it had broken the nuclear monopoly of the West. No longer would the United States be able to use nuclear intimidation to impede the growth of the international communist movement. The practical military consequences of a single atomic test explosion, however, were few. The Chinese leaders realized that they needed to build a stockpile of bombs, along with a delivery system of planes and missiles. Further, they wanted to master the technology of the much more powerful hydrogen bomb, for which an atomic bomb serves as igniter.

The Chinese missile program made great progress under the leadership of Nie Rongzhen. During the 1960’s, a series of four missiles with successively greater range and payload was developed. The first one, designated DF-2, could travel about 500 miles and targeted U.S. military installations in Japan. The largest one, the DF-5, was a multistage intercontinental missile with a range of 8,000 miles and was designed to carry hydrogen bombs to the continental United States.

The missile development coincided with a chaotic political and social time in China. The so-called Cultural Revolution Cultural Revolution, Chinese China;Cultural Revolution was started by Mao in 1966 as a way to purge the nation of those who did not show enough loyalty to the Communist Party. The patriotic fervor of the Red Guard movement became identified with the symbolic power of nuclear explosions. On one occasion in October, 1966, an army unit launched a DF-2 rocket carrying an atomic warhead that traveled 500 miles and then exploded at the Lop Nor test site. In June, 1967, a three-megaton hydrogen bomb, 150 times more powerful than the uranium bomb, was dropped from an airplane, causing a spectacular fireball and the collapse of brick buildings 10 miles from ground zero. Nie Rongzhen recognized the extraordinary risks being taken; in his memoirs, he criticized the errors and excessive zeal of the Cultural Revolution.

The development of the hydrogen bomb in China took place less than three years after the first fission-bomb explosion. The rapid development of the entire Chinese strategic weapons arsenal, in an otherwise backward economy, was a remarkable technical achievement.

China’s rapid progress in its nuclear-weapons program made it clear that the Chinese were admirably capable of focusing their limited resources effectively. Concern for the environmental impact of such technical expertise was slow in coming, and China’s nuclear program would continue to pose a serious threat to the global environment.

From an environmental point of view, it was tragic that the Chinese would continue nuclear test explosions in the atmosphere. In 1963, the United States, Great Britain, and the Soviet Union had signed a historic nuclear test ban treaty (the Limited Test Ban Treaty) in response to worldwide opposition to radioactive fallout. The treaty was only a partial ban, allowing for underground explosions; France continued its program of atmospheric testing in the South Pacific until 1991. Even beyond that time, China proved unwilling to accept such restrictions of its strategic weapons program, its stated aim being to eliminate all nuclear weapons and make a test ban unnecessary. Nuclear weapons;testing Nuclear weapons;proliferation Nuclear weapons;China China;nuclear weapons Cold War;China

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Bolt, Paul J., and Albert S. Willner, eds. China’s Nuclear Future. Boulder, Colo.: Lynne Rienner, 2006. An assessment of the future of China’s nuclear weapons program and nuclear power industry in the context of international diplomacy.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Epstein, William. “The Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons.” Scientific American, April, 1975, 18-33. Published soon after India had become the sixth nation to conduct a nuclear test explosion. Evaluates the nonproliferation treaty signed by more than one hundred nations but not by China, India, or Israel. An informative discussion.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Halperin, Morton H. China and the Bomb. New York: Praeger, 1965. Discusses the need for readjustments in U.S. foreign policy in the Far East and the growing political tension between China and the Soviet Union at the time.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Lewis, John Wilson, and Litai Xue. China Builds the Bomb. Stanford, Calif.: Stanford University Press, 1988. The first book in English giving a detailed account of the development of the Chinese atomic bomb. Many original sources are cited, including the personal memoirs of Nie Rongzhen. Well-documented, fascinating reading.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Rajain, Arpit. Nuclear Deterrence in Southern Asia: China, India, and Pakistan. Thousand Oaks, Calif.: Sage, 2005. Compares the strategic philosophies of the nuclear programs of China, India, and Pakistan. Discusses military strategy, deterrence, public opinion, foreign policy, and treaty implementation.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Reiss, Mitchell. Without the Bomb: The Politics of Nuclear Nonproliferation. New York: Columbia University Press, 1988. An informative investigation of why no further immediate proliferation of nuclear weapons took place after China and India developed theirs. Analyzes why several countries with advanced technological capability nevertheless decided not to build a nuclear arsenal.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Terrill, Ross. China in Our Time: The Epic Saga of the People’s Republic from the Communist Victory to Tiananmen Square and Beyond. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1992. An excellent overview of the history of modern China from 1949 to 1991, with particular emphasis on the personalities of Mao and other leaders. By an author who speaks and reads Chinese and has visited China frequently.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Wiesner, Jerome B., and Herbert F. York. “National Security and the Nuclear Test Ban.” Scientific American, October, 1964, 27-35. Because China had rejected the 1963 nuclear test ban and detonated its first bomb in 1964, the authors conclude that the continuing nuclear arms race had created increased military power but decreased national security.

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Teller and Ulam Develop the First Hydrogen Bomb

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