China: The Paths to Weapon-Grade Uranium and Plutonium

In the 1950s, China began to build an array of nuclear facilities to produce both high-enriched uranium and plutonium for atomic bombs. Within 15 years, China had mastered each phase of the nuclear fuel cycle from mining uranium to testing weapons. Beijing tested its first bomb in 1964, and now has the fourth largest arsenal in the world, with an estimated 450 warheads. In addition, China possesses large stockpiles of plutonium and high-enriched uranium free from international controls and available for military use. The key steps on the path to China’s arsenal are shown below.

Uranium path:
Uranium ore is mined at several sites, including Anshun, Chongyi, Daladi, Dongkeng, Fuzhou, Lanhe, Mengqikur, Quzhou, and Tenchong, and milled at Hengyang and Shangrao.

Uranium is purified at the Baotou Nuclear Fuel Component Plant and at the Yibin Nuclear Fuel Element Plant and converted to uranium hexafluoride gas (UF6) at the Jiuquan Atomic Energy Complex and a plant in Sichuan Province (either Guangyuan or Yibin).

Uranium hexafluoride gas (UF6) is enriched in gaseous diffusion plants at the Lanzhou and Heping facilities.

Plutonium path:
Uranium is fabricated into fuel bundles at the Baotou Nuclear Fuel Component Plant and the Yibin Nuclear Fuel Element Plant.

Uranium fuel generates plutonium in the graphite-moderated reactors at Jiuquan Atomic Energy Complex and at Guangyuan.

Plutonium is extracted from irradiated fuel at the Jiuquan Complex and the Guangyuan reprocessing plant. An additional extraction plant is under construction at the Xinjiang Autonomous Region in the Gobi desert.

High-enriched uranium and plutonium are machined into bomb cores and assembled into warheads at the Jiuquan Atomic Energy Complex Nuclear Component Manufacturing Plant and Assembly Workshop, and at the Guangyuan nuclear weapon assembly facility.

Thermonuclear fuels (lithium deuteride and tritium) are manufactured at the Baotou Nuclear Fuel Component Plant, and possibly at Yibin.

Nuclear warheads are tested at the Lop Nur Nuclear Weapon Test Base.