Jeffrey LewisHow Many Chinese Nuclear Weapons Redux 2

With Paul tackling the Iran issue today, I wanted to look at a popular issue for this blog—How many nuclear weapons does China have?

My post shares a common theme with Paul’s systematic dismantling of Michael Ledeen—too many conservative pundits compensate for shallow knowledge by simply making up facts.

In 1996, a Singapore University student, Yang Zheng, posted a short essay, entitled China’s Nuclear Arsenal, which concluded that “it is very likely that China is making 140-150 nuclear warheads a year and she has accumulated 2,350 nuclear warheads so far.”

The Department of Defense claims the number is “more than 100.” (The general consensus is 400 or so warheads, with my estimate of about 80 on the low end.)

The fact that Yang’s numbers are completely outside the bound of the possibility didn’t stop certain conservative “defense intellectuals” from citing the hell out of it:

  • Richard Fisher, writing for The Heritage Foundation, cited it not once but twiceadding (the latter co-authored with Baker Spring). Fisher even claimed that “one U.S. government expert told this author that its estimates are plausible.”
  • David Markov and Andrew Hull use Yang’s fissile material prodution and warhead estimates in an Institute for Defense Analyses study entitled The Changing Nature of Chinese Nuclear Strategy.
  • David Tanks, then with the Institute for Foreign Policy Analysis, called the essay convincingly argued.
  • The Center for Defense and International Security Studies also cites the essay to argue that the Norris et al estimate of 400+ warheads was “too low and thus inaccurate.”

Every single one of these people should be red-faced with shame.

The core of Yang Zheng’s argument is that estimates placing the Chinese arsenal at 2,000 plus warheads are “are reasonable” because “data from various U.S. intelligence agencies show that, in the mid-1980’s, China was producing at least 800 kilograms of U-235 and 400 kilograms of Pu-239 per year.”

That’s great, except the data doesn’t show fissile material production at that level.

Just take a look at Pu production. A classified DOE estimate of Chinese plutonium production, leaked to the press, places Chinese Pu stockpile at 1.7-2.8 metric tons. This is consistent with unclassified estimates by Gronlund and Wright (2-5 metric tons) and Albright et al (4.8 metric tons). The DOE estimate, assuming 3-5 kg of Pu per warhead, yields 635 (+/- 295) warheads.

In fact, Yang’s dicussion of Chinese Pu and U-235 production facilities is wonderfully incompetent. Here is Yang’s table of Nuclear Explosive Material (NEM) facilities:

Facility Common name Fissile Material kg/year
Lanzhou Gaseous Diffusion Plant Lanzhou U-235 400
Helanshan Centrifuge I none U-235 400
Helanshan Centrifuge II none U-235 ???
Yumen Breeder Reactor Jiuquan Pu 250
Baotou Breeder Reactor Baotou Pu 150
Guangyuan Breeder Reactor Guangyuan Pu ???

These sites are simply wrong:

  • Baotou isn’t a plutonium reactor but rather a Nuclear Fuel Element Plant that manufactures uranium tetraflouride for enrichment. The Baotou Plant resembeled a French-designed plutonium reactor from the air, leading US intelligence agencies to mis-identify it during the early years of the Chinese nuclear program (William Burr and Jeffrey Richelson discuss this error in “Whether To ‘Strangle the Baby in the Cradle’: The United States and the Chinese Nuclear Program, 1960-64.”)
  • The list is missing a second gaseous diffusion plant at Heping.
  • China doesn’t have centrifuges at Lanzhou. China did subsequently build Russian designed-centrifuge plants to enrich LEU to fuel reactors, but the first did not become operational until 1996.

An accurate list of facilities is located at here.

Moreover, Yang Zheng doesn’t consider the operating histories of the facilities, which stopped producing enriched uranium in 1987 and plutonium in 1991. Serious problems with the facilities could have substantially reduced output—substantial operating problems are detailed in the official Chinese history of the program and probably account for the DOE classified estimate being lower than either unclassified estimate.

Anyone who writes an article about China’s nuclear weapons program, yet can’t spot obvious errors like this, should find a new line of work.

Hey boys, it’s called