Jeffrey LewisWhat I Did Over Summer Vacation: China's Los Alamos

Having an avid interest in the history of China’s nuclear weapons program, I’ve always wondered what life was like at China’s “Los Alamos”—the Northwest Nuclear Weapons Research and Design Academy near Haiyan, where China’s first nuclear weapons were designed and built.

Eventually, China’s nuclear weapons design and fabrication facilities were moved to a “third line” facility in Mianyang, Sichuan Province.

The facility near Haiyan (officially Plant No. 221) is now open to tourists … like me:

When [Plant 221] opened in 1958 it was regarded as a mysterious and forbidden zone, covering an area of 1,170 square kilometers. To the outside world, it was known as the Qinghai Mine.

Now the local government has erected billboards near the site to attract tourists.

Dotting one wall of a geometrically shaped building surrounded by reinforced cement structure are the holes researchers peered through to observe the nuclear testing explosions. The dilapidated site at present was the former No. 6 Factory of the base, called the “shooting range.”

Some hundreds yards away is the famous “No. 1 Pit in Asia,” where nuclear waste is buried.

This is what I did over summer vacation.

In fact, that’s me (_above, right_) standing next to the “shooting range.” I am a little freaked out to know nuclear waste is buried a few hundred yards away.

I feel fine, thanks for asking.

The facility—now called “Atomic City” for obvious branding reasons—also has a museum (_left_). The museum has a model of the base, mock-ups of the first nuclear weapon and a DF-3 RV, and many documents including period identification badges.

Those, along with other cool nuclear accoutrement—are kept in a room closed to foreigners … well, some foreigners.

No photographs permitted.

This is how DIA described the facility—located near Qinghai Lake (also known as Koko Nor)—in 1972:

Koko Nor is the major nuclear weapons R&D center in China and, up to the present at least, it has been the major weapons fabrication center as well. It has facilities for high explosive and fissile component production, general component (cases, electrical systems) production, final weapons assembly, HE component testing, and environmental testing.


  1. greg (History)

    is that a windbreaker?

  2. Michael Roston (History)

    Is that the hokey-pokey?

  3. dan (History)

    Is that a Richard Serra?