Jeffrey LewisI Still Call It The JAEC

A couple of months ago, Mark Hibbs wrote a nice little post here about China’s interest in commercial-scale reprocessing for its spent nuclear fuel. If you recall, a few reporters got unnecessarily excited about China’s announcement of initial operations at its pilot reprocessing facility in the Gobi Desert.  Mark reminded everyone that the facility was small, used the old PUREX method and was woefully behind schedule — in the 1990s, China announced plans to finish construction and begin operations by 2000.

I had a chance to revisit pretty much everything Mark has ever written about the saga of China’s pilot reprocessing facility — a very impressive oeuvre — for a little paper I am writing on China’s interest in commercial enrichment and reprocessing technologies.

I had just one question for Mark: Where the hell is the damn thing located?

Over the course of a decade or so, Mark’s sources suggested two possible locations for the pilot reprocessing facility: either at the Lanzhou Nuclear Fuel Complex or “250 kilometers east of a military plutonium separation plant and processing center called Plant 404 .”

For my part, I suspected the plant was located on site at Jiuquan Atomic Energy Complex (or JAEC), and neither 250 km east of it nor at Lanzhou (which is several hundred kilometers further.) I had said so to a few colleagues. I based my suspicions on a few factoids:

First, China’s initial reprocessing facility was at the JAEC, near Yumen. CNNC has tended to place new facilities on the same location as retired ones to minimize the impact on local communities.  For example, CNNC put one of the centrifuge modules planned for Hanzhong at Lanzhou for this reason.

Second, CNNC press releases relating to the plant often make reference to the 404 Corporation (四○四有限公司), which would seem to refer to the old description of the JAEC as Plant 404. (I love that a code name selected in the era of Mao to be mundane could then become a brand in modern China.  This would make Maurice Meisner’s head explode.)

Third, Mark’s sources called the facility Yumenzhen.  The US intelligence community initially named the JAEC complex the Yumen Plutonium Production Facility after the closest town.  (“Zhen” is an administrative division like “town”.)

There were other hints as well: The JAEC has a well-maintained rail head (for shipping casks of spent nuclear fuel) and has a lot of new construction for a facility that was supposedly in shut-down for military plutonium production.

So, I emailed Mark.  He was brutally honest in that way that makes him one of a kind: “Oh f—, what do I know. I confess to no hard and direct information from Chinese sources about this. You may be right. Why the hell is this so difficult to pin down? I ask myself. After all, CCTV camera crews were even invited there on the day that they did that mini-Pu separation months ago.”

Indeed. So, off we both went, to try to figure out just where China’s pilot reprocessing facility is located.

I managed to find an external image of the facility on the CNNC website.

Unfortunately, groundbreaking on this facility wasn’t until May 2008.  (The image appears in an article dated August 10, 2009, but who knows how close to publication it was taken.) The newest image of The JAEC in Google Earth is from August 2007.  I had a hunch, however, that not all of these buildings are new — especially not the taupe building on the far right backed by three tall towers.  Those buildings — or their architectural doppelgangers — appear at: 40°14’16.49″N, 97°22’12.82″E.

The newest image at Lanzhou is from October 2010, so I was also able to exclude the that site.  (Although a new mystery has appeared in the form of a gi-freaking-normous building next to what I thought was the new centrifuge module at Lanzhou.  See: 36° 9’0.32″N 103°31’29.04″E. What the hell is that thing? Update | It looks like the big building is China’s indigenous centrifuge facility.)

I suppose there is a possibility that those tower-like structures were replicated someplace else, either in another area of the JAEC or at another site.  The final nail in the coffin would be for someone to order a more recent image of The JAEC after August 2009. Still, I was reasonably satisfied.

In the meantime, Mark was busy, too.  He mined his vast rolodex and sent me this note:

It’s at Yumenzhen. From the horse’s mouth overnight. No doubt about it.

I confirmed with Mark that he meant the Jiuquan Atomic Energy Center and he said yes: “They’re all at the same site.”

So, there you go, China’s pilot reprocessing facility is located at Yumenzhen.  I still call it The JAEC.

If you despise the corporate douchebaggery of selling stadium naming rights, you can commodify your dissent by picking up a Naming Wrongs t-shirt from No Mas.  Thank god they still call it Wrigley.


  1. blowback (History)

    How appropraite that Plant 404 could not be found!

    • Smith (History)


  2. Ben (History)

    I found it once on google earth. Haven’t been able to find it again though.

    • Jeffrey (History)

      Well, I’ve provided the coordinates!

  3. mark (History)

    They still call it Wrigley, thank heaven. On our side of town, it isn’t called Comiskey anymore, for the reason you describe. I still call it that. But I’m also inclined to call the main passenger rais station here in Berlin Lehrter Bahnhof, for similar nostalgic reasons…

    Now to business:

    As I pointed out here at Carnegie last fall:

    one of the issues that came up during discussions between China and France concerning a possible sale to China of a reprocessing plant was the location of the plant. There may be good solid reasons for China to want to consolidate sensitive back-end activities in its commercial fuel cycle at one remote location, and in fact
    CNNC early on committed to build the facility in Gansu Province, and according to some Chinese sources, likely at the military Plant 404 location where the pilot plant is set up. The French side was not enthusiastic about that, given that China was also not too enthusiastic about applying IAEA safeguards to imported nuclear fuel cycle related facilities…