The History of Highly Enriched Uranium Production in China

| July 2017

China has not declared officially that it has ended fissile materials production for weapons. Based on new public information, this work further reconstructs the history of China’s production of highly enriched uranium at its two gaseous diffusion plants, and updates significantly estimates on China’s military inventory of highly enriched uranium. The new estimate is significantly lower than most previous independent estimates.

China initiated its nuclear weapon program in 1955 and began to construct its fissile-material production facilities in the late 1950s. China has produced highly enriched uranium (HEU) for weapons at two complexes: Lanzhou gaseous diffusion plant (GDP, also referred as Plant 504) and Heping GDP (the Jinkouhe facility of Plant 814).1

In 1958, China started the construction of the Lanzhou plant with advice from Soviet experts. Moscow withdrew all its experts in August 1960, however, forcing China to become self-reliant. On January 14, 1964, the GDP began to produce 90% enriched uranium, which made possible China’s first nuclear test on 16 October 1964.2

After 1964, given the increasingly worsening relationship with Soviet Union and the growing military presence of the United States in the region, China began to construct a second set of plutonium and HEU production facilities in “third line” interior areas in case the first production facilities in border and coastal areas were destroyed. The “third line” facilities were required to be “near mountains, scattered and concealed (later in caves).” Construction of the Heping GDP started in 1966 and it began operating in 1970.3

By the end of 1970s, China increased its HEU production by about 3 times. But in the early 1980s, China adopted a policy of economic reform and decided to reduce HEU and plutonium production.4 The Lanzhou GDP ended HEU production around 1980 and switched to LEU production for civilian reactors and/or naval reactors. It was closed in December 2000 and replaced by a civilian centrifuge enrichment plant after 2001.5 The Heping GDP is believed to have stopped HEU production for weapons in 1987. Since then, it is likely operating for non-weapon military uses, or dual use.6

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For Academic Citation:

Hui Zhang,  “The History of Highly Enriched Uranium Production in China .” Paper presented at the Nuclear Materials Management 58th Annual Meeting,  July 16-20, 2017, Indian Wells, CA, USA