Thursday, May 15, 2008

Nuclear weapons sites in China's earthquake zone

I was wondering about this. Interesting detail from the Times on China's nuclear weapons sites in the earthquake zone. So far so good; let's hope the dams are OK as well.

Related: China Builds the Bomb, a history of China's early atomic weapons program. See page 44 for profiles of two of the leading scientists, including Peng Huanwu, a quantum field theorist and student of Max Born.

NYTimes: China’s main centers for designing, making and storing nuclear arms lie in the shattered earthquake zone, leading Western experts to look for signs of any damage that might allow radioactivity to escape.

A senior federal official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because of the delicacy of the issue, said the United States was using spy satellites and other means to try to monitor the sprawling nuclear plants. “There appear to be no immediate concerns,” the official said.

Nonetheless, “it’s potentially a serious issue,” Hans M. Kristensen, a nuclear arms expert at the Federation of American Scientists, a private group in Washington, said in an interview. “Radioactive materials could be released if there’s damage.”

China began building the plants in the 1960s, calculating that their remote locations would make them less vulnerable to enemy attack.

China’s main complex for making nuclear warhead fuel, codenamed Plant 821, is beside a river in a hilly, forested part of the earthquake zone. It is some 15 miles northwest of Guangyuan in Sichuan Province. The vast site holds China’s largest production reactor and factories that mine its spent fuel for plutonium — the main ingredient for modern nuclear arms.

Jeffrey G. Lewis, an arms control specialist at the New America Foundation, a nonprofit research group in Washington, said the military buildings that make up Plant 821 were probably unusually strong compared with civilian structures.

“I’d rather have been in the reactor building than a grade school” on Monday when the quake struck, he said. The site’s various plants “were built as military facilities, and so I wouldn’t be surprised if, by and large, they came through pretty well,” he added. ...

“From what I know, they’re a really brilliant people and I think they do things the right way,” said Danny B. Stillman, a former director of intelligence at Los Alamos National Laboratory and an expert on the Chinese nuclear program because of extensive travels in the 1990s to its secretive sites and bases.

Closer to the epicenter of the quake that struck Monday is Mianyang, a science city whose outskirts house the primary laboratory for the design of Chinese nuclear arms. It is considered the Chinese equal to Los Alamos. Known as the Chinese Academy of Engineering Physics, it too, Mr. Stillman said, houses a reactor, though a smaller one meant for research.

In China, the academy leads in the research, development and testing of nuclear weapons and has centers throughout Sichuan Province.

...North of the city, for example, is a plant that shapes plutonium into the compact spheres that ignite nuclear weapons.

Nuclear experts said that closer to the epicenter of the earthquake, in rugged hills a two-hour drive west of Mianyang, China runs a highly secretive center that houses a prompt-burst reactor. It mimics the rush of speeding subatomic particles that an exploding atom bomb spews out in its first microseconds.

North in an even more rugged and inaccessible region, nuclear experts said, China maintains a hidden complex of large tunnels in the side of a mountain where it stores nuclear arms.

“It’s very close to the epicenter,” said one specialist, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because, to the best of his knowledge, the exact location of the secret complex had never been publicly disclosed.

Dr. Stillman, the former intelligence chief at Los Alamos, said he had immense regard for the Chinese weapons scientists and assumed that many of their nuclear plants had been built to ride out the pounding of an earthquake or other disasters, natural or man-made.

“All the Chinese I met in the program were really brilliant,” he said. “So I think they do it the right way. I hope.”


David said...

The 'mines spent fuel for plutonium' drives me batty. Spent plutonium is a viable nuclear power fuel, and it doesn't necessarily have to be turned into little balls to blow stuff up with. Moreover, the "zomg!Biggest Reactor Ever!11!1!!" probably makes more plutonium in a year than the weapons manufacturers know what to do with.

francis beth said...

You create sense out of the foremost complex topics.anti-nuclear weapons

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