56th Anniversary of First Chinese Nuclear Test

October 16th 2020 marked the 56th anniversary of China’s first nuclear test. This was a milestone in China’s rapid path into becoming the fifth nuclear weapon state (NWS). Unfortunately, following her, more countries would soon the list of NWS.

The Comprehensive Nuclear-Test-Ban Treaty Organization (CTBTO) formed in 1996, with the aim of limiting nuclear weapons tests, chronicles the first Chinese nuclear test as follows:

On 16 October 1964, the People’s Republic of China conducted its first nuclear test, making it the fifth nuclear-armed state after the United States, the Soviet Union, Britain and France. China had initiated its nuclear weapons programme in the mid-1950s, after the Korean war. At the outset, its efforts were backed by substantial Soviet assistance, including advisors and technical equipment. Research on nuclear weapon design began at the Institute of Physics and Atomic Energy in Beijing, and a uranium enrichment plant was constructed in Lanzhou to produce weapon-grade uranium.

With the cooling of Sino-Soviet relations in the late 1950s, the Soviet Union withdrew all assistance. In June 1959, Nikita Khrushchev decided to refuse the provision of a prototype bomb to the Chinese. This rupture prompted China to embark on its own nuclear testing project, code-named 59-6 after the month in which it was initiated.

Operation 59-6 was carried out at the Lop Nur test site in the Gobi desert of Xinjiang province, Western China, close to the ancient Silk Route. An implosion-type device was mounted from the top of a steel tower, producing a yield of 22 kilotons. It was the first of a total of 45 Chinese nuclear tests, all of which were conducted at Lop Nur. Twenty three of these tests were atmospheric and 22 underground, the yields ranging from 1 kiloton to 4 megatons. On 17 June 1967, just three years after operation 59-6 – faster than other nuclear weapon possessors - China detonated its first hydrogen bomb.

The effects of China’s nuclear testing on human health, animals and the environment are largely unexplored due to the lack of publically available official data. The Xinjiang region is the largest Chinese administrative division and home to 20 million people of different ethnic backgrounds.  A study carried out by the Japanese physicist Professor Jun Takada suggests that peak levels of radioactivity from China’s large-yield tests exceeded that of the 1986 Chernobyl reactor accident and seriously affected local populations.

In 2008, China started to pay undisclosed subsidies to personnel involved in nuclear testing. Compensation, however, has not been extended to civilian residents of the Xinjiang area, downwind of the Lop Nur test site.

China conducted its last test on 29 July 1996, only two months prior to signing the Comprehensive Nuclear-Test-Ban Treaty (CTBT) on 24 September 1996. However, it has yet to ratify the CTBT, a step that is mandatory for the Treaty’s entry into force. Ratifications of seven other nuclear-capable states are also missing: the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, Egypt, India, Israel, Iran, Pakistan and the United States.

[Source : https://www.ctbto.org/specials/testing-times/16-october-1964-first-chinese-nuclear-test/]

In the context of the nuclear disarmament it is interesting to note that in a few months, not later than April 2021, the NPT Review Conference is due to take place. The 2020 NPT Review Conference has been postponed due to the covid-19 pandemic.

The Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons opened for signature in 1968. the The NPT Treaty entered into force in 1970. Since then, the NPT has been the cornerstone of global nuclear non-proliferation regime. 191 States parties have joined the Treaty, including the five NWS, making the NPT the most widely adhered to, multilateral disarmament agreement.

In a nutshell, there are two legs to the NPT: the first leg pertains to the commitment of the states parties not to proliferate NWs, the second leg asks NWS to take measures in order to decommission their nuclear weapons arsenal. In the past fifty years of the Treaty’s existence emphasis has been solely placed on the non-proliferation provision as NWS have generally failed to report on nuclear disarmament steps.