Google Earth now has high resolution imagery of what is generally believed to be China’s Guangyuan plutonium production reactor. Click on the image for a .kmz file.
The annotations are reproduced from David Albright and Corey Hinderstein, Chinese Military Plutonium and Highly Enriched Uranium Inventories (Institute for Science and International Security, June 30, 2005). David and Corey were the first people to publish commercial images of the facility.
David Wright and Lisbeth Gronlund also provide a nice summary of the reactor’s operating history in A History of China’s Plutonium Production (Union of Concerned Scientists, January 16, 2003).
Although China has never disclosed the amount of plutonium, classified DOE estimates leaked to the press suggest China produced 1.7 – 2.8 tons – consistent with the low end of open source estimates.
China’s plutonium production reactors may have suffered operating probelms evident to the US intelligence community. Both sets of authors agree that operating histories might result in lower estimates, as Albright and Hinderstein explain:
Total production is therefore estimated as 2-5 tonnes of weapon-grade plutonium. Because of the lack of hard evidence on the production facilities, in particular on the power and operating histories of the reactors, Wright and Gronlund state that their estimates have a high degree of uncertainty.
Wright and Gronlund specifically mention rumors of a “a fire during the 1970s that seriously crippled” one of the reactors.
Declassified U.S. intelligence documents confirm that China’s plutonium production facilities encountered significant technical problems. The declassified report, China: Plutonium Production Reactor Problems (CIA: January 1988), is almost entirely redacted … but the title kind of sez it all, don’t it?