How big is China’s nuclear stockpile?

Benn Tannenbaum sends along this quote from Ed Corcoran who provides, er, a rather large range of estimates:

China is neither ally nor adversary, but something in between. It is a nuclear power with a relatively modest arsenal of perhaps a couple hundred nuclear warheads, though some estimates do run over two thousand, together with some fifty missiles capable of reaching the United States.

“Two thousand?” Benn asked.

The 2,000 reference is based on an essay by a college student in Singapore that I thought I had thoroughly debunked more than four years ago.

Since it doesn’t seem to go away — despite a pretty rough treatment on the blog and in the pages of the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists (when the Bulletin had pages) — I thought I would revise that essay.

The short answer is that 2,000 is ridiculous.

How Many Chinese Nuclear Weapons Redux?
Originally published, December 2004 • Revised, May 2009

In 1996, a Singapore University student, Yang Zheng, posted a short essay online, entitled China’s Nuclear Arsenal, that concluded that “it is very likely that China is making 140-150 nuclear warheads a year and she has accumulated 2,350 nuclear warheads so far.”

By contrast, unclassified U.S. intelligence assessments at the time suggested that China “has over 100 warheads deployed operationally on ballistic missiles. Additional warheads are in storage.” Declassified documents from the 1990s place classified estimates of the total stockpile, including a small stockpile of aircraft -delivered gravity bombs, between 200 and 250 warheads.

The fact that Yang’s numbers were completely outside the bound of the possibility didn’t stop certain conservative “defense intellectuals” from citing the hell out of it:

• Richard Fisher, writing for The Heritage Foundation, cited it not once but twice — (the latter co-authored with Baker Spring). Fisher even claimed that “one U.S. government expert told this author that its estimates are plausible.”

• David Markov and Andrew Hull use Yang’s fissile material prodution and warhead estimates in an Institute for Defense Analyses study entitled The Changing Nature of Chinese Nuclear Strategy.

• David Tanks, then with the Institute for Foreign Policy Analysis, called the essay “convincingly argued”.

• The Center for Defense and International Security Studies also cites the essay to argue that an estimate by the Natural Resource Defense Council of approximately 400 warheads was “too low and thus inaccurate.”

Every single one of these people should be red-faced with shame. (And, I regret to add, this is not an exhaustive list of citations.)

The core of Yang Zheng’s argument is that estimates placing the Chinese arsenal at 2,000 plus warheads are “are reasonable” because “data from various U.S. intelligence agencies show that, in the mid-1980’s, China was producing at least 800 kilograms of U-235 and 400 kilograms of Pu-239 per year.”

That’s great, except the declassified data doesn’t show fissile material production at that level.

Just take a look at plutonium, production. A classified DOE estimate of Chinese plutonium production, leaked to the press, places Chinese Pu stockpile at 1.7-2.8 metric tons. This is consistent with unclassified estimates by Gronlund and Wright (2-5 metric tons) and Albright et al (4.8 metric tons). For more information, see my post Guangyuan Plutonium Production Reactor, November 9, 2006.

Assuming 3 to 5 kilograms of plutonium per warhead, 1.7-2.8 tons of plutonium could support a force of 340 to 930 weapons. If China uses substantially more than 5 kilograms per warhead, its stockpile might only support a few hundred weapons.

In fact, Yang’s dicussion of Chinese Pu and U-235 production facilities is wonderfully incompetent. Here is Yang’s table of Nuclear Explosive Material (NEM) facilities:

Facility Pu or U235 kg/year
Lanzhou Gaseous Diffusion Plant U235 400
Helanshan Centrifuge I U235 400
Helanshan Centrifuge II U235 ???
Yumen Breeder Reactor Pu 250
Baotou Breeder Reactor Pu 150
Guangyuan Breeder Reactor Pu ???

Reproduced from Yang Zheng, China’s Nuclear Arsenal, March 16, 1996. Reproduction does not imply endorsement.

These sites are simply wrong:

• Baotou isn’t a plutonium reactor but rather a Nuclear Fuel Element Plant. The Baotou Plant resembled a French-designed plutonium reactor from the air, leading US intelligence agencies to mis-identify it during the early years of the Chinese nuclear program (William Burr and Jeffrey Richelson discuss this error in “Whether To ‘Strangle the Baby in the Cradle’: The United States and the Chinese Nuclear Program, 1960-64.”)

• The list is missing a second gaseous diffusion plant at Heping.

• China didn’t have centrifuges at Lanzhou when Zhang wrote his post. (China did subsequently install leased-Russian centrifuge modules at Han Zhong and Lanzhou to enrich LEU to fuel reactors, but the first did not become operational until after 1996.)

An accurate list here.

Moreover, Yang Zheng doesn’t consider the operating histories of the facilities, which stopped producing enriched uranium in 1987 and plutonium in 1991. Serious problems with the facilities could have substantially reduced output—substantial operating problems are detailed in the official Chinese history of the program and probably account for the DOE classified estimate being lower than either unclassified estimate.

Examing the operating history of the reactors, of course, would require actual analysis. What Yang Zheng did, on the other hand, was to simply clean up and repost the uninformed rantings of an anonymous commenter on a message board in cyberspace.

That doesn’t suprise me — plenty of the online debate is uninformed and biased.

What does surprise me, however, is the number of so-called “experts” at allegedly respectable institutions — Heritage, IDA, IFPA, CDISS and others — who further cleaned up Yang Zheng’s rantings and presented them as fact.

These people should find a new line of work.