Chinese Nuclear Weapons Testing at Lop Nur

William Buchanan
February 6, 2019

Submitted as coursework for PH241, Stanford University, Winter 2018


Fig. 1: China's first nuclear test at Lop Nur in 1964. (Source: Wikimedia Commons)

In October 1964, the People's Republic of China conducted its first nuclear weapons test at the Lop Nur Test Base in Western China (Fig. 1). Although China's nuclear program began under the close supervision and assistance of the Soviets in the wake of the Korean War, by 1959 China had severed its technological reliance on Moscow and proceeded with independently developing nuclear weapons. [1] Construction of a test site began in 1960 in the dry lakebed of Lop Nur in Xinjiang, and was completed four years later. The site saw notable expansion in the decades following the initial test, eventually growing to be the largest nuclear testing facility in the world by a factor of 20, encompassing over 100,000 square kilometers with 2,000 kilometers of roads. [2] As China's only nuclear weapons testing facility, several tests per year were conducted at Lop Nur during its first few decades of use.

Nuclear Testing 1964-1996

The site itself consists of one vertical shaft test site, two horizontal shaft test sites, and an atmospheric test site. Initial tests were mainly air drops and atmospheric detonations, through 22 of the 45 tests were conducted underground. [3] High-yield tests were conducted in the vertical boreholes, with the horizontal tunnels reserved for lower-yield explosions. Chinese technology advanced fairly rapidly, with the first missile- mounted warhead test occurring in October 1966 and a successful neutron bomb detonation in December 1984. [4] Nuclear testing transitioned to exclusively subterranean detonations after a one megaton atmospheric detonation in 1980, the last atmospheric detonation in the world. Chinas last nuclear detonation occurred in July 1996, several months before China signed the Comprehensive Nuclear-Test-Ban Treaty.


Though nuclear testing officially ended in 1996, It is thought that China continues to develop nuclear weapons technology. [5] China may follow the U.S. strategy of conducting subcritical experiements. These tests involve subjecting nuclear material to small explosions and monitoring the behavior of the material. As the only tests not prohibited by the CTBT, subcritical tests are used to gather data used for computer simulations of full-scale nuclear detonations. As China maintains and builds up its arsenal, such tests can be reasonably expected.

The frequent atmospheric tests at Lop Nur have led to speculation about the amount of radiation the local population was exposed to. To this day, the Chinese government is working to clean up the area to develop it as a tourist destination.

© William Buchanan. The author warrants that the work is the author's own and that Stanford University provided no input other than typesetting and referencing guidelines. The author grants permission to copy, distribute and display this work in unaltered form, with attribution to the author, for noncommercial purposes only. All other rights, including commercial rights, are reserved to the author.


[1] W. E. Griffith, The Sino-Soviet Rift (MIT Press, 1972).

[2] R. S. Norris, "French and Chinese Nuclear Weapon Testing," Secur. Dialogue 27, 39 (1996).

[3] F. Waldhauser et al., "Nor Revisited: Underground Nuclear Explosion Locations, 1976-1996, From Double-Difference Analysis of Regional and Teleseismic Data," Bull. Seismol. Soc. Am. 94, 1879 (2004).

[4] N.-O. Bergkvist and R. Ferm, "Nuclear Explosions 1945-1998," Swedish National Defense Institute, FOA-R-00-01572-180-SE, July 2000.

[5] J. Medalia, "Chinese Nuclear Testing and Warhead Development," Congressional Research Service, 14 Nov 97.