1954-1959: The Soviet Union Aids China in the Development of its Nuclear Weapons Program

Shortly following the post-Korean War cease-fire declaration, and after the conclusion of peace talks at Geneva in 1954, China’s national nuclear weapons program was conceived. The Third Ministry of Machinery Building – what is now the China National Nuclear Corporation (CNNC) – was established in 1956. The CNNC is government-owned and is the largest nuclear enterprise in China. Between extensive Soviet-Chinese cooperation and the provision of Soviet resources to China throughout the decade,

China’s nuclear weapons research quickly accelerated and flourished into a fully-fledged, independent nuclear weapons program. With Soviet assistance, Chinese nuclear research took off at the Institute of Physics and Atomic Energy in Beijing, and a gaseous diffusion uranium enrichment plant was constructed in Lanzhou to produce weapons-grade uranium.

In 1957, the USSR agreed to supply China with a sample of an atomic bomb and supporting data, with which Beijing could independently manufacture a nuclear weapon.

From 1955 to 1959, hundreds of Chinese and Soviet nuclear scientists and engineers worked and studied in the nuclear energy industry of the USSR and China, respectively, allowing great mutual understanding of each other’s technology and nuclear research procedures. However, the Soviet Union disallowed this exchange and discontinued assistance to China in 1959, following the development of a mutual political rivalry and related suspicion.

The first CIA photo of the Lanzhou Uranium Enrichment Facility was taken in 1959 by U.S. U-2 military aircraft.

Although the United States Central Intelligence Agency attempted to photograph and characterize the Lanzhou Uranium Enrichment Facility during the late ‘50s and early ‘60s, the CIA greatly underestimated Chinese enrichment capabilities, and could only speculate at the cooperation between China and the USSR. For an interesting video and more information on the fate of the Lanzhou Enrichment Plant, see the Nuclear Threat Initiative’s website at LANZHOU URANIUM ENRICHMENT PLANT.