Satellite photos show China's new nuclear test site in Xinjiang

Experts ask whether a nuclear arms race with the U.S. is underway

Aug. 15, 2022

The crater pictured here was created by an underground nuclear test at the Nevada Test Site. (Courtesy of the U.S. Department of Energy/Kyodo)

China is expanding its nuclear test facilities in the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region, an analysis of satellite photographs obtained by Nikkei suggests.

Beijing halted explosive tests in the area a quarter of a century ago. Nikkei has viewed satellite photographs with a number of experts that appear to confirm China is strengthening its nuclear testing capability.

Construction work to expand nuclear test facilities have been launched secretly at Lop Nur in the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region in western China, a desert stronghold placed on high alert by the People's Liberation Army.

Signs of the expansion work were detected by "eyes in space" at a height of 450 km from the surface of the earth.

© Planet Labs

An artificial satellite of U.S.-based Planet Labs captured the outline of a new and -- they estimate -- sixth tunnel for nuclear testing at 3:51 p.m. on June 2, 2022. Its existence is shown in high-definition photos taken by the satellite.

According to Hans Kristensen, director of the Nuclear Information Project at the Federation of American Scientists, large extensive coverings can be seen near the entrance to what has been identified as a new tunnel.

Such a covering would be unnecessary for common mining projects, making it unnatural, Kristensen pointed out. The new tunnel is believed to be being dug horizontally toward a mountain range. Large amounts of crushed rocks can be seen piled up nearby.

Nikkei, together with multiple experts, analyzed the satellite photos. The analysis showed that China is moving rapidly to beef up its nuclear forces.

© Planet Labs

The satellite photos also show that power transmission cables have been installed recently, while unpaved white roads lead in various directions from the nuclear test site's command post.

An expert at AllSource Analysis, a U.S. military information company, is alarmed by the development.

"China could conduct nuclear-related tests anytime, especially since the electricity line and road system now connects Lop Nur's western military nuclear test facilities to new possible test areas in the east," an expert said.

A supply of electricity would support a certain standard of living conditions for the site's research staff and workers and would also make it possible to operate facilities at night, avoiding the midday heat.

© Satellogic

Many experts have concluded that nuclear testing at the site is now in its preparatory stages. As well as the presence of the nearby command post and the fact that the surrounding area is controlled by the People's Liberation Army, the deciding factor in their conclusion is the recent construction of a large building that is believed to be a storage warehouse for explosives.

It is strongly built of concrete, indicating a purpose as a kind of fortress. It has been built in a similar manner to many buildings that store large quantities of explosives. Furthermore, in a sign of how strictly it is protected, the newly constructed building is surrounded by double fences.

The construction of the explosive storage warehouse along with the new tunnel for nuclear testing is significant. It makes it possible for China to conduct more diverse nuclear tests at a faster pace, with its nuclear development entering a new stage, an expert at AllSource Analysis said.

It will become possible not only to explode a nuclear warhead in a tunnel dug into a mountain, but also to conduct a subcritical nuclear test, which involves analyzing the shock waves sent out when chemical high explosives blow up nuclear materials such as plutonium.

Large volumes of data essential for developing nuclear weapons and checking their performance will be collected during the tests.

China aims to become a military power on a par with the U.S. by the middle of the 21st century -- a formidable ambition given the underdeveloped state of some of its forces and materiel.

China has 2.04 million military personnel. Although that is already the largest standing force in the world -- and 1.5 times larger than that of the U.S. -- it has been unable to recruit enough troops of late, according to one retired military officer. This is a combination of the old one-child policy and a preference among the younger generation for less physically demanding work in the private sector.

China is rapidly modernizing the People’s Liberation Army (PLA).

President Xi Jinping said the Chinese Communist Party rules "east, west, north, south" -- and that means it controls the PLA. But China's military system remains corrupt and nepotistic. The PLA is also untested; its last real combat experience was the Sino-Vietnamese War of 1979.

The Xi government may be contemplating the unification of China, and that would involve taking Taiwan by force. But Russia's invasion of Ukraine has provided a sobering warning about the risks of military adventures, not least for the serious shortcomings in the quality of Russian military equipment. Russia supplies China with over 66% of its imported military hardware.

The issue is where nuclear weapons might fit into all these calculations. China has conducted five underground nuclear tests at Lop Nur, the last in 1996. Evidence that a sixth tunnel has been excavated points to a planned resumption.

At a nuclear test site that was used until the second half of the 1990s, three of five tunnels may still be in operation. (Photographed in June 2022) © Planet Labs

There is also some telling evidence to be found in tenders invited from the region. In April, an official Chinese procurement website invited bids for "10 radiation dose alarms," "12 protective suits" and "one detector of wound site taints." This was ostensibly part of "a project for emergency monitoring of nuclear and radiation accidents." The invitations were issued by the Xinjiang Production and Construction Corps (XPCC), a paramilitary organization under the CCP.

China's official procurement website for "a project for emergency monitoring of nuclear and radiation accidents."
Procurement items listed in the attached document. Items in red are highlighted by Nikkei.

Although there are no nuclear power plants in Xinjiang, the XPCC said that it will "make 2022 the starting year for strengthening the capacity to monitor radioactivity." Procurement of related equipment has increased in the region.

Satellites detected new terrain-leveling activity at Lop Nur in October 2020. Big trucks came and went in 2021, and the power infrastructure for the sixth tunnel was built in the first half of 2022. In June, the explosive storage facility was completed.

Increased radiation was detected in the vicinity alongside these developments. A new underground facility that could be used to launch nuclear missiles was found nearby.

Time is not on Xi's side. He is maneuvering for a third term that would end in 2027. "Possibly [he] wants to discourage U.S. intervention in the Taiwan Strait by threatening to use small nuclear weapons," Nobumasa Akiyama, a professor at Hitotsubashi University who studies East Asian security, told Nikkei.

A Russian MiG-31 fighter jet is seen here carrying a hypersonic Kinzhal missile. The missile can be fitted with a small nuclear warhead. (Getty/Kyodo)

If there is an emergency in the Taiwan Strait, maritime control will of course be the key issue. Small nuclear weapons with limited strike capabilities could enable China to hold U.S. aircraft carriers at bay.

Russia has threatened the use of small nuclear weapons on airports and underpopulated areas in Ukraine. The U.S. has so far had no direct involvement in the war there, and some analysts have argued that the possible use of nuclear firepower has made it even more wary of any entanglement. China is certainly aware of this line of thinking.

China's nuclear arsenal has aged since the last tests were conducted, and new data is needed for the latest generation of nuclear weapons before their deployment.

Analysis in mid-July of other satellite intelligence meanwhile appears to show U.S. activity at its U1a Complex in the Nevada National Security Site.

Analysis of satellite intelligence in July shows the development of the U1a Complex at the Nevada National Security Site in the U.S. © Planet Labs

The Nevada work is thought to have started in September 2021, and construction at two locations there has nearly doubled the site. "The U1a Complex Enhancements Project will help underwrite future annual assessments and modernization programs and will ensure confidence in the reliability of the nuclear stockpile without a return to nuclear testing," said Tyler Patterson, a spokesman for the site.

The blast from an underground nuclear test conducted at the Nevada Test Site in 1962 is seen here. (Courtesy of the U.S. Department of Energy/Kyodo)

Although President Joe Biden has advocated a "nuclear-free world," the U.S. conducted subcritical nuclear tests in June and September 2021. By holding more than a quarter of the world's nuclear warheads, the U.S. continues to compete head-on with China and Russia on nuclear weapons.

Blocks on the use of nuclear weapons may be coming down as the U.S. and China continue developing smaller devices alongside Russia's nuclear saber rattling in Ukraine.

A conflagration in the Taiwan Strait increases "the risk of China using small nuclear weapons and the U.S. countering with them," said Michiru Nishida, a professor at Nagasaki University.

In a report in June, the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute warned that the risk of nuclear weapons being used is at its highest level since the Cold War in the second half of the 20th century.

The findings come as signatories to the U.N.'s key nuclear nonproliferation agreement meet in New York to begin their regular review of the arrangement.

The Chinese Embassy in Washington declined to comment on the matter.

Troubles within world's largest military

The People's Liberation Army faces a great problem in securing personnel as young people increasingly prefer to avoid military jobs. Xi's government is trying to improve the treatment of military personnel, including raising their pay, but amid intense competition with the private sector, the military sees no breakthrough as yet.

Japanese and Americans concerned with security are watching to see what will become of a military officer at the Chinese Communist Party's key conference later this year: Li Zuocheng, 68, chief of the Joint Staff Department, who draws up the military's operation plans at the party's Central Military Commission.

Gen. Li Zuocheng, center, the sole PLA officer with experience in actual warfare, is attracting attention as he nears retirement. (AP)

He took part in the Sino-Vietnamese War, which broke out in February 1979. He is known as the sole officer with experience in actual war in the PLA. He was awarded the title of "combat hero" because he led a company fighting courageously and boldly in that war. He enjoys trust and respect among soldiers.

Xi appointed Li as commander of the PLA Ground Force to promote his control of the entire military.

Li reaches retirement age this year, and after he retires, the military will have no officer with experience in actual warfare for the first time since it was founded in 1927. It will not be easy to find a person to succeed Li because he is one of the key officers who hold the operational plans for annexing Taiwan, an objective for the Xi government.

The shortage of talent is a not a problem that involves only officers. In January every year, the State Council, China's cabinet, and the Central Military Commission decide on military recruitment guidelines. A new phrase, "priority shall be given to students majoring in science and engineering and those with skills needed for war preparedness," was added in 2021.

To achieve China's aim of having military capability comparable to that of the U.S. by the middle of the 21st century, the PLA will rapidly introduce high technology into its weapons and military hardware. To make full use of new-generation fighter planes and submarines, it is crucial to understand information technology and electronic equipment.

However, students at science and engineering universities are in great demand from private companies, including information technology businesses. Those companies often provide new graduates with higher-than-average pay and better treatment, and they appear more attractive to students than the military, which retains a seniority-based pay system. "We see young people quit the military and move to the private sector one after another," a person well-informed about the actual conditions of the PLA said.

The Chinese People's Liberation Army has the most soldiers on the planet but has recently faced recruitment shortfalls. © Reuters

This problem is especially serious for the PLA Ground Force, which is viewed as "demanding." The need for soldiers has previously been met by volunteers, but conscription is becoming a common way to alleviate the shortage of applicants. In the PLA's naval and air forces, it has become a problem that more and more younger members move to the private sector after acquiring skills in military service.

Some young people enlist in the military and try to quit soon. Until 2019, the Xi government published the names of such young people and prohibited them from going abroad and entering higher education for a certain period. This punitive measure, however, accelerated young people's aversion to military jobs, and the government is now switching to providing incentives.

In August 2021, the law on the protection of the status, rights and interests of military personnel came into effect to improve the treatment of soldiers and their families. Xi instructs that all of society should respect soldiers. The law gives preferential treatment to military personnel working in harsh environments in remote areas, such as in Xinjiang, and those assigned to special duties.

China ranked third, after the U.S. and Russia, in the 2022 edition of military power rankings published by The country maintains this high position on the strength of having the world's largest numbers of troops, naval vessels and submarines. Although the physical size is large, the military's future is uncertain unless its weapons and personnel are updated. This is the present condition of the PLA.