‘We’re Just Guessing’: Report Claims China Dug ‘Possible’ New Tunnel at Former Nuclear Test Site
© AP Photo / Mark SchiefelbeinChinese military vehicles carrying DF-41 ballistic missiles roll during a parade to commemorate the 70th anniversary of the founding of Communist China in Beijing, Tuesday, Oct. 1, 2019
© AP Photo / Mark Schiefelbein
In recent weeks, US intelligence has twice claimed to have discovered dozens of new nuclear missile silos under construction in China’s western desert, although some believe the evidence amounted to nothing but a wind farm expansion.
A report by US National Public Radio (NPR) claims that China “appears” to be digging a new tunnel at Lop Nur, a dry lakebed in Xinjiang where the country once tested nuclear weapons.
"This is new construction linked to areas that have in the past supported nuclear test activities," Renny Babiarz, vice president for analysis and operations at AllSource Analysis, told the outlet. The story was accompanied by a satellite image of a “probable underground facility,” most of the labels on which are qualified with words like “probable” and “possible,” reinforcing the lack of basis for making claims about what the image shows.
Liu Pengyu, a spokesperson for the Chinese Embassy in Washington, DC, told NPR that China stays committed to the nuclear testing moratorium” all nuclear powers agreed to in the 1990s, adding that he objected to "unacceptable US allegations" that Beijing was trying to undermine the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty.
Jeffrey Lewis, a professor at the Middlebury Institute of International Studies in Monterey, California, told the outlet that analysts have no idea what’s actually happening in China because their nuclear program is so secretive. "[B]ecause we don't have that kind of dialogue, we're just guessing," he said.
Earlier this month, Lewis also reported the discovery of what he claimed were 120 new nuclear missile silos in another part of Xinjiang, which would increase China’s silo capacity nearly tenfold. However, critics online quickly pointed out that the satellite image seemed to show expansion of a nearby wind farm and not underground missile storage tubes.
A second report earlier this week claimed to have found another missile farm under construction elsewhere in Xinjiang.
At present, China has just 18 nuclear silos, having preferred to keep its small deterrent force of nuclear missiles highly mobile, mounting them on TEL trucks or basing them in ballistic missile submarines. With less than one-tenth the nuclear weapons the United States or Russia has, China’s missiles would be significantly more vulnerable to attack if placed in stationary silos, so on its face, the claim that China is building scores of new missile silos appears to be a dramatic departure from decades of Chinese nuclear policy.
China, like the US, has signed the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty, and not detonated a nuclear warhead since 1996. However, certain kinds of “zero yield” tests are still allowed, and experts speaking with NPR conceded that the new construction could be intended for such a test.
"I am someone who thinks that it is probably what are called 'subcritical' nuclear tests, which the United States also does underground at our nuclear test site in Nevada," Lewis told the outlet.
The US’ most recent subcritical or “cold” test, in which nuclear materials and high explosives are involved but a nuclear fission chain-reaction is never triggered, was conducted in November 2020.
This isn’t the first time in recent years the US has claimed China was engaged in suspicious activities at Lop Nur, either. In June 2020, the US State Department claimed in its annual report on various nations’ adherence to arms control agreements that China had “maintained a high level of activity” at the former test site, including “possible preparation to operate its Lop Nur test site year-round.”
A Wall Street Journal article based on the report but published well before its release opened with the claim that “might be secretly conducting nuclear tests with very low explosive power despite Beijing’s assertions that it is strictly adhering to an international accord banning all nuclear tests.”