The availability of fissile material was from the outset a major factor shaping the pace and scope of Chinese nuclear-weapons deployments.

The availability of fissile material was from the outset a major factor shaping the pace and scope of Chinese nuclear-weapons deployments. Chinese weaponeers decided to pursue uranium implosion for their first nuclear test, an unusual choice for the time that reflected the relative state of the country’s fissile material facilities. 

Fissile-material production also created the major bureaucratic divide within China’s strategic weapons programme, between the research and development bureaucracy that designed nuclear weapons and the defence-production bureaucracy that supplied fissile material. In the early years of China’s strategic weapons programme, each competed for total control of the nuclear-weapons effort. Fissile material production was separated from the nuclear-weapons development programme. One Chinese expert recounts that he only discovered the location of China’s fissile material production facilities when they appeared in the Western press. Before that, he only had a phone number.

The history of China’s fissile material production is a matter of continuing interest. China appears to have stopped production of fissile material at the end of the 1980s as its nuclear energy industry attempted to transform itself into a global industry. The end of fissile-material production seemed driven by the process of market reform more than by strategic calculation. As a result, China’s historical production of fissile material may represent a constraint on the size of China’s nuclear arsenal, at least in the near to medium term.

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Jeffrey Lewis Director of the East Asia Nonproliferation Program at the James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies at the Monterey Institute of International Studies and an affiliate with the Center for Security and International Cooperation at Stanford University.

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