China's Nuclear Testing Programme

Map of Lop Nor

After its first test on 16 October 1964, China exploded 45 nuclear bombs at the Lop Nor site, approximately 265 kilometres south-east of Urumqi in the Xinjiang region in western China. The Xinjiang region is the largest Chinese administrative division and spans over 1.6 million square kilometres. It is home to 20 million people from a number of different ethnic groups including Uyghur, Han, Kazakh, Hui, Kyrgyz, and Mongol.

The 23 atmospheric and 22 underground tests ranged in yield from about 1 kt to about 4 Mt. The Nuclear Threat Initiative states that China's largest atmospheric test was 4Mt, conducted on 17 November 1976; its largest underground test was 660 kt. conducted in 21 May 1992. The effects of China’s nuclear testing on human health, animals and the environment are largely unexplored due to the lack of publically available official data. China claims that atmospheric testing did not cause any radioactive harm to the neighbouring countries downwind of China, or to the regions of Beijing, Lanzhou, or Dunhuang, based on over 20 years of surveys.

The International Physicians for the Prevention of Nuclear War (IPPNW) published a book in 1991, entitled Radioactive Heaven and Earth, which gave the following amounts of radioactivity as having been released from Lop Nor:

The total amount of plutonium-239 released to the atmosphere as a result of the 23 atmospheric nuclear tests is estimated at 3,300 curies, approximately 48 kilograms in weight. One millionth of a gram of plutonium-239 can cause cancer if inhaled. The amount of plutonium-239 still contained within the Lop Nor site in 1991 as a result of underground nuclear testing was estimated by IPPNW as 1,800 curies (25 kilograms). A further two million curies of caesium-137 and 1.3 million curies of strontium-90 were released into the atmosphere.

China has not permitted any independent assessment of the environmental or health impacts of its nuclear testing programme.
Young Uyghur woman

Investigation into health impact of the tests

An article featured in the July 2009 issue of Scientific American highlights an investigation being carried out by Dr. Tohti, a Chinese medical doctor, into the alleged death toll from nuclear tests conducted decades earlier in the Kinjian region. The article explains that: “Almost 20 million people reside in Xinjiang, and Tohti believes that they offer unique insight into the long-term impact of radiation, including the relatively little studied genetic effects that may be handed down over generations.”


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