596 (nuclear test)
|Test site||Lop Nur Test Base|
|Period||October 16, 1964|
|Number of tests||1|
|Max. yield||22 kilotons of TNT (92 TJ)|
Project 596, originally named by the US intelligence agencies Chic-1, is the codename of the People's Republic of China's first nuclear weapons test, detonated on October 16, 1964, at the Lop Nur test site. It was a uranium-235 implosion fission device made from weapons-grade uranium (U-235) enriched in a gaseous diffusion plant in Lanzhou. The bomb had a yield of 22 kilotons, comparable to the Soviet Union's first nuclear bomb RDS-1 in 1949 and the American Fat Man bomb dropped on Nagasaki, Japan in 1945. With the test, China became the fifth nuclear power. This was the first of 45 total nuclear tests China has conducted to date, all of which occurred at the Lop Nur test site.
The Chinese nuclear weapons program was initiated on January 15, 1955 with scientific and technical assistance from the Soviet Union. The decision made by Chinese leadership was prompted by confrontations with the United States in the 1950s, including the Korean War, the 1955 Taiwan Straits Crisis, and nuclear blackmail. Mao Zedong explained his decision to a gathering of the Chinese Communist Party Politburo in 1956:
"Now we’re already stronger than we were in the past, and in the future we’ll be even stronger than now. Not only are we going to have more airplanes and artillery, but also the atomic bomb. In today’s world, if we don’t want to be bullied, we have to have this thing."
Mao was confident that nuclear weapon capabilities would allow China to assert its "national will" toward policy goals and deter threats to national security.
Cooperation with the Soviet Union
Initial research, design, and production preparations were made with Soviet advice. The Third Ministry of Machinery Building was established in 1956 and nuclear research was conducted at Institute of Physics and Atomic Energy in Beijing. A gaseous diffusion uranium enrichment plant was constructed in Lanzhou. In 1957, China and the USSR signed an agreement on sharing defense technology that involved an atomic bomb prototype being supplied by Moscow to Beijing, technical data, and an exchange of hundreds of Russian and Chinese scientists. A joint search for uranium in China was conducted between the two countries. A location near Lake Lop Nur in Xinjiang Province was selected to be the test site with its headquarters at Malan. Construction of the test site began on April 1, 1960, involving tens of thousands of laborers and prisoners under tough conditions. It took four years to complete, although by consequence of being the sole site for nuclear testing in China for years to come, the Lop Nur test site underwent extensive expansion and is by far the world's largest nuclear weapons test site, covering around 100,000 square kilometers.
Sino-Soviet relations cooled in the period from 1958 to 1959. China was angered at the lack of Soviet assistance against India for supporting Tibetan uprisings in 1959 and granting asylum to the Dalai Lama. The Soviet Union later refused support for China in the Sino-Indian War of 1962. Khrushchev viewed the Sino-Soviet relationship to be one-sided on Soviet assistance toward Chinese military capacities and was unnerved at Mao's relatively nonchalant view on nuclear war. The Soviet Union was also engaged in test ban negotiations with the United States in 1959 in order to relax Soviet-American tensions, directly inhibiting the delivery of a prototype to China. Broader disagreements between Russian and Chinese communist ideologies escalated mutual criticism. Russia responded by withdrawing the delivery of a prototype bomb and over 1,400 Russian advisers and technicians involved in 200 scientific projects in China meant to foster cooperation between the two countries. Project 596 was named after the month of June 1959 in which it was initiated as an independent nuclear project, immediately after Nikita Khrushchev decided to stop helping the Chinese with their nuclear program on June 20, 1959 and Mao shifted toward an overhaul policy of self-reliance. By January 14, 1964, enough fissionable U-235 had been successfully enriched from the Lanzhou plant. On October 16, 1964, a uranium-235 fission implosion device, largely designed based on clues from American and European writings on implosion devices and intelligence from other country's weapons testing, weighing 1550 kilograms was detonated on a 102-meter tower.
The United States government was aware of Soviet support of a Chinese nuclear program, but after the Russians withdrew support in 1959, some U.S. officials doubted the sole capability of China to develop a nuclear weapon. Namely, that there was an insufficient source for weapons-grade U-235 production and that the significance of a nuclear China was underplayed. Still, President Kennedy proposed preventive action but it was decided against by the U.S. government as it was "likely to be viewed as provocative and dangerous and will play into the hands of efforts by [Beijing] to picture U. S. hostility to Communist China as the source of tensions and the principal threat to the peace in Asia." By early 1964, from surveillance of activity around the Lop Nur site, it was clear that a test would be imminent.
The next step for China, and the real concern to U.S. officials, was to develop the mode of delivery of a nuclear payload. Just eight months after the 596 test, a proper nuclear bomb was successfully dropped from a bomber and detonated. A year later, medium range missiles were fitted with nuclear warheads. The Lop Nur test site was used to develop more sophisticated nuclear weapons such as the hydrogen bomb, multi-stage thermonuclear devices, and Intercontinental Ballistic Missiles (ICBM). While China's nuclear arsenal was dwarfed by that of the Soviet Union and the United States, which U.S. officials believed would not significantly shift the power dynamic in Asia, the presence of a nuclear power in Asia raised the issue of uncontrolled proliferation. While neither the continental United States, nor countries neighboring China were in immediate danger, the U.S. took efforts to calm and reassure the security of U.S. allies near China, and forestall the independent development of nuclear capabilities in more Asian nations, most immediately with India. Top U.S. officials began open talks of non-proliferation with the Soviet Union soon after the 596 test to offset the possibility of a nuclear China propelling a larger and more unpredictable global arms race.
Soviet Union and Taiwan
The nations that perceived the greatest sense of threat were the Soviet Union and Taiwan. Chinese nuclear capacity further increased tensions with the Soviet Union and prompted the Soviet Union to sign the 1968 Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons with the United States as well as China.
In response to the 596 test, the Taiwanese leadership, including President Chiang Kai-shek, called for a military response against Chinese nuclear facilities and the formation of an Asian anti-communist defense organization. However, the United States would not risk strikes in China. Taiwan launched its own nuclear weapons program, even though it would not receive the blessing of U.S. support as possession would strain American–Taiwanese relations and the program never reached fruition. A nuclear China was a potential existential threat to Taiwan, considering China's prior attempt to invade Taiwan in 1955 to defeat the remnants of the Kuomintang (KMT) government that fled there after the Chinese Civil War in 1949. At the time of the test, the United States and its allies recognized Taiwan as the seat of the Chinese government, and Chinese membership in the United Nations, including a permanent seat in the United Nations Security Council, was held by Taiwan. With a nuclear weapon in the hands of Beijing, the international community would have to shift its recognition to the mainland, which it did a decade later.
- Time: 07:00 GMT 16 October 1964
- Location: Lop Nur Test Ground,  , about 70 km northwest of Lop Nor dry lake
- Test type and height : Tower, 102 meters
- Yield: 22 kilotons
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