Finally, Reality Matches the NIE

Hello! Reporting back in now that the Fall semester is underway.

I am taking a class this semester titled “The Evolution of Chinese Nuclear Policy,” in which we have been looking at the path China took to develop nuclear weapons (and delivery systems). Typically we will start with a US National Intelligence Estimate (NIE) and then pick it apart using the benefit of hindsight and access to Chinese first-hand accounts/meeting minutes.

Today we had looked at the SNIE (S is for special) that was published less than two months prior to the first Chinese nuclear test. Spoiler alert: they got it wrong. Now I know that we benefit from knowing what the right answer is… and have more information… and better insight into the Chinese rational… and so should be a little kinder in our ridiculing. But where is the fun in that?

So a large part of the intelligence community’s error came from a mistaken surety that the Chinese gaseous diffusion plant (a common method to enrich uranium at the time,) in Lanzhou, was not completed and that the Chinese would be more likely to pour their resources into a plutonium production route.  Both of these assumptions were wrong. The US intelligence community was basing their analysis of the imagery on Lanzhou on their understanding of Soviet technology and an odd belief that the incomplete dam nearby was the only possible power source. They believed that both the dam would be finished as well as a second section of the facility would be built before it could be operational.

Well, it was. And no better proof than the uranium implosion device that detonated on 16 October 1964.

Well, I had been looking up most of the relevant locations on Google Earth for each week’s NIE, and so this week I found the location of the Lanzhou Gaseous Diffusion Facility. The only catch was that it wasn’t there. I did not realize it at first because I just thought the gray roof was a little blurry or something. But no, you can see the foundation and crumbly remains of most of the facility but the building is no longer there.

So now the reality fits the NIE, it certainly is not in a suitable state for uranium enrichment.

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