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China quietly rebuilding secretive base for Nuclear-tests – Times of India


In the remote desert where China detonated its first atomic bomb nearly 60 years ago, a drilling rig recently bored a deep vertical shaft that is estimated to plunge down at least a third of a mile. It is the strongest evidence yet that Beijing is weighing whether to test a new generation of nuclear arms that could increase the lethality of its rapidly expanding missile force.
For years, US government reports and independent experts have expressed vague concerns about the old base, Lop Nur. The reports point to possible preparations for year-round operations and a “lack of transparency.” Now, however, waves of satellite images reveal that the military base has newly drilled boreholes – ideal for bottling up firestorms of deadly radiation from large nuclear blasts – as well as hundreds of other upgrades and expansions.
“All the evidence points to China making preparations that would let it resume nuclear tests,” said Tong Zhao, a nuclear expert at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. Siegfried Hecker, a former director of the Los Alamos weapons laboratory in New Mexico, described Lop Nur’s rebuilding as unusual. “The Russians and Americans have continued activity at their test sites,” he said, “but nothing like this.”Analysts say the activity at Lop Nur signals a wide modernisation of China’s nuclear establishment, warning that it could spark a new age of atomic rivalry. They add that China’s moves, along with those of other nuclear powers, could undermine the global test ban that began in 1996.
The new evidence at Lop Nur was uncovered by Renny Babiarz, a former analyst at the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency, an arm of the Pentagon. He says that detonations in the deep shafts could accelerate an effort to perfect new types of nuclear arms for the country’s fast-growing arsenal. Independent experts who have examined the satellite imagery and Babiarz’s analyses share his concerns.
US intelligence officials say they’ve followed Lop Nur’s revival for years. While the construction is obvious, they say, its purpose is not. China could be preparing for a nuclear test, they concede. But they add that Xi may not intend to move ahead unless the US or Russia go first. The officials say Xi could be hedging his bets, drilling the deep vertical shafts so that, if necessary, China can act quickly.
The foreign ministry in Beijing responded to questions about upgrades at Lop Nur, dismissing them as “clutching at shadows, groundlessly whipping up a ‘China nuclear threat.'” The ministry also emphasised Beijing’s commitment to observing the N-test ban. Lop Nur is a sprawling military base, roughly the land area of Virginia, in the arid Xinjiang region of China’s far west.
Nuclear experts say they see no signs of an imminent Chinese test. The rebuilding of the military base could simply be a warning to the West, they say. Chinese experts have suggested as much. Other analysts disagree, arguing that China’s fleets of new bombers, submarines and missile silos herald a push for new armaments. China could field 1,500 nuclear warheads by 2035 at its current pace of force expansion, the Pentagon has projected. That figure would be a fivefold increase from the “minimum deterrent” that China possessed for more than half a century.


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