Satellite Images Show A New Tunnel At Chinese Nuclear Test Site Satellite imagery showing a new tunnel comes just weeks after the discovery of two new nuclear missile fields in other parts of China.

A New Tunnel Is Spotted At A Chinese Nuclear Test Site

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SARAH MCCAMMON, HOST:

China appears to be expanding a site where it has tested nuclear weapons in the past. Commercial satellite imagery provided exclusively to NPR shows a new tunnel being dug. NPR's Geoff Brumfiel has more.

GEOFF BRUMFIEL, BYLINE: The tunnel was spotted in images from the commercial company Planet.

RENNY BABIARZ: There is a large tent-like structure covering the area of excavation. There are extensive construction materials, including all kinds of heavy construction equipment.

BRUMFIEL: Renny Babiarz is vice president at AllSource Analysis. That's the private firm that spotted this new hole in the ground. China once tested nuclear weapons using tunnels at this site. But it stopped in the late 1990s. Since then, the world's major nuclear powers have all observed a voluntary moratorium on testing. And Babiarz says he sees no indication that a full-scale nuclear test is in the works.

BABIARZ: Something like that would be a big shift. And we don't have any direct evidence of that.

BRUMFIEL: More likely, China may be using the tunnel for smaller tests. Earlier this year, the State Department issued a report warning that China may be conducting tests on small amounts of nuclear material. In an email to NPR, a spokesperson for the Chinese embassy in Washington, D.C., declined to comment on the site itself, but said the nation remains committed to a test moratorium. He called the U.S. allegations of cheating, quote, "irresponsible and groundless." The expansion of the test site comes on the heels of some other big discoveries in China. Earlier in this month, separate groups uncovered two massive new nuclear missile fields in different parts of the country. Jeffrey Lewis is a professor at the Middlebury Institute of International Studies.

JEFFREY LEWIS: Over the past year and a half, China has constructed at least two large facilities, each with more than 100 missile silos.

BRUMFIEL: Lewis and his team found one of the fields. Prior to these discoveries, China was thought to just have 18 nuclear missile silos in the entire country. Even though it looks like a big increase, Lewis points out that China's nuclear arsenal remains relatively small.

LEWIS: We're getting worked up over 200 silos. But, you know, the United States has more than 400.

BRUMFIEL: In addition to bombers and submarines. For decades, the Chinese government has kept its nuclear arsenal small on purpose. The idea was to have just enough weapons to be able to strike back against an enemy if China was hit first. But there's a growing feeling in Beijing that more nukes could help China in other ways, says Tong Zhao, a scholar at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.

TONG ZHAO: Increasingly, people are saying that bigger could provide China with geopolitical benefits. It will make American decision-makers think twice.

BRUMFIEL: The activity at the nuclear test site could be related. For example, Zhao says China might be researching sleeker, more lightweight weapons to put on their new missiles. Unfortunately, there's no way to tell from satellite photos, says Jeffrey Lewis. Without some kind of arms control agreement that would let U.S. officials visit, there's no way to verify what's happening.

LEWIS: Because we don't have those kinds of negotiations, because we don't have that kind of dialogue, we're just guessing.

BRUMFIEL: All experts can do is snap satellite photos from high above as China continues to expand its nuclear weapons activities on the ground.

Geoff Brumfiel, NPR News, Washington.

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