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Scientists Dispute University Study on China's Nuclear Arsenal

A Georgetown University professor and his students have stirred up a controversy within the U.S. scientific community with a study they say indicates China may be hiding between 2,000 and 4,000 nuclear weapons in underground tunnels.

Chinese military music plays in the background as four Georgetown University students study military manuals and Internet blogs. This has been their homework for the past three years. Twenty students translated one and a half million Chinese characters into English and filled these 10 notebooks about China's nuclear arsenal.

“All right, what did we find," asks their professor, Phillip Karber. He stepped into a firestorm when he announced that the Chinese could have more than 4,800 kilometers (3,000 miles) of tunnels that could be hiding thousands of nuclear warheads.

”You take the most conservative assumption and you can get close to 2,000 because they’ve been building them for 45 years," he said.

Scientists and nuclear arctivists are livid about the conclusions made here at Georgetown. They say Professor Karber's work lacks credibility and thorough research."

"This is just nuts," said Jeffrey Lewis, with the nonproliferation program at the Monterey Institute. "Sure, they can build tunnels, they built lots of tunnels, but how do you know what’s in the tunnels? Where did all the plutonium, the stuff you make nuclear weapons out of come from? And the sourcing on this is like four Chinese blog posts by kids who really don’t know what they are talking about.”

The blogs quoted this 1995 article from Hong Kong that quotes China's defense ministry as stating it has 2,350 nuclear warheads. But the scientists call the article questionable and take issue with Professor Karber's students not tracing their information back to its original source. Gregory Kulaki is with the Union of Concerned Scientists and spoke to VOA via Skype.

"They made no effort whatsoever to evaluate the credibility of the information they collected. So, as the saying goes, 'Garbage in, garbage out," he said.

Student William Kim argues with that. ”We have generals commenting on the secret tunnels, earthquakes showing along the fault lines that there are military bases there and satellite images of that. It’s not like we are just going on twitter," he said.

"They did not see a single page of this," said Karber. "How can they criticize it? How can they comment on it?"

Lewis says politically, it doesn't add up. "This would be just a huge and provocative political step. There’s a lot not to like about the communist Chinese government. But they are pretty risk adverse," he said.

Karber says he's not proposing a buildup of nuclear weapons, just negotiations." We have to stop pretending the Chinese aren't doing stuff and making excuses for them. That doesn’t mean we have to attack or demonize them," he said. "We have to sit down and say, 'Guys, is it really in your interest to start an arms race in Asia?' "

Karber estimates it will be about five years before the world must confront what he believes are in the tunnels.

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    Carolyn Presutti

    Carolyn Presutti is an Emmy and Silver World Medal award winning television correspondent who works out of VOA’s Washington headquarters. She has also won numerous Associated Press TV, Radio, and Multimedia awards, as well as a Clarion for her TV coverage of The Syrian Medical Crisis, Haiti, The Boston Marathon Bombing, Presidential Politics, The Southern Economy, Google Glass & Other Wearables, and the 9/11 Anniversary.