Tales of China's first nuclear bomb project

Participant of China's first nuclear bomb test tells the story of those days.

Yuan Gongpu remembers October 16, 1954 as if it were yesterday. He was involved in the project that resulted in China’s first nuclear bomb test. His team was responsible for the uranium core.

“Two people stood beside me while I was working on the uranium ball — one was writing down the statistics and the other watched my every step,” he said.

“Of course, my hands were shaking.” Yuan practiced the skills on iron balls day and night for half a year leading up to the actual detonation. He was too nervous to eat well and lost 15 kilograms.

“Each move cut the thickness by a few hairs, and that was my first time really performing with uranium,” said Yuan. “The ball is made up by two hemispheres. If the size was wrong even by the tiniest bit, the experiment would fail.”

Qian Sanqiang, the nuclear physicist called China’s “father of the atomic bomb,” told Yuan, “You are a small screw in a big machine. But you are one very crucial screw.”

Ti Gong

Yuan Gongpu, participant of China's first nuclear bomb test

Yuan was born in 1934 in Shandong Province. He witnessed the Japanese invasion as a child, and when he heard their bombers overhead, a question was planted in his mind: Why was China so weak?

During his school years, Yuan took part in a children’s corps that was tasked with reporting any suspicious activity to Chinese soldiers. At 16, he came to Shanghai as a factory apprentice.

“The workers weren’t taught any real skills,” said Yuan, “but I carefully observed to learn skills. The factory owner was nice. He was a university graduate and set up classes to teach workers because he was committed to developing the nation’s industries.”

Yuan went to night school and joined the Chinese Communist Party, the latter a risky choice in uncertain political times.

In 1956, Chinese Second Ministry of Machinery Industry had a national recruitment for an unspecified project. Yuan applied and passed selection, but couldn’t tell his new wife Guo Fumei what was going on.

“We didn’t know where we were going or what was going to happen until the minister issued a report that we were going to make a nuclear weapon,” said Yuan. “That’s a huge mission. We were over the moon.”

A crew of top scientists and engineers were sent to the western desert where they had to build the development site with their bare hands.

“We set up tents or slept in caves,” he said. “Food was scarce. Some men walked for hours picking up native vegetation to take back to the camp to be cooked. It tasted pretty foul, but that’s all we had. The situation lasted for about two years.”

Guo, an engineer herself, left her daughter with family to follow her husband.

“I got pregnant in the desert but I was very weak because there was no food,” she said. “We cooked over wood fires and the whole corridor was filled with black smoke.”

Despite the hardships, those at the nuclear development site never complained. They were filled with patriotism and knew how important their work was for national security.

In June 1959, the Soviet Union recalled all its technicians and advisers from China, and then Chairman Mao Zedong called on Chinese scientists to rely on their own efforts and develop China’s atomic bomb within eight years.

“If I made a tiny error, it would mean a total waste of my hard labor,” Yuan said. “But worse than that, I would be failing the nation.”

Ti Gong

Medals Yuan has received for his devotion to the country.

Although the rules prohibited staff from working in radioactive areas for more than six hours, Yuan said he was often in the lab for more than 12 hours. Yuan knew every machine part with his eyes closed and could hear problems by listening to the machines.

The ore extracted from a uranium mine had a concentration of 0.02 percent, which is called uranium-238. Uranium-235 used in the bomb was extracted from uranium-238, which has concentration of 0.735 percent.

“It’s more expensive than gold, and we only extracted enough uranium for one shot. I was under huge pressure,” he said.

Some 54 years later, Yuan is still telling the story of those days. He’s been interviewed on the media and given talks at schools. This month he was telling the story to students in Meilong Middle School.

“I’m very happy to be interviewed because I want to pass the spirit of sacrifice down,” he said. “I think it’s important. Even during difficult times, we never complained because we want to help the country."

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