PEKING -- China announced today it exploded an atmospheric nuclear bomb, apparently as part of its program to develop an arsenal of nuclear-tipped missiles capable of reaching Moscow and the western United States.
In Washington, the Environmental Protection Agency ordered its nationwide network of air monitoring stations to begin checking for fallout that might reach the United States.
The U.S. Energy Department said its monitors detected an explosion with yield in the range of 200 kilotons to 1 megaton of TNT at 12:30 a.m. EDT Thursday.
'China carried out a nuclear test,' Peking said today in a one-line statement after the Energy Department initially announced the explosion.
The blast at China's main testing ground at Lop Nor in the remote northwest was the first in two years and came on the 16th anniversary of Peking's first atomic explosion on Oct. 16, 1964, when China became the fifth nation to join the nuclear club. Since then, India has exploded a nuclear device.
Peking earlier this year for the first time successfully testfired an intercontinental ballistic missile, the CSSX-4, which has a range of some 8,000 miles and is capable of reaching western parts of the United States or Moscow.
Diplomatic sources said the latest test may be part of China's program to arm a new generation of ICBMs with advanced nuclear warheads.
Though they are many years behind the superpowers in some areas of armament development, Western sources say the Chinese are quite advanced in nuclear weapons technology.
Since joining the nuclear club China has carried out more than 22 atomic and nuclear tests. Peking has called for disarmament but it has steadfastly refused to sign nonproliferation agreements, saying they were devices to prevent China from reaching nuclear parity with the superpowers.
London's Institute for Strategic Studies said Peking is believed to have already stockpiled several hundred nuclear and atomic bombs.
In 1976, Chinese nuclear testing sent radioactive fallout over the United States that later showed up in rainfall and cow's milk.
EPA spokesman Martha Casey said over the next 24 hours the monitoring stations would be able to determine the speed and altitude of the nuclear debris.