Revolt stirs among China’s nuclear ghosts

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    Apr 5, 2009
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    Revolt stirs among China’s nuclear ghosts

    Up to 190,000 may have died as a result of China’s weapons tests: now ailing survivors want compensation

    Michael Sheridan

    The nuclear test grounds in the wastes of the Gobi desert have fallen silent but veterans of those lonely places are speaking out for the first time about the terrible price exacted by China’s zealous pursuit of the atomic bomb.

    They talk of picking up radioactive debris with their bare hands, of sluicing down bombers that had flown through mushroom clouds, of soldiers dying before their time of strange and rare diseases, and children born with mysterious cancers.

    These were the men and women of Unit 8023, a special detachment charged with conducting atomic tests at Lop Nur in Xinjiang province, a place of utter desolation and – until now – complete secrecy.

    “I was a member of Unit 8023 for 23 years,” said one old soldier in an interview. “My job was to go into the blast zone to retrieve test objects and monitoring equipment after the explosion.

    “When my daughter was born she was diagnosed with a huge tumour on her spinal cord. The doctors blame nuclear fallout. She’s had two major operations and has lived a life of indescribable hardship. And all we get from the government is 130 yuan [£13] a month.”

    Hardship and risk counted for little when China was determined to join the nuclear club at any cost.

    Soldiers galloped on horseback towards mushroom clouds, with only gas masks for protection.

    Scientists jumped for joy, waving their little red books of Maoist thought, while atomic debris boiled in the sky.

    Engineers even replicated a full-scale Beijing subway station beneath the sands of the Gobi to test who might survive a Sino-Soviet armageddon.

    New research suggests the Chinese nuclear tests from 1964 to 1996 claimed more lives than those of any other nation. Professor Jun Takada, a Japanese physicist, has calculated that up to 1.48m people were exposed to fallout and 190,000 of them may have died from diseases linked to radiation.

    “Nuclear sands” - a mixture of dust and fission products - were blown by prevailing winds from Lop Nur towards towns and villages along the ancient Silk Road from China to the West.

    The victims included Chinese, Uighur Muslims and Tibetans, who lived in these remote regions. Takada found deformed children as far away as Kazakhstan. No independent scientific study has ever been published inside China.

    It is the voices of the Chinese veterans, however, that will reso-nate loudest in a nation proud of its nuclear status but ill informed about the costs. One group has boldly published letters to the state council and the central military commission - the two highest government and military bodies - demanding compensation.

    “Most of us are between 50 and 70 and in bad health,” they said. “We did the most hazardous job of all, retrieving debris from the missile tests.

    “We were only 10 kilometres [six miles] from the blast. We entered the zone many times with no protective suits, only goggles and gas masks. Afterwards, we just washed ourselves down with plain water.”

    A woman veteran of Unit 8023 described in an interview how her hair had fallen out. She had lost weight, suffered chronic insomnia and had episodes of confusion.

    “Between 1993 and 1996 the government speeded up the test programme, so I assisted at 10 underground explosions,” she said. “We had to go into the test zone to check highly radioactive instruments. Now I’m too sick to work - will the government help me?”

    The price was paid by more than one generation. “My father was in Unit 8023 from 1967 to 1979, when his job was to wash down aircraft that had flown through the mushroom clouds,” said a 37-year-old man.

    “I’ve been disabled by chronic immune system diseases all my life and my brother’s daughter was born with a heart defect,” he said. “Our family has spent thousands of yuan on operations over the decades. Two and three generations of our family have such illnesses - was it the nuclear tests? Does our government plan any compensation?”

    In fact, the government has already responded to pressure from veterans’ groups. Last year Li Xueju, the minister of civil affairs, let slip that the state had started to pay “subsidies” to nuclear test personnel but gave no details of the amounts.

    Such is the legacy of the decision by Chairman Mao Tse-tung, in 1955, to build the bomb in order to make China a great power.

    Mao was driven by fear of the US and rivalry with the Soviet Union. He coveted the might that would be bestowed by nuclear weapons on a poor agricultural nation. Celebrations greeted the first test explosion on October 16, 1964.

    The scientists staged a total of 46 tests around the Lop Nur site, 1,500 miles west of Beijing. Of these tests, 23 were in the atmosphere, 22 underground and one failed. They included thermonuclear blasts, neutron bombs and an atomic bomb covertly tested for Pakistan on May 26, 1990.

    One device, dropped from an aircraft on November 17, 1976, was 320 times more powerful than the bomb that destroyed Hiroshima.

    The last explosion in the air was in 1980, but the last underground test was not until July 29, 1996. Later that year, China signed the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty and, once again, only the sigh of the winds could be heard in the desolation of the Gobi desert.

    The financial cost remains secret, but the price of the first bomb was roughly equal to more than a third of the entire state budget for 1957 – spending that went on while at least 30m Chinese peasants died of famine and the nuclear scientists themselves lived on hardship rations.

    Rare was the outsider who gained a glimpse of this huge project. One was Danny Stillman, director of technical intelligence at Los Alamos, New Mexico, home of America’s nuclear weapons. He made 10 visits to secret Chinese nuclear facilities during a period of detente and information exchange from 1990 to 2001.

    “Some of the videos they showed me were of PLA [People’s Liberation Army] soldiers riding on horses - with gas masks over the noses and mouths of both the horses and the soldiers - as they were riding towards the mushroom cloud of an atmospheric surface detonation,” Stillman recalled.

    “It was strange because the soldiers had swords raised above their heads as they headed for the radioactive fallout. I have always wondered how many of them survived.”

    Stillman was also allowed to see the lengths to which the Chinese scientists had gone to experiment with annihilation in the desert.

    Like the Americans, the Chinese placed caged live animals, tanks, planes, vehicles and buildings around test sites. Such were the remains gathered by the men and women of Unit 8302.

    “The surprise to me was that they also had a full-scale Beijing subway station with all supporting utilities constructed at an undefined depth directly underneath,” said Stillman.

    “There were 10,000 animals and a model of a Yangtze River bridge,” recalled Wu Qian, a scientist.

    Li Yi, a woman doctor, added: “Animals placed two kilometres from the blast centre were burnt to cinders and those eight kilometres away died within a few days.”

    China had borrowed Soviet blueprints and spied on the West, according to The Nuclear Express, a book by Stillman and Thomas Reed, the former US air force secretary.

    It explains how China then exploited its human capital to win technological parity with the US for just 4% of the effort - 45 successful test explosions against more than 1,000 American tests.

    “The Chinese nuclear weapon scientists I met . . . were exceptionally brilliant,” Stillman said.

    Of China’s top 10 pioneers, two were educated at Edinburgh University - Cheng Kaijia, director of the weapons laboratory, and Peng Huan-wu, designer of the first thermonuclear bomb. Six went to college in the United States, one in France and one in Germany.

    For all this array of genius, no Chinese scientist has dared to publish a study of the human toll.

    That taboo has been broken by Takada, a physicist at the faculty of medicine at Sapporo University, who is an adviser on radiation hazards to the government of Japan.

    He developed a computer simulation model, based on fieldwork at Soviet test sites in Kazakhstan, to calculate that 1.48m people were exposed to contamination during 32 years of Chinese tests.

    Takada used internationally recognised radiation dosage measurements to estimate that 190,000 have died of cancer or leukaemia. He believes 35,000 foetuses were deformed or miscarried, with cases found as far away as Makanchi, near the Kazakh border with China.

    To put his findings in perspective, Takada said China’s three biggest tests alone generated 4m times more radioactivity than the Chernobyl reactor accident of 1986. He has called the clouds of fallout “an air tsunami”.

    Despite the pall of silence inside China, two remarkable proofs of the damage to health have come from official Communist party documents, dated 2007 and available on provincial websites.

    One is a request to the health ministry from peasants’ and workers’ delegates in Xinjiang province for a special hospital to be built to cope with large numbers of patients who were “exposed to radiation or who wandered into the test zones by mistake”.

    The other records a call by a party delegate named Xingfu for compensation and a study of “the severe situation of radiation sickness” in the county of Xiaobei, outside the oasis town of Dunhuang.

    Both claims were rejected. Residents of Xiaobei report an alarming number of cancer deaths and children born with cleft palates, bone deformities and scoliosis, a curvature of the spine.

    Specialists at hospitals in three cities along the Silk Road all reported a disproportionate number of cancer and leukaemia cases.

    “I have read the Japanese professor’s work on the internet and I think it is credible,” said one. No cancer statistics for the region are made public.

    Some memories, though, remain indelible. One man in Dunhuang recalled climbing up a mountain-side to watch a great pillar of dust swirl in from the desert.

    “For days we were ordered to keep our windows closed and stay inside,” recounted another middle-aged man. “For months we couldn’t eat vegetables or fruits. Then after a while they didn’t bother with that any more.”

    But they did go on testing. And the truth about the toll may never be known unless, one day, a future Chinese government allows pathologists to search for the answers in the cemeteries of the Silk Road.

    The dead of Dunhuang lie in a waste ground on the fringe of the desert, at the foot of great dunes where tourists ride on camels. Tombs, cairns and unmarked heaps of earth dot the boundless sands.

    By local tradition, the clothes of the deceased are thrown away at their funerals. Dresses, suits and children’s garments lie half-buried by dust around the graves.

    “People don’t live long around here,” said a local man who led me to the graveyard. “Fifty, 60 - then they’re gone.”

    Additional reporting: Shota Ushio in Tokyo and Imogen Morizet in Washington

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