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Nuclear Tibet

Nuclear Monitor Issue: 

(June 11, 1993) Few aspects of China's rule over Tibet have created as much anger as allegations of nuclear mismanagement on the Tibetan plateau. Now "Nuclear Tibet", a new report published by the International Campaign for Tibet (ICT), reveals details about a previously-secret Chinese nuclear facility there. Says John Ackerly, the report's author, "While the report presents a body of credible and substantiated information on aspects of the nuclear program in Tibet, it is only a beginning in understanding the human impact and the full strategic value of the plateau to China in terms of the nuclear cycle." The following are extracts from an article by Ackerly, which was published in the spring 1993 issue of China Rights Forum.

(392.3818) WISE Amsterdam - It took only 32 months during the 1960s -- a decade of chaos, failure and famine -- for China to enter the nuclear age. This extraordinary achievement required enormous intellectual and material resources at a time when intellectuals were being purged and materials were scarce. It also required concentrating these people and supplies in an elite, secluded setting. The location was a closely guarded state secret and the security was absolutely top-notch. The place was the Tibetan plateau, in Haibei Tibetan Autonomous Prefecture, 100 kilometers west of Xining.

The selection of the Tibetan plateau for China's primary nuclear weapons research and development base was the first in a series of decisions that put China's nuclear infrastructure -- including test sites, nuclear processing facilities and nuclear weapons production -- in regions populated by non-Chinese peoples. There is little doubt that China's nuclear program has had an inordinate impact on the Tibetans, the Uygurs and the Mongolians. From land appropriations, to nuclear fallout, to toxic and radioactive pollution in rivers, lakes and pastures, the story about the ugly side-effects of China's nuclear program is just beginning to emerge.

As with many of the critical environmental problems facing China and Tibet, the government has repeatedly restricted public debate even among experts, and has not shown much willingness to establish measures which would effectively monitor hazardous facilities and hold officials responsible for safety. Stringent restrictions on any types of organizations outside government or Party control make it virtually impossible for citizens to effectively mobilize to oppose the siting of dangerous installations near their communities.

Until recently, China's nuclear program has been overwhelmingly military [see box]. Now, China is opening a new chapter with the construction of civilian nuclear power plants. Its present program is only a fraction of the size of those in the US and the former Soviet Union in terms of its nuclear arsenal, number of test explosions and the volume of nuclear waste generated. But in nuclear proliferation, lack of worker safety and irresponsible waste disposal, China's record is as poor, or even worse, than those of the other nuclear powers. The implications of this for the Tibetans, the Uygurs and the Mongolians is frightening.



Nuclear Power: China has only one nuclear power plant on-line at Qinshan Bay in Zhejiang Province and two more under construction. All are in coastal regions.

Nuclear Testing: All of China's nuclear tests have occurred at Lop Nor, in Xinjiang. China has now conducted approximately 40 nuclear test blasts (compared to 900 for the US, and over 700 for the former Soviet Union). China was the last country to conduct an above ground nuclear explosion (16 Oct. 1980 -- the US and the Soviet Union stopped in 1962) and is currently the only country in the world still conducting nuclear tests.

Domestic Nuclear Waste: According to news reports in Hong Kong and US media, China's nuclear waste has been haphazardly disposed of in shallow land fills and concrete "basements". Some high-level radioactive materials have been taken to central storage facilities in Gansu Province and other sites in the northwest.

Foreign Nuclear Waste: China has discussed storing nuclear waste from Germany, Taiwan and other countries in return for significant monetary and technological transfers, according to press reports. Germany has since dropped such plans, but it appears that a shipment of high-level nuclear waste from Taiwan is expected at any moment (reports that a shipment has already been made are questionable). According to Xue Litai, co-author of China Builds the Bomb, foreign nuclear waste would most likely be dumped in Gansu Province, or in Tibetan Autonomous prefectures in Qinghai Province (Amdo).
Source: China Rights Forum (US), Spring 1993.

Tashi Dolma, a Tibetan doctor who fled to India in 1990 and now lives in the US, conducted a medical survey in the vicinity of a nuclear research facility which China called by the code name of the "Ninth Academy" and which is located on the Tibetan plateau. "We surveyed over 2,000 people in three counties, and in two of the villages -- Reshui and Ganzihe -- the local Tibetans and their animals were coming down with unusual symptoms and diseases -- these were the two villages closest to the nuclear weapons plant," Dr. Dolma said.

Later she worked at a hospital in Chabcha in Hainan Tibetan Autonomous Prefecture where she treated Tibetan nomads who grazed their sheep near the nuclear facility. The children of these nomads were developing a cancer that caused their white blood cell count to rise uncontrollably. Seven of these children, ages 8-14, died during the five years she was at the hospital. A doctor from Pittsburgh who was doing research on high blood pressure at the hospital told Dr. Dolma that these symptoms were similar to those of children who died following the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki in 1945.

The choice of the northern Tibetan plateau by the Chinese leadership for their primary nuclear weapons research and development base was undoubtedly linked to China's assumption of direct control over Tibet. During the 1960s and 1970s, the area known as Amdo to Tibetans and Qinghai Province to the Chinese was run almost exclusively by officials from the Chinese military. Those with a role in governing the region were trusted Chinese military men who had served, or were still serving, in the First Field Army that invaded Tibet in 1950.

Some say the increased deaths in communities surrounding the uranium mines in this area are Mao Zedong's revenge on the Tibetans who kept ambushing his army during the Long March. According to Edgar Snow's account in Red Star Over China, this was the first time Mao met a populace that was united in its hostility to his army. The Communists' sufferings on this part of the trek exceeded anything that had gone before. Dick Wilson in The Long March says high ranking officers in the PLA openly talked of settling accounts with the Ngaba Tibetans, and geological bad luck put the largest commercially-viable uranium deposits on the Tibetan plateau under their land.

There are apparently two separate sites at which uranium is mined. One is a mine near Tewe, in Gannan Tibetan Autonomous Prefecture, and the other is in Ngaba Tibetan Autonomous Prefecture where Tibetans have been falling ill and dying. In both cases, villagers have pointed to the source of the pollution as stream water below the uranium mine (see also WISE NC 390.3799).

The largest existing uranium mines in China are in the east, in Jiangxi Province. But one Chinese official told a reporter that the largest deposits are around Lhasa, Tibet's capitol. So far, the latter have not been commercially mined, but if they were they could represent a major health threat to both Tibetans and Chinese around Lhasa and bring even greater Chinese domination over the area.

Another major issue for Tibetans is the deployment of nuclear missiles in Tibetan regions. China currently has at least 300-400 nuclear warheads, of which several dozen are on the Tibetan plateau in Amdo. The stationing of nuclear weapons there began in 1971 when a DF-4, China's first intercontinental ballistic missile, arrived in the Quidan basin several hundred kilometers west of the Ninth Academy. Currently nuclear missiles are deployed at least three sites, including a new nuclear missile division which was reportedly established in the early 1980s on the border between Qinghai and Sichuan provinces.

In his Five Point Peace Plan, the Dalai Lama appealed to China, and to the world, to make Tibet a nuclear free zone. In a public response to the Dalai Lama's concerns over dumping from a nuclear weapons facility (the Ninth Academy), the Chinese government called the allegations "pure fabrications." Beijing went on to say that "Tibet", meaning the Tibetan Autonomous Region, was nuclear free. But the Dalai Lama was including the traditional northeastern province of Amdo, where he was born, when he said "Tibet".

In May, there was unrest in Lhasa as Tibetans protested the measures Chinese authorities took to prevent them from talking with members of a European Community commission visiting Tibet. It is clear that the EC is not very fond of talking about the human rights situation and the suppression by the Chinese. There are a lot of economic interests with China at stake. According to a Dutch participant of the trip (the Dutch ambassador in Beijing, Van Houten), the human rights situation is better than before (which tells more about the past than the present), and stories of Tibetans picked up by the Chinese authorities for writing a letter describing the situation are "exaggerated and doubtful"....


  • "A Poisonous Atmosphere: Nuclear Installations on the Tibetan Plateau", by John Ackerly, China Rights Forum, Spring 1993, pp.4-8.
  • Trouw (NL), 29 May 1993

Contact: Copies of "Nuclear Tibet" are available for US$7.50 (plus $1.50 postage in US, $3.50 international) from the International Campaign for Tibet, 1518 K Street NW, Suite 410, Washington DC 20005, US. For more information contact Tashi Delek or Ned Gardinar, tel: +1 (202) 628-4123; fax: (202) 347-6825.