Workers of China`s abandoned nuke base complain of neglect
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Last Updated: Tuesday, June 22, 2010, 19:02
Beijing: China might have thrown open to tourists its abandoned secret nuclear base located in a man-made cave in Chongqing, but the 5000 scientists and workers who were laid off after the project's cancellation in 1984 live in penury and gross neglect.

Once China's pride, the highly confidential sprawling military nuclear plant codenamed 816 Nuclear Military Plant, the size of 24 football fields was thrown open for tourists, in April this year.

But, the project that was abandoned after the change in the international situation in the 1980s, turned out to be a disaster of sorts for its workers who were virtually left to fend for themselves after it was closed.

When Baitao, the other name for the plant, was chosen as the site for a top-secret nuclear base in 1966, authorities literally wiped it off from the map.

Over the following two decades, more than 60,000 soldiers and scientists were sent to this remote town hidden in the mountains east of Chongqing in southwest China to work on one of the largest Cold War-era projects, the Daily said in its report.

The project resulted in the construction of the world's largest man-made cave - 104,000 square meters, but was scrapped in 1982 before it was ever finished.

Today, Baitao is a major tourist attraction and is firmly back in the public eye.

The same cannot be said for the experts who dedicated their lives to the multi-billion-yuan mission, it said.

"It was like the end of the world when the reactor project was shut down," said Pan Kaitai, 75, who was one of the 5,000 staffers laid off when work on the base halted.

"Everyone was worrying about how to survive in the remote mountainous area," he said.

Each laid-off worker received three years' wages in compensation. The average monthly salary was less than 30 yuan (about four USD) in the 1980s.

Although about 1,000 returned to their hometowns, the majority remained back because of their hukou (resident registration) or family ties.

Some tried to grow mushrooms in the damp cave but failed because of an infestation of rats.

Others removed every bit of aluminium alloy they could find to melt down and make cans for the nearby beer factory.

The base's storehouses, which were designed to hold raw nuclear materials, were converted into car repair shops.

Former nuclear technicians even resorted to setting up stalls to sell cakes and boiled eggs to villagers, the report said. Over 1000 died while constructing it.

Before arriving in Baitao, Chen Bingzhang the nuclear technician was assigned to Gansu, where he and 30 colleagues were exposed to dangerous levels of radiation after an accident in 1969.

Seven people died, and although he survived but his son was born blind.

"My superior came to shake our hands and called us heroes of China's nuclear industry," he said proudly, wearing his traditional blue Mao-style suit.

"He said the Party and the people would never forget us".

Chen Bingzhang and his family now live on his pension of just 1,000 yuan a month.

"I only hope the Party and the people will never forget us, like I was told," the retired technician added.

In April this year, the city authorities opened sections of the base to the public after it was declassified in 2002 and visitors can now pay 40 yuan for a tour of this once top-secret facility.

However, staff at the entrance warned that, due to "confidential matters", both foreigners and the use of cameras are prohibited.

Only dim lamps light the pathway, with all the nuclear equipment long since removed from the wide tunnels.

"Only 10 per cent of the facility has been opened to the public.

"The base was once equipped with the most advanced technologies, and if nuclear war broke out, the 2-meter-thick photoelectric lead doors would close and protect the production of plutonium-239, the primary fissile isotope used for the production of nuclear weapons," a tourist guide said.

The animosity that some of the former scientists show towards the old base stands in sharp contrast to their enthusiasm in the early days of the project.


First Published: Tuesday, June 22, 2010, 19:02

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