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
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
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
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 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