Tibet holds the world's most important known uranium reserves. These have been mined in the past without concern for nearby villages. Chinese authorities have offered Western companies facilities to dump waste in Tibet. As road and rail routes improve, nuclear waste could follow. Three nuclear missile sites have now been located on the Tibetan plateau and more are likely as China upgrades its nuclear weapons capability.
According to a report published by the Tibetan Government in Exile, the Chinese have discovered some 200 uranium deposits by 1990. (Tibetan Environment and Development issues 1992, Dept. Of Information and International Relations, Central Tibetan Administration of His Holiness the XIV Dalai Lama, Dharamsala, India.). The area around Lhasa contains possibly the world's largest deposits of uranium. (Richard Pascoe, " Uranium rich Tibet still awaits steam ; " South China Morning Post; 24 Aug. 1982 .)
The largest Chinese uranium mine appears to be the Gya Terseda mine in Tuwe (or Thebe) district, Gannan Tibetan Autonomous prefecture, Gansu Province. The Tibetan Govemment report says the processing of the uranium occurs near the town of Tuwe, which is 86 kilometres from the mine site. The report went on to say that 2000 Chinese are employed in the mine, but no Tibetans. Another report (Nuclear Tibet Nuclear Weapons and Nuclear Waste on the Tibetan plateau, International Campaign for Tibet - (ICT), Washington, 1993) claimed that most of the miners were ex-P.L.A. soldiers. The report also claimed that during the Cultural Revolution approximately 40 Tibetans worked at a dump site inside the mountain processing refuse. The refuse consisted of old electrical equipment, clothes and "thousands of boxes filled with dead white rats." Of the 40 Tibetans who worked in the dumping process, 5 were alive at the time the ICT report was produced.
In 1991 the Director of Operations at the Gya Terseda mine was given a Part commendation for the mining operation. there are reportedly 9 uranium mines in Da Qaidam county in north west Qinghai province. Mines in Ngapa (Sichuan province) and Gannan prefecture (Gansu province) were opened in the 1960s and have operated ever since.
Uranium mining has been linked to illnesses among local people. Illnesses can be caused by exposure to heavy metals and radon gas or from drinking water contaminated by mine tailings. The Tibet Information Network reported in September 1992 that the inhabitants of Guru village in the township of Chongtsa, a day's drive from Ngaba, Sichuan province, have reported illnesses from 1980. The forest near the village started to dry up and it became harder to get plants to grow.
The victims died within a few hours of developing a fever, followed by a distinctive form of diarrhoea. At least 35 people out of the village population of 500 are said to have died between 1989 and 1992.
There have been several reports of local opposition to uranium mining. In 1989 miners were brought in to dig up the hill behind the Trachen-Ma temple in the town of Riwoche in the Kham (now in the Tibet Autonomous Region (TAR)). When the villagers' protest to the authorities were ignored, they set fire to 3 surveyors' jeeps. Chinese troops then occupied the town and rounded up villagers for interrogation. (John Ackerly "Mining Tibet's Sacred Sites, " Greenpeace magazine, March April 1990: and Nuclear Tibet, p.33.)
The Chinese authorities have consistently denied dumping nuclear waste in Tibet. However the Chinese have offered nuclear waste disposal facilities to Western companies. In 1984, the China Nuclear Industry Corporation offered Westem countries nuclear waste disposal facilities at US$1500 per kg. The reports suggested that around 4000 tonnes of such waste would be sent to China by the end of the 20th century. Following widespread controversy, nothing was heard about the execution of this plan. (Tibet Environment and Development Issues 1992, p.60 also Washington Post 18 Feb. /984.) In 1987 negotiations took place for a plan for West German assistance in China's nuclear program in return for China storing spent nuclear fuel. Pressure from the German Green Party lead to the Chinese and German governments denying that the plan was implemented. Whether nuclear waste will go to Tibet in the future is uncertain. For now, the lack of transport infrastructure in Tibet prevents easy dumping. As ICT points out, it is unlikely that nuclear waste from China or abroad would be disposed of far from the railway line that leads west into Amdo. But as well as improving Tibet's road China is embarking on a huge rail project to link Tibet with the rest of the Chinese network. Certainly, Tibet has already been offered as a dumping ground for non-nuclear industrial waste from the West. In 1992 Baltimore arranged, with the permission of the TAR government, for several million tonnes of sewage sludge to be stored in Tibet. (Greenpeace, Waste Trade Update Vol.4, Iss. 1 March 1991.)
Rather than imported waste being dumped in Tibet, it is more likely, so far nuclear contamination of the Tibetan plateau has resulted from China's own nuclear activities and in particular the "Ninth Academy." The Ninth Academy or "Northwest Nuclear Weapons Research and Design Academy" is adjacent to the town of Haiyen in the Haibei Tibetan Autonomous prefecture, Qinghai province. The facility, near the shores of Lake Kokonor, was constructed in the early 1960s under the jurisdiction of the Ninth Bureau, "the most secret organization in China's entire nuclear programme." (Nuclear Tibet, p.6.) The facility was partially opened in 1963 and fully operational by 1967. The construction of the Ninth Academy infrastructure probably involved the use of prison labour. (John Ackerly in China Rights Forum, Spring 1993 Issue.)
The Ninth Academy was responsible for designing all of China's nuclear bombs through the mid 1970s. In this capacity it served as a research centre for detonation development, radio chemistry and many other nuclear weapons - related activities. This huge facility was until recently mentioned even in Chinese publications. It is not known how much radioactive material was involved at the Ninth Academy site. The academy is larger than almost any other developed area in Qinghai, covering at least 50 square miles. Of the 40,000 residents in Haiyen county in 1989, 16,000 were classified as "non-agricultural." Nuclear Tibet, p. 13.) ICT believes that the nuclear functions may have been removed from Haiyen during the 1980s. This view is supported by a report in July 1994 that the Academy had opened to local tourists and overseas Chinese. (Agence France Presse 4/7/94.) On the 15th May 1995, the Xinhua News Agency announced that the facility had been closed and handed over to the local government from the military.
Although the nature and quantity of the radioactive waste generated by the Ninth Academy is still unknown, the ICT report (op.cit) claimed that during the 1960s and 1970s, nuclear waste from the facility was "disposed of in a roughshod and haphazard manner." There have been unconfirmed reports that the facility operated a small research reactor that would have produced high level nuclear waste. The height of the plant's chimneys - 600 feet - may suggest a need to widely disperse dangerous gases. There is a series of natural aquifers underneath and around the Ninth Academy. As underground water supplies in Qinghai have been rapidly diminishing, any radioactive contamination of the aquifers would have become even more concentrated. Dr. Tashi Dolma working in a hospital in Chabcha, directly south of the Ninth Academy, reported treating the children of Tibetan nomad families whose sheep grazed near the Ninth Academy. The children developed a cancer that caused their white blood cell count to rise uncontrollably. 7 children aged between 7 and 14 died in this way during the 5 years she was a the hospital. One educated Tibetan told ICT researchers in September 1992 that meat from farm animals in the valley surrounding the Ninth Academy was banned from shops by the local authorities.
All of China's openly-documented nuclear tests have been carried out at the northwest of Tibet at Lop Nor in Xinjiang province. These tests have been linked to increases in cancer and birth defects, but no medical investigations have been carried out. (World Tibet News 8/10/94.)
According to ICT, the first nuclear weapon was brought onto the Tibetan plateau in 1971 and stationed in the Qaidam Basin, north Amdo. Several writers have claimed that nuclear missiles are stationed at Nagchuka 150 miles north of Lhasa (see for example Tibet: Behind the Ice Curtain, Tanya Kewley, 1990.) However, there is little evidence to support this view and, as ICT point out, Nagchuka is only accessible by a very long and poorly maintained road from Golmud.
In March 1994 the Natural Resources Defence Council (NRDC), a US environmental group, issued a report that confirmed the existence of 3 nuclear missile deployment sites in Qinghai province. (It was the NRDC that was invited to monitor adherence by the then USSR to test bans during the Gorbachev era.) The 3 sites, Da Qaidam, Xiao Qaidam and Delingha, house Dong Fieng Intercontinental Ballistic Missiles (ICBMs), with a range of 7000 kms. There are large prison labour camps adjacent to these 3 sites. (NRDC) The report also says that Golmud, in the north of the TAR, is possibly a bomber dispersal base.
China maintains an arsenal of 450 nuclear weapons according to the NRDC report, and is currently modernising its nuclear capability. A study by the London based International Institute for Strategic Studies concluded by 2010 China will have between 50 and 70 ICBMs in mobile launchers and hardened silos as opposed to 14 now. Meanwhile Chian continues its nuclear testing program in defiance of an international moratorium.
All attempts to discuss Tibet are bedevilled by the Chinese redefinition of the country's borders since 1949. Here the term Tibet is used to refer to the three original provinces of U'Tsang, Kham and Amdo (sometimes called Greater Tibet). When the Chinese refer to Tibet they invariably mean the Tibet Autonomous Region (TAR) which includes only one province, U'Tsang (the TAR was formally inaugurated in 1965). In 1949 Amdo and Kham, were renamed by the Chinese as parts of China proper and became the province of Qinghai and parts of Sichuan, Gansu and Yunnan provinces.