Lop Nor, China
Between 1964 and 1996, the People’s Republic of China conducted 45 nuclear tests in Lop Nor, a lake region in the Western province of Xinjiang. For the ethnic minority of the Uighurs, who live in this region, radioactivity-induced diseases and malformations have become a major health issue.
Photo: The Lop Nor desert lies in the autonomous Xinjiang province in Western China. It was here that China detonated its fi rst nuclear bomb in 1964. In the years that followed, 22 more atmospheric and 22 underground tests were conducted. © PD-USGov- NASA
After its first test on October 16, 1964, China exploded 44 more nuclear bombs at the Lop Nor site, approximately 265 kilometers south-west of the provincial capital Urumqi. The 22 atmospheric and 22 underground tests had yields ranging from one kiloton to about four megatons of TNT equivalent. The largest Chinese test took place on November 17, 1976.
The region around Lop Nor is home to about 20 million people, a significant number of whom live in relatively close proximity to the highly toxic test area. The inhabitants of the region come from a number of different ethnic groups, most notably that of the Uighurs.
Within hours of its last test on July 29, 1996, the Chinese government announced that it had concluded its nuclear testing program and was ready to join the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty (CTBT), which the country subsequently signed. There have been no nuclear tests in Lop Nor ever since. China still has not ratified the CTBT.
Health and environmental effects
According to an article in “Scientific American,” the cancer rate in Xinjiang is 30–35 % higher than that in the rest of China, with a disproportionate incidence of malignant lymphoma, lung cancer, leukemia, degenerative disorders and babies born with malformations.
Recounting the days of nuclear testing, one local resident reports: “For days we were ordered to keep our windows closed and stay inside. 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.”
Some of the bombs exploded in Lop Nor were 300 times more powerful than “Little Boy,” the bomb dropped on Hiroshima. The report “Radioactive Heaven and Earth” by the International Physicians for the Prevention of Nuclear War (IPPNW) cites the estimated amounts of radioactivity that were released into the atmosphere: substances like plutonium-239, cesium-137 or strontium-90 with a total radiation dose of 111 Peta-Becquerel (Peta = quadrillion). In more tangible terms, around 48 kg of pulverized plutonium were over the region. Inhalation or ingestion of one millionth of a gram can cause damage to the kidneys, as well as liver or lung cancer.
A study from 2008, quoted on both the websites of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) and the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty Organization (CTBTO), states that the doses recorded in cities close to the test site are high enough to cause malformations and cancers in babies.
Even though no nuclear tests have been performed in China since 1996, the residual radiation containing harmful isotopes like cesium-137, strontium-90 and plutonium-239 will continue to irradiate plant, animal and human life for generations. China has not permitted any independent assessment of the environmental or health impacts of its nuclear testing program, and the casualties are still fighting for recognition and justice. Like hundreds of thousands of people around the world who have suffered from the use of nuclear weapons, they, too, are Hibakusha.
For a good introduction to the topic, watch the British documentary “Death on the Silk Road”: vimeo.com/5854200
Also insightful is the book “China Builds the Bomb” by John Wilson Lewis, available through Stanford University Press (1991).
- Merali, Z. “Did China’s Nuclear Tests Kill Thousands and Doom Future Generations?” Scientific American, 15.06.09. www.scientificamerican.com/article/did-chinas-nuclear-tests/?page=1
- “Radioactive Heaven and Earth: The Health and Environmental Effects of Nuclear Weapons Testing In, On, and Above the Earth”: IPPNW: Apex Books, 1991.
- Takada, J. “Dose Prediction for surface nuclear explosions: case studies for Semipalatinsk and Lop Nor tests.” Proceedings of the Congress of the International Radiation Protection Association (IRPA) in Buenos Aires, October 19–24, 2008, p.4. www.iaea.org/inis/collection/NCLCollectionStore/_Public/41/092/41092730.pdf
- “Chinese Nuclear Tests Allegedly Caused 750,000 Deaths.” The Epoch Times, 31.03.09. www.theepochtimes.com/n2/content/view/14535/