The Tibetan Autonomous Prefecture in China’s Gansu Province, once a region of green fields and pristine waters, its woodlands thriving with wildlife, is rich with uranium reserves. One of the largest uranium mining and milling installations to operate there was Project 792. Opened in 1967, Project 792, run by the military, annually milled between 140 and 180 tons of uranium-bearing rock until it was officially shut down in 2002 as bankrupt owing to ‘ore exhaustion and obsolete equipment.’ Secretly rising from its radioactive ashes was a private mine operated by Longjiang Nuclear Ltd. – its shareholders a brotherhood of politicians and members of the nuclear ministry.
Today, large sweeps of Gansu Province – dotted with sacred sites – appear to have succumbed to an overdose of chemotherapy. The Chinese have taken no preventative measures to protect local human and animal life from uranium contamination. Tibetan medical workers report that an assortment of radioactivity-related cancers and immune system diseases account for nearly half of the deaths in the region – a statistic that goes unrecorded because patient histories are routinely manipulated in order to safeguard ‘state secrets.’
Tensin Tsultrim, spokesman of the Central Tibetan Administration exiled in India, explains that, “Tibetans from the region complain about their helplessness to stop the uranium mining”. He adds that, “Tibetans have no say on such projects, since natural resources are the property of the State and protests relating to environmental issues by Tibetans have led to persecution”.
One man who has constantly spoken out despite state repression is Sun Xiaodi, a former Project 792 worker. Since 1988 this whistleblower has repeatedly traveled to Beijing to petition the government to end the corruption that saturates China’s nuclear industry. In answer, public officials stripped Sun Xiaodi of his job and subjected him, his wife and daughter to a long catalogue of indignities. But Sun continued his petitioning.
“The officials of Mine No. 792 have blood on their hands.”
Last year on April 28th, Sun met with foreign journalists and told them about the frequent discharges of radioactive waste into Gansu waterways. He also told them about the Tibetan hitchhikers who climb up on trucks transporting uranium ore, happy to get a ride. He also told them about the contaminated machinery and equipment from Project 792 that had not been – as proscribed by state regulation – encased in lead, covered in concrete to a thickness of fifty centimeters, and then buried two to three meters beneath the earth, but merely hosed down and sold to naïve buyers from Gansu, Inner Mongolia, Xinjiang, Zhejiang, Hunan and Hubei. “These officials have blood on their hands”, Sun said.
The next day plainclothes police officers bundled Sun into an unmarked car, and ‘disappeared’ him. Sun was not heard from for months. Mounting international pressure finally forced his release from Lanzhou Prison on December 27, 2005. On March 20th, under the condition that Sun not leave his home village, the state security officer posted outside his house was finally removed.
Days later Sun was back in Beijing, petitioning.
From this point on the facts grow fuzzy. In a radio interview conducted at the end of March or beginning of April, Sun spoke of the bribes nuclear industry officials had taken, pocketing for themselves some 12.5 million dollars allocated by the central government to relocate mine workers. Asked whether uranium ore is yet mined and milled at the Project 792 site, and to whom it is sold, Sun Xiaodi replied: “I will tell you about the bankruptcy of the 792 Uranium Mine. All of the written reports are false. They simply changed a military enterprise into a civilian enterprise, and continued with large-scale mining. They are still mining the uranium on a large scale…. Who is their trading partner? Who do they sell the uranium to? …Was it used to promote peace or violence?”
According to human rights sources in China, on April 4th Sun visited Yue Yongjim, the husband of a fellow petitioner, who was incarcerated at Sujiatun District Detention Center. He found Yue emaciated from forced labor on a food allowance of only three steamed flour buns per day. That afternoon Sun participated in a protest at Zhangliangbao Village calling for Yue Yongjin’s release.
On April 6th, Sun Xiaodi again was ‘disappeared.’ He was released soon afterwards, but remains under constant police surveillance, and his communication with the outside world has been severely curtailed.