Wednesday, January 24, 2018

Photos of the day: China's first nuclear weapons base

Including factory 221, home to China's first atomic bomb  is now completely abandoned

In 1958, Dong Zhiyong, a 22-year-old member of the transportation squadron, arrived at the military base on the Jinyintan Prairie, in Qinghai Province, expecting to grow potatoes. There was little by way of amenities at the ramshackle facility which stood at 3,300 meters above sea level, save for the bamboo beds they had brought upon their trucks.

At the base, altitude sickness, extreme temperatures, and wild weather were the norm, but Dong and his comrades were there for the long haul. After all, assigning soldiers to guard and cultivate land in remote areas was nothing new. But before long they were assigned to build factories and railroads, and Dong went from transporting people, construction materials, and equipment to eventually hauling materials marked as hazardous.

On these occasions, Dong was given careful orders to travel at a speed of less than ten kilometers per hour; the truck itself was closely guarded by vehicles at the front and back throughout the journey. There was to be absolutely no bumping or friction, and extreme caution was paramount. Dong’s driving skills were put to the strictest tests, especially considering the rigors and whims of high altitude weather.

While Dong and other low-level officers and staff were left wondering about the mysterious task at hand, almost 2,000 kilometers to the west, on an even more remote base at the west edge of Lop Nur, a propaganda campaign was in progress at the regimental level and above.

In early 1964, all the officers were told that they were carrying out a “glorious task” while Chairman Mao Zedong’s quotes on the subject were being brandished around the nation: “The world has already entered the atomic era,” “The imperialist countries are self-glorifying their atomic weapons,” and “The atomic bomb is not large, but if we don’t have it, our words will never count.” That same year, the documentary Operation Crossroad, detailing the disastrous and cruel American tests in the Marshall Islands, was shown to high-level officers. At this point, the higher-ups were able to piece together the not-so-cryptic message—they were preparing for China’s very first atomic bomb.

Back at the Qinghai base, Dong and his comrades were busy working in what is now known as Factory 221. They were engaged in mysterious tasks including transportation, manufacturing, and assembly. They remained clueless about the greater task in which they were involved, and were equally unaware of the unimaginable scale on which national resources were secretly being mobilized.

China’s own “Manhattan Project” was officially commissioned in 1955 by Mao Zedong himself. At the time, the US, the Soviet Union, and the UK were the only three countries in the world possessing atomic weapons. While the former Soviet Union had agreed to help China with research, the agreement only lasted for just over a year before all foreign experts were withdrawn—all blueprints, plans, and data destroyed. Led by physicist Qian Sanqiang (钱三强), a group of Chinese scientists from the Modern Physics Research Institute of China Science Academy began to explore the subject on their own with out-of-date data processing tools such as mechanical calculators and abacuses—primitive, even by the standards of the time. To commemorate independence, the project was given the code “Project 596”. It was a reference to the date the former Soviet Union withdrew their experts: June, 1959. In the early years of the PRC, when the nation was still suffering from political unrest and famine, the project was given top priority. The concentrated uranium, a crucial element in building the bomb, involved the efforts of over 20 national departments and 900 factories across the nation. Factory 221 served as the final stop on the assembly line for the first and the next 15 atomic weapons, where they were transported in secrecy to experimental grounds deep in the Gobi desert of Lop Nur.
One of the innermost wastelands on planet Earth, where very little life can thrive, Lop Nur was ideal for the experiment: minimum precipitation, west winds sweeping the area year round, and not a single footprint to be found to the east for 400 kilometers. Finally, at 15:00 on October 16, 1964, China’s first atomic bomb went off. A few hours later, the nation was informed via news broadcast.

For the ordinary soldiers involved, life went on as before—except for the pride and honor they felt at completing such an important task of the nation. When their military service ended, they went back home, telling friends and family that they spent their years growing potatoes in the west. They had been told to take the secrets of that Qinghai plateau to their grave.

Dong Zhiyong is now 78 years old, living peacefully in retirement in Hefei, Anhui Province, along with 500 other veterans from Qinghai—others were settled in Hebei, Shandong, and other provinces. As for Factory 221, it was shut down in the 1980s.

On July 29, 1996, China conducted its last nuclear test and decided to halt such experiments for the foreseeable future. But long forgotten were those who served at Factory 221 and the Lop Nur base. Despite their dedication to the country’s nuclear project, many walked away from it cursed—for the rest of their lives and even for the lives of their descendants. The opening of that nuclear Pandora’s box came at a great cost.

Many of the soldiers who served Project 596 died during their service due to radiation exposure. Those who made it out alive often suffered long-term skin and lung diseases, damage to the immune system, and cancer later in life. Perhaps the cruelest consequence was the effect on the veterans’ offspring who have very high rates—sometimes more than a thousand times higher—of developing leukemia, birth defects, and mental deficiencies. While the Bureau of Civil Affairs provides healthcare for the affected atomic veterans, their children are often left helpless.
In the end, when the country proudly declares its status as being the only nuclear weapon state to give unqualified security assurance to non-nuclear-weapon states, its policy has always been one of deterrence, to never strike first, but, perhaps, the first blow was struck decades ago without anyone noticing: the hundreds of thousands of ordinary people at various posts around the nation who paid for the price for creating these now world-ending weapons—knowingly or not.

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