Living the Worry-free Life in China’s ‘Atomic City’

The Globe and Mail reports from Xihai, the site where China’s first atomic and hydrogen bombs were designed and developed and where the resulting radiation still lingers:

The sources of that radiation are likely all around Xihai, which sits 3,000 metres above sea level on the Tibetan plateau. Proudly labelled China’s “Atomic City,” it was here that China’s first atomic and hydrogen bombs were designed and developed amid extreme secrecy in the 1950s and 1960s. The project, dear to Chairman Mao Zedong’s heart, was called the Ninth Academy. The research here led to the detonation of China’s first atomic bomb in 1964.

Mr. Su’s and Mr. Zhang’s sheep today graze on land down a short hill from what was then known as Factory No. 1 – the region’s chief nuclear-research facility – and which today is a functioning power plant.

The shepherds say they sell their sick sheep to butchers once they lose their teeth, but have no idea where the meat ends up.

That blasé attitude toward lingering radiation risks is common here. As the shepherds keep a passive eye on their flocks, half-naked children play in the same stream the shepherds say is contaminated. The surrounding Jinyintan grasslands, where the nuclear waste from that era is believed to be buried, is now a popular tourist spot, attracting those who want to experience a night under the stars on the Tibetan plateau. Traditional Tibetan tents sit a few metres away from the abandoned factories and watchtowers that played a key role in helping China enter the exclusive club of nuclear-armed nations.

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