America Syndrome

In the 1970s the term “China syndrome” became a well-known term to explain the meltdown of an American nuclear reactor that would, theoretically, continue to melt through the earth all the way to the opposite side of the world. The term implies a focus on the danger of nuclear energy in America, but I've reversed the term here to flip this perspective.
The anti-nuclear movement is full of accusations against the nuclear military and industrial complex of cover up and secrecy, but critics have to reluctantly admit that the information is out there for those who want to look for it. The fact that there is so little awareness of nuclear hazards probably has more to do with the the public’s tendency to want to drive horrifying facts deep into the collective subconscious.
For those who want to learn about the issues, plenty can be discovered with Internet searches or a trip to the local library. The hazards range from minor accidents such as canisters of isotopes found in a garbage dump, accidents at experimental labs and reactors, acts of war, minor incidents at power plants, weapons testing fallout, a bomber crash and plutonium spill in Spain or Greenland, to finally the big disasters of Chernobyl and Fukushima. Many of these accidents and deliberate events are known by the shorthand of the places where they occurred: Alamogordo, Hiroshima, Nagasaki, Bikini, Marshall Islands, Nevada Test Site, Aleutian Islands, Mururoa, Fangataufa, Three Mile Island, Semipalatinsk and so on.
The curious omission on this list is the absence of a Chinese place name. The Chinese nuclear program has existed since the 1960s in almost complete secrecy, un-cracked by slightest internal dissent and almost impenetrable to external critics. The Wikipedia page entitled “Nuclear Accidents by Country” (as of 2012/01/29) has a completely empty listing for China, while the entries for other major nuclear players are long and well-known.
At the recent Global Conference for a Nuclear Power Free World in Yokohama, there were hibakusha and activistst from Hiroshima and Nagasaki, the US and French weapons testing programs in South Pacific, and the Chernobyl disaster. As much as these people have suffered great injustices to this day, the governments of France, the United Kingdom, the United States and the former USSR have never had a total lock on information and dissenting interpretations of nuclear history. It is worth something that, for example, an anti-nuclear journalist like Anna Yaroshinskaya was elected to governing bodies in the USSR and Russia, travelled in the Chernobyl zones, and wrote freely about her concerns. No such person could have emerged out of in China.
Of course, the Chinese government would say that there aren’t any accidents to report in the list mentioned above, but it would be hard to believe that the Chinese nuclear program advanced without the long list of minor and major accidents that plagued the other nuclear states. One of the few scientists or journalists to look into this matter is Dr. Takada Jun, a professor at the Sapporo Medical University and a representative of the Japanese Radiation Protection Information Center.
An article about his work appeared in The Epoch Times in March, 2009. In it he describes how the Lop Nur test site in Xinjiang, northwestern China (on the ancient Silk Road) was used for dozens of surface and atmospheric tests between 1964 and 1982, one of which was a 4-megaton bomb in 1976 that was 10 times as big as the largest before that in the USSR (however, other sources contradict this number saying the Tsar Bomba hydrogen device detonated by the USSR in 1961 was 50 megatons. In any case, any megaton bomb is huge). Underground tests continued until 1996.
Takada alleges that these large bombs involved massive fallout that fell on the local population, without there having been any effort to warn or protect. He estimates the fallout of the one largest bomb caused 190,000 deaths and 1,290,000 people suffered from radiation poisoning within an area 136 times the size of Tokyo. In total, he estimates 750,000 died prematurely. He could only estimate fallout by studying soil in the bordering areas of Khazakstan, and by what is known about the size of the blasts. No outside experts have ever visited the area to carry out studies on the soil or the population. If the Chinese government has done it, the studies are top secret.
A British Channel 4 documentary made in 1998, called Death on the Silk Road, found evidence of the suffering described by Dr. Takada. The crew (including a physician) travelled along the Silk Road as tourists, filming clandestinely, and finding a surprisingly large number of birth defects in villages they visited.
A Scientific American article in 2009 covered Dr. Takada’s work and included the perspective of a Uygur refugee, Enver Tohti, who lived in the Lop Nur region during the testing era, then became a doctor, and now works with Dr. Takada in Sapporo on their Lop Nur Project. They hope, of course, to increase international awareness of the issue so that China may one day recognize the need for a proper acknowledgement and research of the problem, not to mention assistance for the victims.
Another aspect of nuclear issues in China is the concern about the safety of its nuclear reactor fleet. Thanks to Wikileaks, the world now knows that diplomatic cables from the US embassy in Beijing stated that China has a "vastly increased" the risk of a nuclear accident because it opted for cheap technology that will be 100 years old by the time dozens of its reactors reach the end of their lifespans. China passed up the opportunity to go with more advanced “passive” reactor designs that are much safer than older reactors. The US cables also raise concerns about the “secrecy of the bidding process for power plant contracts, the influence of government lobbying, and potential weaknesses in the management and regulatory oversight of China's fast-expanding nuclear sector.”
Just imagine it as Japan without the democracy (such as it is) and without the forty-year-old anti-nuclear citizens’ movement, which in any case couldn’t stop the Fukushima Daiichi meltdowns. Or consider how long (not very) China’s brand new shinkansen train lines existed without a major accident. Some people take heart that China regularly metes out severe justice to a few officials after disasters, but China’s record of disastrous accidents, botched fireworks displays, and tainted food scandals provides no evidence that such punishment is a deterrent or an effective solution to a systemic problem.
This month The Telegraph reported that China’s Experimental Fast Reactor (CEFR) stopped generating electricity in October following an accident. Ironically, it was Japan's Atomic Energy Agency raising the alarm about a nuclear hazard outside Japan. Perhaps they were in the mood to deflect attention away from their own problems at home. China did not report the accident that necessitated the shutdown. The director of the Chinese Institute of Atomic Energy (which houses the CEFR) denied there had been an accident and stated that the CEFR had been shut down since July, so no accident in October was possible.
Regardless of what has happened in this case, the scale of China’s nuclear program and its history of secrecy in its weapons testing suggest that it’s time for the world to pay closer attention. Historians and scientists need to record what happened on the Silk Road in the late 20th century, and the Chinese nuclear industry should be open to independent domestic and international monitors. It doesn’t bode well that China is repeating the policy of Japan in the 1970s - making a massive, rushed investment in nuclear energy, built upon a questionable regulatory system, just to supply a small percentage (6% in China’s case) of the nation’s electricity needs.

Further reading:

Cooke, Stephanie. (2010) In Mortal Hands: A Cautionary History of the Nuclear Age. Bloomsbury.
Takada, Jun. (2005) Nuclear Hazards in the World: Field Studies on Affected Populations and Environments. Springer.

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