Villagers dig their own grave

April 5, 2008

In Hunan province, peasants have made a cottage industry out of mining uranium ore. John Garnaut and Maya Li report.

The Communist Party Secretary of Goat River village is sitting on his bed, impatiently twitching his legs, as he unties the knot on an old supermarket shopping bag. Inside there is a metallic grey-black gravel substance, splotched with yellow. Jagged edges have cut small holes through the plastic, leaking a small trail of coarse, grey sand across the bedroom floor. "This is famous for being the best uranium in Hunan province," the party secretary, Wang Yang*, says. He invites us to lift the bag and it is unexpectedly heavy.

This black-market uranium - probably uraninite, containing up to a third of uranium oxide - has been retrieved from one of 18 abandoned mine shafts in the mountains that tower above the village. A subsidiary of China National Nuclear Corporation had blocked the mine entrances with concrete and dirt when it left about 10 years ago, but local workers immediately blew them open again.

Since then, peasants have been carting uranium ore back to the village in bamboo baskets strapped to the village donkey. They wash it in the river, like the gold panners of old, and sell it by the truckload to anyone who pays. Last year the price rose from 40 yuan ($6) a kilogram to 60 yuan, says Wang. A middle-aged woman, Wang's sister-in-law, pokes her head through the door to say the price recently jumped to 150 yuan.

Wang declines to touch the uranium. He leaves that to the young lads who loiter on his porch below, waiting for work.

"These workers are the best," says Wang. "They don't need a machine to tell what quality it is. They can tell just by the colour and feel."

China's nuclear industry, including the mine at Goat River, arrived with Russian technicians in the early 1950s. It was driven by the revolutionary ambitions of Chairman Mao Zedong and eager peasants from Mao's home province of Hunan, like Chen Sicai.

Seventy-year-old Chen spent most of his working life wading through hot, black, contaminated water at a prominent mine code-named 712, near Hengyuan city. His job was to drill holes in mine tunnel walls and hammer in dynamite. Each blast would yield enough uranium ore to fill a village hall.

"The black ore dirt would coat my body," says Chen, in his concrete living room, two kilometres from his now abandoned workplace. "I always used soap but I could never scrub myself clean, so the inside of my house was also coated black."

China exploded its first bomb at Lop Nur, Xinjiang province, in 1964, the year after Chen started work. "Sure we knew it was dangerous, but if it wasn't for us China wouldn't have the bomb," says Chen.

Chen now has liver cancer and says almost every organ in his body hurts. He blames radiation poisoning and the absence of any safety clothes or procedures. He is proud that his sacrifices helped make China great, he says, but disappointed that his country has not repaid him with adequate compensation or health care.

Chen's ailments may be attributed to old age. But local residents, especially mine workers, have higher cancer rates and die much younger than the national average, the local Great Country Hospital, run by the 712 mining company, reports. Lung cancer, silicosis, leukemia, liver cancer and congenital birth defects are particularly common, they say.

"In 2003 our survey showed 8 per cent of the population, or 350 out of 4000 people, had cancer - when the national average was between 1 and 2 per cent," a health professional at the hospital says.

Down the road from Chen's apartment, one of 712's three abandoned mine shafts appears to be open for casual inspection. There are no fences, no guards and no obvious warning signs. The slag has been heaped at the back of the mine, forming a mini-mountain, and the water run-off is captured in a dam in front. Skirting the dam are rows of carefully cultivated canola, in full flower, while a lattice work of rice paddies occupies the land below.

We are told that hundreds of former uranium industry workers are banding together in hope of government compensation. A large number of state-employed uranium prospectors now living in Guilin, in neighbouring Guangxi province, are cautiously preparing to petition Beijing.

But workers elsewhere in Hunan are not as patient. In a simple cottage near Chenzhou, 150 kilometres to the south of 712, former mine workers are working themselves into a passionate exposition of their plight. They toiled at 711, which is written into Chinese history as the primary uranium source for China's first nuclear weapon.

"We worked for our country," says the oldest of the group. "If we did not have the bomb America would constantly bully us and we would have no international standing. But we have the bomb and we can speak out in the world. The mother country has grown strong. If not for the sacrifices of our generation China would not have the tranquillity it has today."

A 46-year-old miner says there were four men in his work group, all about the same age, and two have died of lung cancer. "The old miners, 55 to 60, are all dead," he says.

The men show us a lengthy petition that details their endeavours, their ailments, the company's pitiful compensation payments and its refusal to hand over their health records. The document is signed by 61 workers and is intended for Beijing.

"I love my country - I'm not scared," says a younger worker who wants us to take his photo and would show us around the mine. But a wiser head emerges from the corner to cool him down.

The group has travelled to Beijing three times to present its case to the national petitions' office, their only legal avenue of redress. And three times undercover security officials from Chenzhou have been waiting there to intercept, detain and escort them home again. Theirs is not a story that the Chenzhou city government wants Beijing or the wider world to hear.

Zhou Xinghuo, a nuclear expert at Hunan University, says there are now no problems with China's nuclear industry. His views seem to have changed since 2006, when he told Phoenix Weekly that the dam water at 712, which is now ringed by canola, contains dangerously high traces of uranium.

Mr Zhou added that an official at China National Nuclear Corporation had recently called from Beijing to warn that he shouldn't talk so much.

The central government says it wants to protect workers and prevent uranium from passing to terrorist groups. It wants to honour the nuclear safeguards agreements that it signed to buy uranium from Australia and elsewhere in order to fuel the world's most ambitious nuclear power program. And the incentives for peasants to risk their lives are diminishing as economic development spreads west across the country and creates better and safer ways to make money.

But corruption remains rampant, officials are typically unaccountable and China's economic miracle is yet to reach many isolated uranium-rich regions.

At Goat River, the lads are loitering on the village leader's porch, chewing sunflower seeds. A waterfall tumbles down the mountain face in front of them before diverting around a strip of rice paddies and into a pristine river.

It seems the only villager at work is an old man who has traded his buffalo for a hand-held motorised plough.

Most of the homes are made of traditional mudbrick, with delicate upturned eaves, except that of the party secretary, which is white tiled and three-storeys high.

What is it like lounging about in one of the more stunningly beautiful villages in southern China? "No good," says one of the young men, surnamed Zhang. "There's no money."

Zhang explains how the village uranium mining and trading enterprise hit trouble two years ago when his father was arrested while edging his overladen little blue truck down the mountain track. The uranium was on route to a businessman in Chenzhou, who was also arrested, according to a local Ningyuan report at the time. The final destination for the uranium remains unclear.

"I was in jail for six months," says Zhang, the father.

How did you get out so soon? "We paid 100,000 yuan," answers the son.

The village enterprise hit more turbulence when Ningyuan town, 60 kilometres downstream, turned off its water supply because their uranium washing had turned the crystal river to muddy brown.

Zhang, the son, thinks the town overreacted. "We drink the water every day, and we're fine," he says, indignantly.

And last year, after a subsequent (possibly unrelated) spate of arrests that saw four Hunan uranium traffickers convicted in a Guangzhou court in August, Ningyuan officials warned that the Central Government was paying close attention and they could no longer afford to turn a blind eye.

A Ningyuan government spokesman told the Herald that uranium mining is forbidden because the area is an important tourist destination. But Wang Yang, the village party secretary, says Ningyuan officials had previously taken a share of the profits at the end of each year. The reason they have suddenly banned mining, he says, is they want much more money and they want it upfront.

"I need a million yuan," says Wang. "I need to give it to four groups of officials: the police, the environment bureau, the department of land and resources and Ningyuan town officials.

"The most important men are the town leader and the town party secretary. If I can get them the money I could repair our [industry] and make this successful."

Wang looks at us, somewhat desperately: "We can start as soon as we like. We just need to find the money."

* The names of individuals at "Goat River" village and the name of the village have been changed.