China Earthquake Buried 32 Radiation Sources

Anita Chang in Beijing, China
Associated Press
May 20, 2008
More than 30 sources of radiation were buried by debris after the magnitude 8 earthquake struck central China last week, state media reported today, while the confirmed death toll rose to more than 40,000.

A French nuclear expert said the radioactive sources likely came from materials used in hospitals, factories, or in research—not for weapons.

The Chinese government had previously said all nuclear facilities affected by the May 12 earthquake were safe and under control, but officials did not give any details about which sites were affected or whether any were damaged.

Today the state-run Xinhua news agency cited minister of environmental protection Zhou Shengxian saying that the quake buried 32 sources of radiation under rubble in Sichuan Province, the heart of the disaster zone. (See photos of the aftermath from the quake.)

All but two have been recovered, and the remaining two have been located, cordoned off, and will soon be transported to a safer location, Xinhua said.

The news service did not elaborate on any potential threat to the public and did not provide details on what the radioactive materials were or where exactly they were found.

It said only that "nuclear facilities and radioactive sources for civilian purposes … have been confirmed safe and controllable."

Meanwhile, Jiang Li, vice minister of civil affairs, announced that at least five million people have lost their homes due to the quake.

The government was setting up temporary housing for victims unable to find shelter with relatives, but there is a "desperate need for tents" to accommodate them, she said.

Damaged Hospitals

Though Sichuan has no commercial nuclear power plants, the province has extensive military and nuclear weapons research facilities.

The headquarters for China's nuclear weapons design facility is in Mianyang, and a plutonium processing facility is in Guangyuan, both cities damaged by the quake. (Explore an interactive atlas of Asia.)

Hans Kristensen, a nuclear arms expert at the Federation of American Scientists, was skeptical that the Chinese government has released no information on damage to the nuclear weapons plants.

"I find it hard to believe, given the widespread destruction in this region, that the military plants that have nuclear materials somehow escaped [the disaster's] reach," he said.

In response to the quake, the military sent soldiers to protect nuclear sites, and the country's nuclear safety agency notified staff to be prepared in case of an environmental emergency.

China's main government Web site and a state-run newspaper described "nuclear facilities" and "radioactive sources" as including power plants, reactors, and sites for fuel production and waste disposal, as well as materials used for scientific research and medical treatment.

Thierry Charles, director of plant safety at the French watchdog group Institute for Radiological Protection and Nuclear Safety, has seen reports from the Chinese nuclear safety agency.

Charles said that materials found in the rubble appeared to come from hospitals, factories, or laboratories and were not for used for making nuclear fuel or weapons.

"It doesn't shock me that there would be radioactive items found," particularly hospital equipment, Charles added.

An unknown number of hospitals were damaged or destroyed in the earthquake. The Sichuan Province health department listed 489 major hospitals in areas that were hardest hit.

Risks Remain

Workers removing radioactive material would first find it with detection devices, then extract the material and place it in a sealed container quickly, Charles said. The material would then be repaired or disposed of as nuclear waste.

Information so far suggests "a good reaction by the Chinese teams," Charles said.

But risks remain, he noted, primarily from any materials that have not been retrieved or sealed. People who remain in close proximity could receive excessive doses of radiation.

There was also a risk that people could be exposed to radioactivity if some materials were crushed in a building collapse, he said.

Overall, Charles did not foresee a major risk to groundwater or health, because most of the material was probably metal equipment, not fuel or something that disperses more widely.

And Kristensen, of the Federation of American Scientists, said if the buried radioactive materials can be isolated and sealed quickly, there should be no risk to the public.

(Associated Press writer Angela Charlton in Paris, France, contributed to this report.)

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