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.)

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