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Tibet: Environment and Development Issues

[Environment and Development Desk; Department of Information and International Relations; Central Tibetan Administration; Dharamsala, INDIA. April 26, 2000.]


We must first work on the total abolishment of nuclear weapons and gradually work up to total demilitarisation throughout the world... we can then hope to see in the next millennium a year by year decrease in the military expenditure of the various nations and a gradual working towards demilitarisation.

His Holiness the 14th Dalai Lama, New Millennium Message, January 2000.

TIBET holds a unique position among the countries of the world. Not only does its territory cover the highest plateau on the planet, but also Tibet, alone among all nations, chose to abandon the path of aggression and military technology to pursue instead the creation of a society devoted to spiritual development and peace. Following the philosophy of the Buddha, Tibetans created spiritual universities where thousands of people were trained.

The most basic principle of Buddhism is ahimsa (non-violence); one should help others whenever possible and avoid causing any harm. So traditionally, the Tibetan Government kept only a small army. The well-armed and the massive Chinese army invaded Tibet in 1949.

Nuclear weapons, which can destroy all life forms and turn our beautiful green planet into a barren dust-bowl, are the antithesis of Buddhist philosophy. They can kill indiscriminately and continue killing over thousands of years. His Holiness the Dalai Lama poignantly asks, "We know that in the event of a nuclear war there will be no victors because there will be no survivors. Is it not frightening to contemplate such inhuman and heartless destruction? And is it not logical that we should remove the cause of our own destruction when we know it and when we have both the time and means to do so?"

It is especially disturbing for Tibetans to report that their motherland, once dedicated to the peaceful development of the human mind, has become the storehouse of Chinese nuclear weapons and a place for dumping radioactive waste. On top of this China, for financial gain, has reportedly been encouraging foreign countries to ship their toxic waste to Tibet.

This chapter brings to light some of the information available regarding the nuclearisation and militarisation of the altar of the earth - Tibet - and to explain why this is especially critical for the countries "downstream". In fact, we are all "downstream" from Tibet.


Nuclear weapons are explosive devices developed by harnessing the potential of atomic nuclei. Nuclear weapons get their destructive power from the transformation of matter in the nucleus of an atom into energy. They include missiles, bombs, artillery, shells, mines and torpedoes. The weakest nuclear weapons are far more destructive than the most powerful conventional weapons. The atom bombs dropped during World War II in Hiroshima and Nagasaki were nuclear weapons.

This Chapter Aims To:

  • Document the development of nuclear weapons on the Tibetan Plateau
  • Bring to light China's destructive military activities in Tibet and their impact on the environment
  • Create global consciousness about the effects of the nuclearisation and militarisation of the Tibetan Plateau
  • Awaken the spirit of Tibetan people and their supporters to restore and conserve the fragile ecology of Tibet
  • Seek international participation in the restoration and conservation of the Tibetan Plateau.


In 1949 People's Liberation Army (PLA) soldiers entered Eastern Tibet. In the spring of 1950, China's "18th Army" invaded Tibet through Dartsedo (Ch. Kanding) in the east, and through Amdo in the northeast. The "14th Division" entered through Dechen in southeast Tibet. After occupying Kham and Amdo, the advance party of the "18th Army" reached Lhasa on 9 September 1951, followed by the unit's main force on 26 October 1951. This was only the beginning of the vast Chinese military build up in Tibet, which continues to this day (DIIR 1996c).

The first known nuclear weapon was brought onto the Tibetan Plateau in 1971 and installed in the Tsaidam (Ch. Qaidam) Basin in northern Amdo (Ch. Qinghai). China is currently believed to have 17 secret radar stations, 14 military airfields, eight missile bases, at least eight ICBMs, 70 medium-range missiles and 20 intermediate range missiles in the whole of Tibet (DIIR 1998; DIIR 1996c).

The Ninth Academy

The Northwest Nuclear Weapons Research and Design Academy, known as the "Ninth Academy" or "Factory 211," was built by the Ninth Bureau of the Chinese Nuclear Production Establishment in the early 1960s to produce China's early nuclear bomb designs. It is China's top secret nuclear city located in Tsojang (Ch. Haibei) Tibetan Autonomous Prefecture in Amdo, 100 km west of Siling (Ch. Xining).

The construction of the Ninth Academy was approved by the late Chinese leader, Deng Xiaoping, who was then the General Secretary of the Central Committee of the Chinese Communist Party. The Ninth Academy is situated at 36.57 N, 101.55 E, with an elevation of 10,000 ft (3,033 m) above sea level, 10 miles (16.1 km) east of Lake Kokonor, and lies in a watershed which drains into the Tsang Chu River (Ch. Xichuan-he). This becomes the Machu (Yellow River). In the late 1970s the Ninth Academy further established a chemical industry institute to conduct experiments on reprocessing highly enriched uranium fuels.

Throughout the 1960s and 1970s, the Ninth Academy operated under emergency conditions to build China's nuclear weapons capability. An unknown quantity of radioactive waste in the form of liquid slurry as well as solid and gaseous waste was dumped by the Academy. The disposal of waste was haphazard and their record-keeping dismal. Initially radioactive waste was dumped in shallow and unlined landfills (Ackerly 1993a; ICT 1993).

According to the official China news agency, Xinhua, in a report dated 20 July 1995, the Ninth Academy was decommissioned in 1987 and the base was moved to sites in Sichuan Province in Eastern Tibet. However, Tibetans living near the Ninth Academy informed the Tibetan Government-in-Exile in 1996 that Chinese security personnel still secretly guard the Ninth Academy around the clock. A direct railway line connects the Academy with Lake Kokonor, the largest lake on the Tibetan Plateau. Nuclear waste experts believe that radioactive waste was also dumped into the lake. A reliable report from a Chinese man whose father was a nuclear scientist in Lanzhou, Gansu, states that in 1974 there was an accident leading to nuclear pollution of the lake (ICT 1993). The Ninth Academy is located on marshy land allowing polluted water and radioactive particles to easily seep into the groundwater, which flows into Lake Kokonor.

Lake Kokonor is sacred to Tibetans. Throughout history they have protected the natural beauty and sanctity of this lake through sustained spiritual practices and ecological respect. The principle lama of Rebgong Monastery in Amdo, Je Kalden Gyatso, has explained: "Today the island at the centre of Lake Kokonor is called the abode of Maha Dewa (Lord Shiva). It has historical connections with Tibet's great king Songtsen Gampo and also Guru Rinpoche (Padmasambhava). It is the abode of klu (beings who inhabit water bodies) and jangchub sempa (bodhisattvas). It is a pilgrimage site for many kings and saints" (Palbar 1994).

Anti-Frigate Missile Centre at Drotsang

A new missile production centre is located at Drotsang (Ch. Ledu; 36.05N, 102.5E), 63 km east of Siling. The secret code number of this centre is 430. It was originally set up in 1986 and was massively expanded in 1995. It is a surrogate of the Ninth Academy and has been producing anti-frigate missiles which are being tested in Lake Kokonor (Chutter 1998).

Land-Based Nuclear Warheads

When Major-General Zhang Shaosong, the Political Commissar of the PLA in Tibet, was asked point-blank whether there were nuclear weapons in Tibet by the BBC's Mark Braine in 1988, he replied, "Whether there are nuclear weapons in Tibet or not, it is up to the authorities to decide." And he smiled (Kewley 1990).

Tsaidam's Nuclear Missile Launch Sites

The Ninth Academy was ready to produce nuclear weapons by 1971. The first batch of nuclear weapons manufactured at the Ninth Academy was reportedly brought to Tsaidam Basin and stationed at Small Tsaidam (Ch. Xiao Qaidam) and Large Tsaidam (Ch. Da Qaidam) in the extreme northwest of Amdo province (Ch. Qinghai). Tsaidam Basin is known to be one of most advantageous deployment sites for China because of its high altitude and isolation. China established the nuclear missile deployment and launch site for DF-4 missiles in the Tsaidam Basin in the early 1970s. The Large Tsaidam site located in northern Tibet (37.50N and 95.18E) has two missiles stored horizontally in tunnels near the launch pad. Fuel and oxidizers are stored in separate tunnels with lines to the launch pad (Fieldhouse 1991).

According to various reports, a launch site for Dong Feng Four (DF-4) missiles, which are equivalent to Russia's CSS-2, was built in Tsaidam. These missiles, located at Large Tsaidam and Small Tsaidam (37.26N, 95.08E), are reported to have a range of over 4,000 km placing the whole Indian sub-continent within striking distance.

The DF-4 is China's first intercontinental ballistic missile. During the 1970s its range was extended from 4,000 km to 7,000 km allowing the modified version now deployed on the Tibetan Plateau to target Moscow and the rest of the former Soviet Union (Fieldhouse 1991).

The Small Tsaidam site in Northern Tibet is presumably organised in a similar way to the Large Tsaidam deployment and launch site. The missiles were moved to these sites on the Tibetan Plateau in 1971 (Lewis & Xue 1988). According to diplomatic sources informing the International Campaign for Tibet (ICT) in Washington DC, nuclear missiles are stationed in Small Tsaidam and are only moved to Large Tsaidam in times of emergency.

Terlingkha Nuclear Missile Launch Site

Another nuclear missile launch site is located at Terlingkha (Ch. Delingha; 36.6N, 97.12E), 217 km southeast of Tsaidam. It houses DF-4 and Inter-Continental Ballistic Missiles (ICBM). Terlingkha is the missile regiment headquarters for Amdo which consists of four associated launch sites. The organisation of the sites are similar to Large Tsaidam (Chutter 1998; ICT 1993).

New Long Range Missile Division

A new nuclear missile division has also been established on the Tibetan Plateau on the border between Qinghai and Sichuan provinces, in the Tibetan province of Amdo. Four CSS-4 missiles are deployed here, which have a range of 8,000 miles (12,874 km), capable of striking the United States, Europe and anywhere in Asia. Amdo Province is home to four Chinese nuclear missile launch sites, two at Tsaidam, one at Terlingkha and one at the border between Amdo and Sichuan Province (Chutter 1998).

Underground Base at Nagchuka

In the 1970s numerous reports surfaced regarding the stockpiling of nuclear weapons. These reports also confirmed that in 1970 missile base construction work had started about 10 miles (16.1 km) north of Nagchuka (Ch. Nagqu), in the Tibet Autonomous Region' and that there was a considerable build up of Chinese military personnel in the area.

On 14 October 1987, an article in the Sydney-based national newspaper The Australian reported the presence of nuclear missiles at Nagchuka. Subsequently, the Australian Nuclear Disarmament Party, in a press release dated 28 October 1987, expressed its grave concern over the intermediate-range ballistic (IRBM) and medium-range missiles (MRBM) stationed in Nagchuka.

Tashi Chutter's book, Confidential Study on Deployment of Chinese Occupational Force[s] in Tibet, published in 1998 confirms that there are nuclear missiles permanently stationed at Nagchuka. The missiles are housed in underground complexes beneath Risur mountain, 25 km southeast of Nagchuka. The Risur site has reportedly been developed by the Chinese government for two major reasons; to provide an alternative to the Lop Nor nuclear test site in Eastern Turkestan (Ch. Xinjiang) and to store as well as test China's upgraded air defence missiles and nuclear weapons. Nagchuka is reported to have the largest airforce unit stationed at any secluded site.

Rocky Funnels House Missile Base

Like the Risur site, another missile base is located at Tagho Mountain (Tib. Horse-Head Mountain) in the remote valley (32.15N, 89.42E) of Pelok, which lies to the east of Nyima Dzong under Nagchuka administrative division of TAR'. Missiles possibly of a nuclear nature are reportedly stored in the underground rocky tunnels of Tagho Mountain. The entire region is described as a desolate desert where only military vehicles are allowed to enter (Chutter 1998).

Underground Missile Storage Near Lhasa

Dhoti Phu is located 3.5 km to the northwest of Drapchi Prison and one kilometre to the west of Sera Monastery. It came into existence between the late 1960s and 1970s. It was observed that occasionally 20 to 25 trucks loaded with elongated objects wrapped in canvas cloth were seen entering the storage site. The movement of these vehicles took place only at night. The sophisticated underground storage complex of Dhoti Phu reportedly contains missiles known as di dui kong (ground-to-air) and di dui di (surface-to-surface). In Lhasa during Chinese Army Day (1 August), a number of missiles of these types were displayed to the public on missile guiding vehicles (Chutter 1998).

Missiles Complex in Kongpo

A large underground missile storage facility is located near Payi Town in Nyingtri (Ch. Nyingchi) region of Kongpo, TAR' under the secret code number 809 (Ch: Pa Ling Jue). It is controlled by the Chengdu Military Logistic Division. Supplies are brought in by the 17th, 18th and 20th Transport Regiments from Chengdu and some supplies are also brought in from Lhasa. A few low ceilinged barracks were noticed near the foothill of a mountain in Payi where there is an entrance leading to an underground storage complex. Long convoys of military trucks belonging to the transport regiments have been observed entering the storage facility. When fresh supplies arrive at the facility, storage complex drivers replace the regular drivers inside the complex.

It is reported that ground-to-air and surface-to-surface missiles are stored at this site. During mock military exercises a large number of such missiles are taken out of this complex. At one time about 80 missiles were observed. They were mounted on 20 trucks, each truck carrying four missiles. Each missile measured about one and a half times the length of the trucks and some had fins. During these exercises, missiles were launched vertically and horizontally to hit pre-arranged targets (Chutter 1998).

Airbases with Nuclear Weapons

There are three types of aircraft in China currently available for nuclear bombing missions: the Hong-6 bomber, the Hong-5 bomber, and the Qian-5 attack jet. The Hong-6 has a combat radius of over 3,000 km and can reach targets in the former Soviet Union and India. The Hong-5 has a combat radius of 1,200 km (Fieldhouse 1991).

During the 1960s and 1970s the three main military airbases in Tibet were in Lhasa, Chabcha and Golmud. During the 1960s, Chabcha and Golmud airfields were used as refuelling stations for Chinese aircraft on their way to Tibet and the Indian border. The Gongkar airfield, located 97 km southwest of Lhasa, has been the main military airfield and the main supply centre for the Chinese forces in the border area.

At Shigatse military airport, four or five IL-28 bombers were deployed with some jetfighter aircraft. Military transport aircraft such as the AN-32 and the Russian made IL-18 were noticed in frequent operations at the airport. Every autumn, these bombers carried out bombing exercises at a place known as Logma Thang, 50 km west of the airport. During the rest of the year the aircraft practice flight manoeuvring exercises (Chutter 1998).

A classified Pentagon report quoted by The Washington Times states that missile launch complexes in Jianshui, near the China-Vietnam border and at Datong in Amdo are equipped with CSS-2 and CSS-5 launchers that can hit targets which cover "most of India". Other targets include Russia, Japan and Taiwan, as specified in a classified study prepared by the National Air Intelligence Centre (NAIC). According to the NAIC report, China now has about 40 CSS-2 re-fire capable launchers at six field garrison and launch complexes. The launchers at Datong missile garrison can target Russia as well as India. The CSS-2 training sites have also been observed by US spy satellites in nearby Haiyan.

Russia is selling 100 advanced artillery systems with precision guided shells to China in secret arms deals, including modern aircraft, destroyers and other high-tech arms. China purchased some 50 SU-27 flanker warplanes from Russia and has plans to purchase 250 more of the jets by 2005. The SU-27s will be fitted with AA-11 air-to-air missiles, a very effective radar guided rocket with electronic counter-measure pods (The Tribune 5 July 1997).

It is evident that China is modernising its nuclear weapons and developing multiple warhead missiles. The Chinese now have intercontinental nuclear capability. Intercontinental ballistic missiles can reach most of the USA, according to General Habiger, Commander of the US Strategic Command. General Habiger added that China's new intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBM) include the DF-31, a road-mobile missile with a range of more than 4,500 miles (7,242 km), and a second new ICBM with a range of more than 7,000 miles (11,265 km) (The Tribune 3 April 1998).

China continues to violate the Nuclear Test Ban Treaty of 1963. It exploded an underground nuclear device at Lop Nor test site in Eastern Turkestan (Xinjiang), directly north of Tibet, on 17 August 1995, and thereafter it exploded two nuclear bombs on 8 June 1996, and 29 July 1996. China has so far exploded 45 nuclear bombs since its detonation of an atomic bomb in 1964 at Lop Nor. China's 45th nuclear explosion of 29 July 1996 came just a few hours before delegates sat down to negotiate the final stage of the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty (CTBT) at the United Nations Conference on Disarmament in Geneva.

China has land, sea and air-based missiles, nuclear missiles on submarines, and it continues to develop various smaller nuclear warheads. These nuclear warheads are loaded onto a multiple warhead missile, thereby greatly enhancing its ballistic capability. China's total nuclear power is estimated to be 16,000 times greater than the atomic bomb dropped on Hiroshima (20,000 kilotons of TNT) which killed 140,000 people in Japan. Yet China claims it needs more tests to ensure the safety of its nuclear devices (DIIR 1996a).

CNN World News on 7 April 1998 announced that France and the United Kingdom ratified the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty (CTBT) to prevent international nuclear proliferation for a nuclear-free world. China is one of the nuclear states in the world, along with the US and Russia, who are yet to ratify the CTBT. China signed the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty in 1992.

However, no matter what is signed or declared on the international stage, China evidently does not comply or yield ground. No country dares to upset the Asian giant for fear of losing its lucrative trade. Tibet and its people, because of their "crime" of not being represented at the United Nations, continue to suffer humiliation as many countries of the world indulge in double-talk about international norms of good conduct. These nations continue to ignore nuclear proliferation on the Roof of the World.


Radioactive wastes are chemical wastes which contain their own unique blend of hundreds of distinctly unstable atomic structures called radio-isotopes. Each radio-isotope has its own lifespan and potency for giving off alpha, beta and gamma rays. These rays can cause cancer and other diseases in human beings and animals; most frightening of all, radiation emitted by radioactive wastes can cause genetic mutation resulting in birth defects in human babies. Scientists have not discovered any foolproof way to permanently contain radioactive wastes, and currently-spent fuels from power plants are stored in dry castes, which must be kept cool. One spoonful of plutonium powder is enough to destroy the population of a large city.

A Dumping Ground for Nuclear Waste

The Vienna Declaration of the World Conference on Human Rights, 1993, articulated that, "Illicit dumping of toxic and dangerous substances potentially constitutes a serious threat to human rights, life and the health of everyone."

The Basel Convention, signed in 1992 by various countries and to which China is a signatory, and the subsequent Basel Ban, adopted as an amendment to the convention in September 1995, prohibit trade in hazardous wastes from industrialised to non-industrialised countries. At the fourth Conference of Parties (COP-IV) held in Kuching, Malaysia, between 23-27 February 1998, China supported no changes to the Basel Ban to stop certain developing countries from benefiting from trade in recyclable hazardous waste. Although this is a step in the right direction, China's own record of waste disposal on the Tibetan Plateau is dismal, to say the least.

On 18 February 1984, The Washington Post reported that China had tentatively agreed to store up to 4,000 tons of radioactive waste from European nuclear reactors in the remote Gobi Desert in exchange for US$ 6 billion. Since then this was to take place over the next 16 years.

In the fall of 1988, news began circulating among Tibetans that Tibet was to be used as a nuclear dumping ground for Western Europe. According to His Holiness the Dalai Lama, a signed document offered evidence that the Chinese government was planning to dump foreign nuclear waste in Tibet (Weisskopf 1984). In 1991, Greenpeace reported that the city officials in Baltimore, Maryland, USA, had secured a tentative agreement with China to ship 20,000 tons of the city's toxic sewage waste to Tibet in exchange for payment of US$1.44 million.

The brokers for the shipment were California Enterprises, and Hainan Sunlit Group, a Chinese government agency. The latter stated that such shipments did not require government approval according to China's import rules, and guaranteed that the sludge would not be shipped back to the USA. Greenpeace noted that the import document described the shipment as "heni", which means "river silt" in Chinese. Greenpeace protested that "urban sewage is not river silt". In the United States, sludge from urban sewage treatment plants are chronically laced with toxic pollutants. In Milwaukee, USA, such use was linked to outbreaks of amyotrophic lateral sclerosis. Due to international pressure the above shipment of waste to Tibet did not take place.

His Holiness the Dalai Lama, while participating in a meet-the-press programme, organised by the Karnataka Union of Working Journalists in Bangalore in India, said he had authentic information that China had set up a nuclear weapons factory in Tibet. He said that China had stationed a half-a-million-strong military force in Tibet, which indicated that the situation in the occupied territory was potentially explosive (The Statesman 21 January 1992).

China's Nationalities Affairs Commission issued a document through Xinhua on 18 April 1991 stating that allegations of nuclear pollution from the deployment of nuclear weapons and nuclear waste in Tibet were "totally groundless". However, the same news agency had admitted that nuclear wastes were dumped in Tibet. On 19 July 1995 it reported that there was a "20 square metre dump for radioactive pollutants" in Tsojang (Haibei) Tibetan Autonomous Prefecture near the shores of Lake Kokonor. The report claimed that the military nuclear weapons facility (Ninth Academy), that produced the waste, had maintained an "excellent" safety record during its 30 years of operation, and that there had not been "any harm to the environment" and "no one at the base ever died of radiation".

The report did not give details as to how the nuclear waste was initially contained or how it is being managed. It did however quote You Deliang, spokesman for the China National Nuclear Corporation (CNNC), as saying that China spent a large amount of money from 1989 to 1993 to "strictly supervise the environmental conditions of the retired nuclear weapons base".

Chinese government propaganda even went to the extent of saying: "Haibei Prefecture moved its capital from Menynan county to the site of the retired nuclear plant, only one month after the area passed a state examination in June, 1993. Atom Bomb City (Ninth Academy) has since been serving the economic prosperity of the people" (Xinhua 19 July 1995)

A 1993 report, Nuclear Tibet, published by the International Campaign for Tibet, documented reports by a Tibetan doctor, Tashi Dolma, of abnormally high rates of diseases in the nearby towns of Reshui and Ganzihe. She also treated children of nomads who grazed their animals adjacent to the "Ninth Academy" or "Factory 211," nuclear base, seven of whom died of cancer within five years. Shallow land burial techniques for nuclear waste, considered obsolete in the West, were deemed "sufficiently safe" for implementation in China. On the proposed site for High Level Waste (HLW), Chinese officials said that China had a very wide distribution area and it would be easy to find a site (UNI 1988). Since Tibet is sparsely populated by "minority nationalities" and is far removed from Beijing, the Chinese consider it as a perfect site to dump poisonous nuclear wastes.

According to a Reuter report dated 10 November 1993, China was building its first radioactive waste disposal centre in the arid western province of Gansu. Further, it had planned three more in southern, southwestern and eastern China under its ambitious schemes to boost nuclear power to make up for a projected annual shortage of some 150 million tons of coal by 2000 and 1.2 billion tons by 2050. The Gansu disposal centre would have an initial disposal capacity of 60,000 cubic metres of radioactive waste, which would expand to 200,000 cubic metres. CNNC spokesman, You Deliang, said costs are estimated to be at least 100 million yuan (US$ 12.5 million).

Taiwan's nuclear experts went to Beijing to attend a symposium billed as an "ice-breaker for atom splitters". China offered a dumpsite for Taiwan's stockpile of radioactive waste (Far Eastern Economic Review 25 March 1993) but, according to AFP on 28 May 1997, Taiwan snubbed the offer by China to take their 60,000 barrels of nuclear waste.


Dumping of nuclear wastes on the Tibetan Plateau will directly affect the lives of people and the health of the environment in both the short-term and over millions of years. For example, the half life (time it takes to lose half of its radioactivity) of uranium (U238) is 4,500 million years. Therefore, harmful radiation emitted is a health hazard for millions of years to come and can lead to a number of deadly diseases including cancer and leukaemia. Radioactivity also affects the DNA of living cells causing genetic disorders and deformities that can be passed from generation to generation in humans, animals and plants.

The fission of U235 produces many other radioactive isotopes, such as strontium 90, cesium 137 and barium 140. These wastes remain radioactive and dangerous for about 600 years because of the strontium and cesium isotopes. Plutonium and others remain radioactive for a million years. Even in small amounts, plutonium can cause cancer or genetic (reproduction) damage in human beings. Larger amounts can cause radiation sickness and death. Plutonium is so carcinogenic that one pound (0.5 kg) of it evenly distributed could cause cancer in every person on earth (Caldicott 1997). Safe disposal of these radioactive wastes is one of the problems that remains unsolved by world scientists, even today.

People, Animals and Plants Contaminated

Gonpo Thondup, who escaped from Tibet to Dharamsala in India in March 1987, visited two nuclear weapons production departments code-numbered 405 in Kyangtsa and 792 in Thewo, Amdo region. His statement was presented by Tsewang Norbu at the World Uranium Hearing in Salzburg, Germany, on 14 September 1992.

It reads: "The effects of experiments and waste from 792 and 405 have been devastating. Before 1960, in this region of Amdo harvests were plentiful and domestic animals healthy. Now the crop yield has shrunk and people and animals are dying mysteriously, and in increasing numbers. Since 1987 there has been a sharp rise in the number of deaths of domestic animals and fish have all but vanished. In the years of 1989 and 1990, 50 people died in the region, all from mysterious causes. Twelve women gave birth in the summer of 1990, and every child was dead before or died during birth. One Tibetan woman, Tsering Dolma (aged 30), has given birth seven times and not a single child has survived."

Gonpo Thondup added that, "The people living near departments 405 and 792 have experienced strange diseases they have never seen before. Many local people's skin turned yellowish and their eyesight has been affected seriously. Local populace reported strange memory losses and many babies are born deformed. The people of the area are desperate, and can only turn to religion and local doctors, who have no knowledge of the uranium mines or of the nuclear plants nearby."

There is consistent evidence that China's nuclear programme has caused the regular loss of human lives. According to Tibet Information Network (TIN) in a News Update of 11 September 1992, at least 35 Tibetans living near uranium mines died within a few hours after developing a high fever and distinctive diarrhoea in Ngaba region in Sichuan Province.

In 1984 villagers from Reshui and Ganzihe villages, located close to the Ninth Academy in Amdo, reported strange diseases to the Tibetan doctor, Tashi Dolma and her medical team. However, the Chinese authorities would not allow the medical team to follow up these reports. Dr. Tashi worked at Chabcha hospital in Tsolho (Hainan) Tibetan Autonomous Prefecture, directly south of the nuclear city (Ninth Academy), where she treated the children of nomads whose cattle grazed near the Academy. These children developed cancer which caused their white blood cell count to rise uncontrollably. An American doctor conducting research at the hospital reported that these symptoms were similar to cancers caused by radiation after the Hiroshima and Nagasaki atom bombings in 1945. In addition, there have been numerous reports of unexplained deaths and illnesses amongst this nomad population in recent years.

In September 1992, the International Campaign for Tibet fact-finding team found that meat from the area had been banned from stores by the Chinese authorities. However, poor Tibetans often ate the contaminated meat, either out of ignorance or economic constraint.


Uranium mines are located in several regions of Tibet, including Damshung, north of Lhasa; Tsaidam Basin north of Gormo (Ch. Golmud); Yamdrok Tso, and Thewo (3338N, 10245E) in southern Amdo, 254 km from Tsoe under Kanlho (Ch. Gannan) Tibetan Autonomous Prefecture in Gansu Province. The uranium deposits at Thewo in Kanlho Tibetan Autonomous Prefecture are known to be the largest in Tibet. The processing of uranium takes place four km southwest of Thewo. Apart from mining uranium in Tibet, the Chinese also extract strontium which is used for nuclear missile cladding (Chutter 1998).

At the uranium mine at Thewo, poisonous waste water is allegedly collected and stored in a stone structure 40 meters high before being released into the local river, which the people use for drinking. Tibetan refugees escaping to India report the following results from the mining:

  • More than 50 Tibetan residents of Thewo died between 1987-91 from mysterious illnesses
  • Domestic animals die mysteriously and the cause of illness is unidentifiable
  • Trees and grasses wither
  • The Jampakok River is polluted; the water is black and smells putrid. This river merges with Dukchu Karpo (Ch. Palungjang River).

A list of 24 Thewo residents who mysteriously died was part of the information provided to the Tibetan Government-in-Exile's Environment Desk. Witnesses said that before they died, all the victims experienced a high fever, then shivering cold; after death, their skins had a bluish hue. Animals also turned blue or black after death and their organs appeared burnt.

Vanya Kewley, a BBC reporter who visited the Chinese missile base at Nagchuka in 1988, interviewed several people living in the area. In her book Tibet: Behind the Ice Curtain a man called Kelsang said: "Many people have seen and heard movements and noises. Most people here have seen missiles coming from China and many travellers have seen movements of missiles at different places."

He further said: "As a result of the situation here, animals are getting strange diseases and dying. Some people are dying and children are being born deformed. In many places, water is contaminated and undrinkable. The moment you drink it, you get ill or get diseases that we never had before. People get ill and go to different hospitals. They don't get better and the doctors don't tell us what it is and then we have to keep quiet about it."

Prison Labour at Nuclear Missile Sites

During the 1960s and 1970s, prisoners including political prisoners were used to build China's nuclear infrastructures. In Amdo huge prison labour camps (laogai) are consistently placed next to nuclear missile sites. Next to the Terlingkha silos is the "Delingha Farm", which is one of the three largest labour camps in China today with a prison population estimated at 100,000.

The two nuclear missile sites in central Amdo, Large Tsaidam and Small Tsaidam, also have sizeable labour camps alongside them. Prominent human rights activist and former Chinese political prisoner, Harry Wu, reports that labour reform camps in Amdo use prisoners to excavate radioactive ore. In addition, prisoners are forced to enter nuclear test sites in order to perform dangerous work. Common and political prisoners are also used in nuclear facilities in Lanzhou, Gansu Province (ICT 1993).

The International Campaign for Tibet confirmed in 1993 that prison labour was used in the building of nuclear installations at Lop Nor, the Ninth Academy and Lanzhou.


Most toxic disposal sites on the Tibetan Plateau have minimal, if any, safety standards. The effects of harmful radioactive pollutants dumped anywhere on the plateau will be felt far beyond its borders, particularly because it is the source of Asia's ten major river systems and numerous tributaries. It thus commands massive interdependent ecological zones which share weather and climatic anomalies.

Atmospheric Pollution

The nuclear waste pollution of the Tibetan Plateau, besides having local effects, also has trans-national implications. The high altitude winds (jet streams) that blow over the Tibetan Plateau may carry nuclear pollutants from Tibet across the globe to affect other countries; no boundary can be built to control air pollution. The Tibetan Plateau is seismologically an active region. Consequently, serious accidents at nuclear power and weapons production plants can endanger the lives of people and the health of the environment. When the disaster occurred at the Chernobyl nuclear power plant in the former Soviet Union in 1986, radioactive dust from the plant travelled 950 miles (1,529 km) in all directions, resulting in irreparable damage to people, property and the environment (Chitkara 1996).

Ground Water and Soil Contamination

Pan Ziqiang, Director of the Safety Department of the state-run National Nuclear Industry Corporation, is quoted as saying that so far all of China's nuclear wastes have been put in concrete basement facilities which are safe for only about 10 years.

Luo Guozhen of the State Environmental Protection Bureau says that 1,200 people were injured by radioactivity between 1980 and 1985 and about 20 died. He said managers who ignored regulations on handling radioactive waste were partly to blame for radioactive leaks (Sunday Morning Post 1989).

Due to weathering, radioactive and other military wastes buried in the ground in concrete containers will seep out and contaminate ground water sources that are normally used for drinking and agricultural purposes. Ground water makes up a significant share of China's water resources.

Reports from Tibet confirm that underground water supplies in Amdo have been diminishing at a rapid rate. One of the main sources of drinking water, underground aquifers, are impossible to clean once contaminated. Therefore, any pollution at all, especially radioactive contamination of ground water, is of great concern (Chitkara 1996).

River Pollution and Flooding

Radioactive waste randomly disposed of near water bodies will pollute rivers, lakes, and springs. Since Tibet is the fountainhead of water for most of South and Southeast Asia, the impact of headwater pollution especially by nuclear or industrial toxic waste on the social and economic fabric of millions of people living downstream would be disastrous. Countries including China, Pakistan, India, Bangladesh, Burma, Thailand, Cambodia, Laos, Bhutan, Nepal, and Vietnam will be drastically affected and forced to alter their livelihood. This will certainly cause terrible suffering to everyone dependent on these rivers for their subsistence.

Massive deforestation of the Tibetan Plateau largely contributes to the siltation of the downstream rivers and the increasingly destructive flooding that occurs each year. Rivers such as the Brahmaputra, Yangtze, Yellow River, Salween, Sutlej, Indus, Mekong and others may also carry nuclear-related waste from uranium mines in Tibet. These rivers finally flow into the Arabian Sea, Bay of Bengal and the South China Sea. The global scale of such an environmental catastrophe is truly frightening.

Between 1985 and 1994 36,000 hectares of Chinese farmland suffered annually from topsoil loss, especially along the Yangtze and Yellow Rivers, both of which originate from Tibet. Erosion has caused river beds to rise several meters higher than the surrounding farmland, thereby increasing the incidence of flooding. Since 1990, China's major rivers have flooded large tracts of land almost every year (UNDP 1997). More than 1,600 people drowned due to flooding of the Yangtze River in July 1996. The flooded river waters have affected one in 10 Chinese (FEER 1996).

In an extensive survey of China's major river basins, carried out in 1994, only 32 percent of the river water was found to meet the national standards for drinking water sources. Large segments of the Chinese population have to rely on polluted sources for drinking water, though estimates differ considerably (UNDP 1997).

At the "Endangered Tibet" Conference in Sydney on 28 September 1996, His Holiness the Dalai Lama said, "Five years ago, a local Tibetan from the Dingri region of southern Tibet told me about a river that all the villagers used for drinking. There were also Chinese living in the area. The Chinese residents belonging to the People's Liberation Army were informed not to drink the water from the river as it was polluted by a factory upstream, but local Tibetans were not informed. The Tibetans still drink the polluted water. This shows some sort of negligence going on. This obviously is not because of lack of awareness, but due to other reasons."


Beijing has unresolved territorial disputes over land or sea borders with countries ranging geographically from India and North Korea to Indonesia, not to mention its outright claim to Taiwan. Beijing's official 1996-97 defence budget was US$ 30.27 billion and over the last 10 years China's defence budget shows a net increase of 12 to 20 percent (Kanwal 1999). China has 9,200 tanks, 51 submarines, 55 destroyers and frigates, 870 patrol and coastal crafts, and 5,845 combat aircraft (FEER 13 April 1995).

The Nuclear Weapons Data of 1994 brought out by the US Natural Resources Defence Council had estimated China's nuclear arsenal at 450 warheads, of which about 300 were physically deployed. An autumn 1995 study in the US Strategic Review had estimated the delivery capability of China's strategic triad as consisting of: four Inter-Continental Ballistic Missiles (DF-5A also known as CSS-4) capable of hitting targets in the US, Russia, and Europe;

Intermediate-Range Ballistic Missiles (an unknown quantity of DF-4, also known as CSS-3 and about 50 DF-3A also known as CSS-2) capable of hitting Russia and India; about 25 to 50 mobile missiles (DF-21 also known as CSS-6) with a range of 1,800 km; an unknown quantity of tactical missiles (DF-15 also known as M-9) with a range of 600 km; Submarine-Launched Ballistic Missiles (JL-1 also known as CSS-N-3) with a range of 1,700 km, and a limited number of aircraft capable of nuclear delivery such as the H-5 and H-6 bombers and the Q-5 attack aircraft.

In addition, according to the Strategic Review, China was further developing DF-31 with a range of 8,000 km, DF-41 with a range of 12,000 km and JL-2, and a submarine-launchable version of DF-31. China's new small nuclear missiles will very likely equip DF-31 and DF-41 ( Fischer 1999). It was also developing H-7, a twin-jet, twin-seat all-weather strike and interdiction aircraft capable of nuclear delivery (The Hindu 12 October 1998).

China has 120 TU-16 bombers that have a 3,100 km range and has deployed the S-3000 surface to air missile (The Tribune 11 June 1998). China is indeed a nuclear power to be reckoned with.

China admitted that it has powerful nuclear arms. "We have developed a limited number of strategic nuclear arms for the sake of breaking the nuclear monopoly, opposing blackmail, containing a possible nuclear attack and creating a peaceful environment for China's construction," Yang Guoliang, commander of the Second Artillery Force (SAF) of the People's Liberation Army was quoted as saying by the official Chinese media (The Times of India 1997).

A new Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) report says that 13 of China's 18 long-range strategic missiles have single nuclear warheads aimed at cities in the United States. Quoting an intelligence document sent to top policy-makers in advance of Secretary of State Madeleine Albright's visit to Beijing on 30 April 1998, The Washington Times said the 13 CSS-4 missiles aimed at the US with a range of more than 8,000 miles (12,874 km) - indicate that China views the United States as its major strategic adversary (The Indian Express 2 May 1998).

China has been supplying missiles and other weapons technology to client countries including Russia, Iran, Syria, and Pakistan. In fact, in recent years China has become the fifth leading weapons supplier in the international arms market, ranking behind the other four Permanent Members of the Security Council of the United Nations, thereby threatening global peace and security.


Tibet was the traditional buffer state between the two Asian giants - India and China. However, after its occupation by China, this neutral zone of peace collapsed. It escalated tension between the two, which culminated into the Sino-Indian war in 1962. China defeated the Indian army and is now occupying the Aksai Chin range in Northern India, which is claimed by India.

According to a report submitted by American author John F. Avedon to the US Senate Foreign Relations Committee on 17 September 1987, "One quarter of China's 350-strong nuclear missile force is in Tibet." Subsequently, the Australian Nuclear Disarmament Party in a press release on 28 October 1987 expressed its grave concern and stated that "nuclear missiles are reported to be deployed as follows: 70 medium-range, 20 intermediate-range at Nagchuka, ICBM base at Nyingtri, Kongpo and Powo Tramo and nuclear reactors at Golino. Deployment of the above nuclear missiles in Tibet could be aimed primarily at India" (The Times of India 1988).

India has long accused China of threatening nuclear attack. This had led China's late Prime Minister, Zhou Enlai, to respond that if China really wanted to destroy India he would gather 100 million Chinese in Tibet and order them to urinate downhill washing India into the ocean. Zhou's remark underlines the Himalayas' enormous strategic importance. All of India's great rivers rise in the Himalayas (Margolis 1997).

India's rapid development of a nuclear arsenal, a powerful navy and tactical and medium-ranged missiles, has heightened tensions between Delhi and Beijing. Intelligence sources say India's new intermediate-range missile, the "Agni," has been designed to fire nuclear warheads at Chinese targets as far away as the major industrial centres of Chengdu, Lanzhou, Xian and Wuhan. A longer range 5,000 km version capable of hitting Beijing is under development. India's security sources say "Agni" is a counter-force weapon against Chinese missiles pointed at north India from the Tibetan Plateau (Margolis 1997).

China supplied over 50 M-11 missiles to Pakistan between 1992 and 1994. It also supplied 5,000 ring magnets for the uranium enrichment facility for making nuclear bombs at Kahuta in 1995. Pakistan stored the M-11 missiles in canisters at its Sargodha airbase and has been constructing a missile factory using Chinese equipment. This illicit trade was clearly a violation by China of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty which it signed in 1992. In 1997, Pakistan announced that another missile, the Hatf-III, which is actually a Chinese M-9 had been successfully test-fired (India Today 20 April 1998).

According to Indian defence experts, China has supplied technology know-how to Pakistan to produce surface-to-surface ballistic missiles called "Ghauri". Pakistan successfully tested its "Ghauri" missile as a counter measure to India's "Agni" on 6 April 1998. Air Commander Jasjit Singh, Director of India's Institute of Defence Studies and Analysis, said, "Obviously Pakistan is in the process of legitimising its missiles programme as indigenous even though it has Chinese help, " (The Times of India 1998). The "Ghauri" missile of Pakistan is nothing but a primitive CSS-5 (DF-21) sold by China to Pakistan, reported the Indian daily The Tribune on 15 April 1998.

China is strengthening its defence by elongating runways at 11 airbases in Tibet. This will enable Chinese bombers to take off with the maximum payload possible and hit targets deep inside Indian territory. Between 1992-93 China acquired 24 Russian-made Sukhoi-27 long-range multi-role fighters. These high technology aircraft have a combat range of about 3,000 km which are much superior fighters in terms of radius of action, payload and fuel efficiency to the Indian Jaguars and Mig-27s. The former Air Chief Marshal of India, S.K. Kaul went on record to state that China posed the primary long-term strategic challenge to India (The Times of India 1996).

The Defence Minister of India, George Fernandes, has reportedly declared that China is India's "potential threat number one" and has said that India is surrounded by Chinese military and naval activity. He further said China had its nuclear weapons stockpiled in Tibet right along India's borders and that there had been a lot of "elongation" of military airfields in Tibet where the latest versions of Russian-made Sukhoi (SU-27) combat aircraft were going to be stationed. "And this happened in the last six months," he added (The Tribune 4 May 1998).

India tested three nuclear devices on 11 May 1998 followed by two tests on 13 May at Pokhran in Rajasthan. Many experts believe this is in response to the Chinese military build-up on the Tibetan Plateau. The Prime Minister of India, A.B. Vajpayee, in a confidential letter addressed to the President of the United States, Bill Clinton, dated 11 May 1998 said, "We have an overt nuclear weapons state on our borders, a state (China) which committed armed aggression against India in 1962...To add to the distress that country has materially helped another neighbour of ours (Pakistan) to become a covert nuclear weapons state."

India refuted China's condemnation of its tests by pointing out that China had already conducted 45 nuclear tests (The Times of India 18 May 1998). The tension between India and China is boiling and at an all-time high.


Saving the environment of the Tibetan Plateau guarantees the purity of major rivers that originate from it to form the life-blood of millions of people downstream in Asia. Chinese nuclear weapons production, nuclear tests and waste dumping endangers the lives of millions of people in Asia. Before it is too late, grassroots and international actions must be taken to educate the Chinese and global community as to the disastrous consequences of deployment of nuclear weapons and dumping of toxic nuclear waste on the Tibetan Plateau.


  • Writing letters to your parliamentarians, state representatives, and to the United Nations expressing concern over the nuclearisation and militarisation of the Tibetan Plateau
  • Organising street demonstrations, concerts, talks, conferences to transform Tibet into a demilitarised zone.
  • Calling upon China and other nations with nuclear weapons to begin negotiations immediately on a Nuclear Weapons Convention, which would prohibit and eliminate all nuclear weapons by the next century.
  • Join Abolition 2000, and other global lobbying networks, to work to create a nuclear-free world (email: wagingpeace@napf.org).


  • Pursue earnestly the goal of abolition of nuclear weapons
  • Make strategic reduction of nuclear arsenals time-bound
  • Increase transparency and international accountability of nuclear weapons and waste
  • Ban production and sale of weapons of mass destruction
  • Enforce international embargoes and sanctions against treaty breakers
  • Educate the public and government officials about the dangers of nuclear weapons


The Tibetan Plateau has been militarised and weaponised by China in pursuit of its own myopic designs without any consideration for the lives and well-being of the Tibetan people and their environment. Given the poor record of Chinese nuclear waste management and the lack of advanced technology to contain nuclear wastes, the implications in nuclearising the Tibetan Plateau for Tibet, China, and its neighbours is truly alarming.

Militarisation of the Tibetan Plateau with its attendant pollution is an important regional and global issue because it is the source of major river waters for India, China, Nepal, Bhutan, Pakistan, Burma, Bangladesh, Thailand, Cambodia, Vietnam and Laos. Upsetting the ecological balance of the high Tibetan Plateau also affects the jet streams that blow over it, and this in turn is found to be irreversibly linked with the environment of the whole Asian continent and the disturbance of global climatic patterns.

The altar of the earth the Tibetan Plateau must be saved from a nuclear holocaust for the survival of mankind. This responsibility falls on the Chinese government, Tibetans and the international community equally. We must act before it is too late. His Holiness the Dalai Lama has championed non-violence and proposed to the government of China that they turn Tibet into a Zone of Peace as stated in His Five Point Peace Plan (see Appendix 4), announced on 21 September 1987 in Washington DC, USA. But to no avail.

India's Defence Minister, George Fernandes, during the August 1989 International Convention on Tibet and Peace in South Asia said, "If Tibet becomes a zone of peace, free from Chinese troops and nuclear weapons, there will be no reason for India to maintain a large army on the Himalayan heights. This would immediately enable both India and China to reduce their military expenditure and use the money thus saved for economic development"(Fernandes 1991).

China has vowed time and time again that they are a no-first-use nation and that they are on record as being strongly in favour of nuclear abolition (Butler 1998). The head of the Chinese delegation at the Second Session of the Preparatory Committee for the 2000 Review Conference of the Parties to the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons (NPT) in Geneva on 27 April 1998, Sha Zukang, called for a convention on a total ban of nuclear weapons to be concluded at an early date like the conventions banning chemical and biological weapons (Xinhua 27 April 1998). China on 23 July 1999 declared publicly its endorsement of a treaty to maintain Southeast Asia as a nuclear-weapons-free zone, making it the first major military power to do so (Inside China Today 1999a). These are positive signs.

As an initial act of goodwill the government of China must first de-militarise the Tibetan Plateau and declare Tibet a Zone of Peace. It should restore Tibet to its traditional status as a neutral buffer state between the two most populous nations in the world - China and India. Such an action would not only benefit Tibet, China itself and its neighbours, but also the whole Asian continent and the millions of people across the globe. Moreover, such a concrete initiative will help foster a more friendly and compassionate world for all our children to live in and to share with all other sentient beings.


[Source: Used with permission from Environment and Development Desk. Department of Information and International Relations; Central Tibetan Administration; Dharamsala, India.]

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