Massive Chinese nuclear site now open to tourists

It's an underground cave as big as 20 football fields -- but no foreigners are allowed.

The Federation of American Scientists has obtained and posted Chinese news videos of the site -- a massive underground cave in Chongqing, the size of 20 football fields, that was built to hold nuclear reactors for producing plutonium to make bombs.

Known as Project 816 -- or, to some Chinese, the Underground Great Wall -- it's described as a multi-story, maze-like construction with over 130 roads and passages that are 21 kilometers long.

Building began in the mid-1960s, but as it dragged on, and fears of a nuclear attack on China waned, the cave was never finished. Instead, in the late 1980s, it became part of the China National Nuclear Corporation's Jianfeng Chemical Engineering Plant and was declassified by the Chinese government around 2002 or 2003.

A small portion was opened to Chinese tourists in April -- admission is 40 yuan (around $6). According to the China Daily, no foreigners are allowed.

Read this poignant story from the China Daily about how and why the cave was built and the human sacrifices that were made -- the 1,000 or so people who were injured or killed, the 5,000 scientists and engineers who were laid off when the site was closed and all the ways they tried to make money (growing mushrooms, which were eaten by rats; melting aluminum alloy to make cans for a nearby beer factory) before they were rehired as workers in the fertilizer plant. The cave is in a poorer part of China, and jobs were hard to find.

There are some pictures of the cave on this blog from the International Panel on Fissile Materials.

From the China Daily:

Walking through the vast excavation, even on a hot day, is a cold and dark experience. Only dim lamps light the pathway, and with all the nuclear equipment long since removed, the wide tunnels - two trucks could easily drive down them side by side, while the main hall is as big as a 20-story tower - seem disappointingly barren...

"The base was once equipped with the most advanced technologies, [a guide said], and if nuclear war broke out, the 2-meter-thick photoelectric lead doors would close and protect the production of plutonium-239, the primary fissile isotope used for the production of nuclear weapons."

In the dark maze of tunnels, there is little to see but rusted steel bars and discarded odds and ends, while the echoing voices contribute to a generally eerie atmosphere. ..."It is so sad. The base was supposed to be the largest nuclear facility in China, not a tourist attraction," said Guo [who worked at the site] before vowing never to visit the cave again.

This post was originally published on Smartplanet.com

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