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Cablegate: After Attempted Cover-Up, China Calls Cobalt-60 Incident A

VZCZCXRO0028
RR RUEHAST RUEHCN RUEHDH RUEHGH RUEHHM RUEHLN RUEHMA RUEHPB RUEHPOD
RUEHSL RUEHTM RUEHTRO RUEHVC
DE RUEHGZ #0688/01 3520908
ZNR UUUUU ZZH
R 180908Z DEC 09
FM AMCONSUL GUANGZHOU
TO RUEHC/SECSTATE WASHDC 1187
INFO RUEHOO/CHINA POSTS COLLECTIVE 0385
RUEHBJ/AMEMBASSY BEIJING 0951
RHMFISS/DEPT OF ENERGY WASHINGTON DC 0043
RUEHZN/ENVIRONMENT SCIENCE AND TECHNOLOGY COLLECTIVE 0030
RUEHVEN/USMISSION IAEA
RUEAIIA/CIA WASHDC 0358
RUEKJCS/DIA WASHDC 0354
RHHMUNA/HQ USPACOM HONOLULU HI

UNCLAS SECTION 01 OF 02 GUANGZHOU 000688

SENSITIVE
SIPDIS

STATE FOR EAP/CM, OES, EEB AND MED
STATE PASS TO NUCLEAR REGULATORY COMMISSION

E.O. 12958: N/A
TAGS: ENRG PGOV SENV KSCA IAEA CH
SUBJECT: After Attempted Cover-Up, China Calls Cobalt-60 Incident a
Failure, not an Accident

1. (SBU) Summary: Chinese officials took more than six weeks to
resolve an incident at a food irradiation center where a quantity of
Cobalt-60 could not be returned to its protective storage well.
Ministry of Environmental Protection officials insist, probably
correctly, that there was no danger during the incident and that the
event itself should be termed a failure, not an accident.
Authorities sought to minimize the seriousness of the event and
restrict publicity of the incident, even going so far as to remove a
front-page headline from a major local newspaper. Public commentary
about this issue on local Internet message boards is severely
critical of the government. End Summary.

2. (SBU) A failure involving highly radioactive Cobalt-60 at a food
irradiation center located near a major expatriate housing complex
in mid-October took 48 days to resolve and only became widely
publicized after Hong Kong media broke the story in mid-December.
The Hong Kong-based South China Morning Post (SCMP) reported that
the event, which took place in southern Guangzhou's Panyu District,
began October 12 when a source of Cobalt-60 that was being used to
sterilize foodstuffs could not be returned to its storage well due
to a physical obstruction. The Cobalt-60 continued to radiate,
making it impossible for the center's human workers to manually
remove the obstruction, according to media reports.

3. (SBU) Reportedly, by October 14 Vice Premier Li Keqiang had put
the national-level Ministry of Environmental Protection (MEP) in
charge of the situation. (Note: Li recently visited Guangdong, but
there was no public mention of whether any part of his visit was
tied to the Cobalt-60 event. End note.) According to the SCMP
article, attempts to repair the equipment using robotics were
thwarted at least once due to a radiation-induced conflagration in
the irradiation chamber, necessitating the use of additional robots
which apparently removed the obstruction by November 26. The
obstruction gone, the chamber reached a safe radiation level by
November 28, according to media reports.

4. (SBU) The MEP told Embassy Beijing December 18 that it considered
the incident to have been a failure, not an accident, and claimed
that the irradiation chamber and other measures had been effective
in containing the Cobalt-60. No evacuation of the expatriate living
compound, which is not used by official Americans, was deemed
necessary due to the containment of the radioactive material.
Embassy Beijing U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) experts generally
agree with this assessment, noting that an accident would require
operator error or for safety measures to fail, allowing
contamination of people or the environment. The U.S. experts also
said it would be difficult to imagine a scenario where the housing
complex would have been in danger.

The Cover-Up
------------

5. (SBU) Throughout the event, Chinese authorities worked to
downplay the incident. Danwei.org, a website covering media and
advertising in China, posted the following translation of an
official notice quietly issued October 16 at a time when the
Cobalt-60 situation still lacked a clear solution:

Quote: Guangzhou Research & Development Center for Irradiation
Technology is located in Zhongcun, Panyu District. The center uses
radioactive sources to irradiate objects for germ-killing and
sterilization. At 9pm on October 12, 2009, during an irradiation
process at the center, a misaligned object caused a mechanical
failure, and as a result, the radioactive material was unable to be
returned to its storage location.

After the incident, relevant departments immediately organized
experts to perform an on-site inspection. Radiation is currently at
safe levels, and the situation has been largely brought under
effective control. Work to eliminate the failure is currently
proceeding along scientific lines. Expert measurements revealed that
the malfunction was "frightening but not dangerous." No radiation
leakage occurred, there was no environmental pollution, and there
were no radiation injuries." Unquote.

6. (SBU) Even after the incident ended, local media were ordered to
bury the story. The newspaper Southern Metropolis Daily (Nanfang
Dushibao) pulled a December 15 front-page headline highlighting the
48 days needed by authorities to resolve the incident, substituting
instead an innocuous local-interest lead, according to Danwei.org.

GUANGZHOU 00000688 002 OF 002


Following initial publication of the SCMP story, the Southern
Metropolis Daily article was restored on the online version on
December 16. Both versions can be viewed at
http://www.danwei.org/media_regulation/cobalt -
60_front_page_story_rem.php

Public Outrage
--------------

7. (SBU) Public commentary on local Internet message boards is
voluminous and negative. Many commentators echoed the sentiment
that official corruption is so widespread that it is simply a fact
of life. Others voiced their demand that the government be open and
frank with them when emergencies take place. Another commentator
said that it could be better to find a place to sleep on one of the
elevated roadways that cross the area, because then one would not
have to worry about owning property with deteriorating value due to
pollution. One netizin with a longer view suggested that acquiring
enough money to buy a house next to the home of Guangdong's most
senior official -- Provincial Party Secretary Wang Yang -- was the
most sensible way to ensure one's environment was protected.

8. (U) This cable was cleared by Embassy Beijing.

GOLDBECK

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