Villagers head home after nuclear scare sparks mass exodus

PUBLISHED : Monday, 20 July, 2009, 12:00am
UPDATED : Monday, 20 July, 2009, 12:00am

Tens of thousands of residents were returning to their villages and towns in Qixian county, Henan province, at the weekend after fleeing their homes over rumours of a nuclear disaster.

The villagers began returning to their homes after local authorities convinced them that it was safe and announced that rumour-mongers had been detained.

'The residents started to come back on Saturday night. The majority of them are now at home and back to normal life again,' said Chen Siwei, a county government spokesman.

The exodus started on Friday after a team of technicians sent by the central and local governments failed in efforts to put an irradiation device, used for sterilising chillies and red peppers, back in its confinement well at a local plant.

The technicians abandoned the mission at noon after finding that the remote controls for the robots that were supposed to move the Cobalt 60 irradiation device were not working properly, Mr Chen said, 'but people watching the process soon dramatised it into an accident with descriptions that the robots had melted because of the radiation and that explosions occurred'.

Food is irradiated to destroy germs that cause it to spoil or cause disease. A variety of foods is irradiated in several countries, including the US and France. The only fatalities linked to food irradiation involve workers bypassing safety steps.

Within two hours, rumours about a nuclear accident flooded the town via mobile phones and the internet, and residents started to flee at about 2pm. 'All my employees just ran away,' said Du Jian , a manager at the Liyuan Food Co.

By 3pm, all major roads to surrounding big cities in the province such as Kaifeng , Zhengzhou and Luoyang - as far as 600 kilometres away - were congested with people fleeing on foot, and on farming tractors and trucks.

'About 80 per cent of the houses in the county are empty and the streets are just deserted,' said a woman named Zhao in Qixian, a county of a 1.05 million people.

The exodus turned out to be a big surprise for the local government. 'It's like a big fire that erupted from nowhere,' Mr Chen said.

But locals said the exodus was unavoidable because fear had been building for more than a month.

Statements on the Qixian government website said the irradiation device malfunctioned on June 7, but the public was not informed until July 12.

'Repeated field checks by a squad from Beijing assured us of the safety of the device, so we thought it was unnecessary to stir up any commotion in public,' Mr Chen said.

But the public said the government was covering up the danger.

'I don't trust what the government said,' Mr Du said. 'If the device is really secure, why not just send someone there and take it away?'

Frightened residents started to return after the county government sent cadres, staff and police to the roads, explaining the situation and guaranteeing their safety. Five men were detained on charges of spreading rumours via the internet and other means.

The county government promised to fix the device before the end of next month.