More than 100,000 troops of China were sent into the deserts of Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region to provide the labour at the test sites for China's first atomic bombs. A number of these troops later developed serious medical problems.
Since the tests, the veterans as well as their children have fallen ill. But even though the Chinese government have granted benefits to some of them, the veterans want more from their government.
China detonated it’s first atomic bomb on October 16th 1964. Video footage shows a flash and a loud bang, with the mushroom cloud rising from the ground. Those present, jumped up, threw their hats on the ground and shouted “Long Live Chairman Mao!”
45 bombs were detonated in Malan in the 32 years following the first test.
After retiring many found themselves developing all types of illnesses. Some even have affected their children. One such person is Ning Jiming whose first son was born deaf. He had a second one in 1989, who was diagnosed with leukaemia in 2011.
Ning knew many others working on the tests with him. The veterans were recruited in groups, many from neighbouring villages in Jilin Province. Most were under 20, and the youngest, Zhao Dawei, was only 15.
Before going to Malan, Ning said, they were told they will be carrying out an experiment, but that was all.
After 12 days on a train, the veterans finally arrived somewhere much different than what they had expected.
The test sites were sandy and desolate. No living thing grew, no grass, the veterans remembered. The only living things were the veterans themselves, and the animals transported in to test the bomb's power. As soon as they entered the site, they were informed of its purpose and sworn to secrecy.
"We were told not to mention the project to anyone. If anyone asked, we were working at Yonghong, a cement factory," Ning said.
This code name stayed with them throughout the duration. When they called or wrote to family, they couldn't mention anything about their mission; their letters were checked. There were also punishments if news leaked. They faced nothing but sand, slept in camps, facing endless winds and temperatures as cold as minus 30 C.
Most of the veterans had specific small tasks. Most of the jobs were trivial: digging holes, retrieving machinery, providing electricity. But the veterans endured because they were ordered to do so. They were told to keep their service secret, even long after it was over.
At the time of the experiment, nobody knew what "nuclear" meant, let alone knew anything about radiation. Nobody had any special protection on, only uniforms, or at most a simple medical mask. The country was too poor at that stage to provide anything.
After retiring from the military, many of these veterans went back to their hometowns. Many started showing symptoms of sickness, some quite quickly. One Veteran started to develop spots on his leg soon after his retirement. In the following years, the spots developed into a skin condition, in which his entire leg turned black and he could hardly walk.
"It's as good as a dead leg," he said.
He went to the hospital, but the doctor couldn't say what caused the condition.
Another had another nameless condition. He has lumps all over his body, on his arm, legs, even on his scalp. The lumps sometimes ache. All he can do is take drugs to ease the pain. Furthermore, sicknesses appeared among their children. One Veterans son died at 8 from leukaemia. He then had a daughter diagnosed with purpura, a blood disorder that causes purple-coloured spots and patches to show on the skin.
When his second son got sick, Ning started wondering whether his children's illness were associated with his exposure to radiation. "If I knew this was going to happen, I wouldn't have had the second son for sure," Ning said.
These veterans believe it's no coincidence their children are sick. But right now, in the medical field, there isn't a clear consensus on correlation between nuclear radiation and offspring's illness.
According to a study by the US Nuclear Regulatory Commission, the likelihood of cancer occurring after radiation exposure is about five times greater than a genetic effect (increased still births, congenital abnormalities, infant mortality, childhood mortality, and decreased birth weight).
The study also stated that "although radiation-induced genetic effects have been observed in laboratory animals, no evidence of genetic effects has been observed among the children born to atomic bomb survivors from Hiroshima and Nagasaki."
In a study of 200 veterans in the area, there are eight children who have leukaemia, a rate much higher than the natural occurrence rate of the disease, which is three in 100,000 people, giving them reason to believe it was no coincidence. "Over 90 percent of the veterans themselves have different kinds of sicknesses. Many have died from cancer. Right now, only about 170 veterans are left in Taonan," the study reports
Seeking better treatment
The Taonan veterans raise awareness of the group, as well as asking for better compensation.
Starting in 2007, the ministries of civil affairs, finance, health, human resources and social security jointly released a series of documents giving benefits to the veterans, including disability evaluations, medical insurance and labour insurance.
The document stated that local health departments should help coordinate medical checks for retired atomic bomb test veterans and evaluate their handicap level. Those who were not evaluated as handicapped are given 40 to 100 yuan ($6.39-16) a month in compensation, varying from province to province.
The gesture was seen as a blow against the taboo and secrecy surrounding the subject.
But the veterans aren't entirely satisfied with the way the policies were carried out, especially since implementation differs depending on location.
Some of the veterans have diseases, such as skin conditions, but weren't evaluated as handicapped veterans after medical examinations in designated hospitals. The veterans' assessed disability levels are directly associated with the amount of compensation they receive per month.
Furthermore, where the veterans' children are concerned, China has only one national regulation covering financial assistance to those born with disabilities, and nothing about those who develop diseases later on.
Wang Keding, Zhu Huanjin and Gao Lianke, three former military scientists who were at the base in Malan, have written a letter that circulated the Internet, asking the government to raise compensation for the veterans. The letter states that the current level of compensation is "not scientific" and asked for one-time compensation of 100,000 yuan per person, as well as loosening the disability evaluation standard for the veterans.
Zhu said that since they wrote the letter, he thinks policies for disability evaluations have been loosened in Jiangsu Province. But he added that other provinces might implement the policies differently.
But right now, there isn't much discussion on the matter, nor signs of any change happening soon.