MAC: Mines and Communities

Kyrgyzstan's uranium wastes: solution still elusive

Published by MAC on 2009-05-11

It's been declared one of the world's ten "worst polluted" places, by the US-based Blacksmith Institute (reporting in 2006). See:

The abandoned uranium tailings piles and plants in Kyrgyzstan - particularly around the town of Mailii-Suu - continue to defy adequate arrangements for neutralising their present dangers and to prevent future disaster.

The dire situation has been covered on the MAC website over the past six years. See:

In December 2008 we reported that there was no consensus among the 'experts' as to whether these deadly wastes should be removed or 'stabilised' in situ:

Following a conference held in the Kyrgyz capital Bishkek, earlier this month, which was organised by the UNDP and the government, the first option now seems to have been dropped.

Kyrgyzstan Drafts Plan to Address Soviet-Era Uranium Waste


7th May 2009

BISHKEK, Kyrgyzstan - Radioactive dust, contaminated groundwater and toxic landslides and floods threaten more than a million people in Central Asia, warned experts at a conference last week.

The radioactive threat stems from 92 toxic waste sites in Kyrgyzstan that contain tailings, or waste, from uranium mining during the Soviet era.

In addition to Kyrgyzstan, neighboring Tajikistan and Uzbekistan are also vulnerable to the radioactive material.

"The state of these tailings, which contain large amounts of highly toxic wastes of uranium - over the tens of years since the shutdown of the facilities, has significantly worsened," Kyrgyzstan President Kurmanbek Bakiev cautioned in a speech at the conference.

Entitled, "Uranium tailings: local problems, regional consequences, global solutions," the conference was initiated by the Kyrgyz government and was organized with assistance of the UN Development Programme in the Kyrgyz Republic.

The waste sites are relics of the time when the former Soviet Union mined the uranium for use in its nuclear arsenal. Now the sites are an ongoing hazard in the region.

The small town of Mailii-Suu, in the south of Kyrgyzstan, for instance, is marred by two million cubic meters of radioactive waste buried alongside a river flowing through the Ferghana Valley, the most populated and fertile area in Central Asia.

"The USSR's first atomic bomb was made from Mailuu-Suu's uranium," said Torgoev Isakbek Asangalievich, a scientist at Kyrgyzstan's National Academy of Science.

Now, landslides and earthquakes threaten to wash huge quantities of uranium waste into the Ferghana Valley's Syr Darya River.

The poorly guarded sites are visited by local villagers in search of scrap. In one recent incident, three Chinese tourists bought depleted uranium at a flea market in Kyrgyzstan hoping to resell the radioactive material as a souvenir.

Uranium mining towns also have suffered setbacks and pose development challenges since there are few economic opportunities for the people living there. In some areas, women and children graze livestock in contaminated areas.

"Tailings and dump sites are a wonderful place for livestock grazing with lots of grass," said Zharas Takenov, an environmental program officer with the UN Development Programme. "Tailings are covered with flat squares which are also well fit for children's football matches."

Experts worry that earthquakes and related landslides or mudslides could spread the radioactive material to rivers, contaminating the groundwater in Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan.

Currently, the uranium tailings are loosely contained in impounding areas and dams.

Takenov warns that an inventory of the condition of these dams has not been conducted in 30 years.

In response to these issues, the Kyrgyzstan government has partnered with the UN Development Programme to work towards proper management of dangerous sites, countermeasures such as recycling and raising public awareness.

Funding for such programs is also critical, particularly in view of the global economic downturn. At the moment, the UNDP estimates roughly US$42 million is needed to rehabilitate the radioactive waste sites and minimize the regional environmental threats.

In 2004, the World Bank approved a seven-year, $6.9 million project to minimize the exposure of people and livestock to radiation from abandoned uranium mine tailings and waste rock dumps in the area around Mailuu-Suu.

Two of the project components are the stabilization of large landslide areas and a program of capacity building to improve the national system for disaster management, preparedness and response. The third component is the establishment of real-time monitoring and warning systems at major landslide areas in Mailuu-Suu and other key hazard areas. That project closes in 2010.

Based on the outcome of the Bishkek conference discussions, a framework document setting forth a plan for future action will be developed for presentation during the International Forum on Uranium Tailings on June 29 in Geneva, which was initiated by President Bakiev.

The plan of action also will be used in the subsequent bilateral and multilateral negotiations between Central Asian nations and donors, international organizations and the private sector. These talks will center on attracting the necessary financial and technological assistance and direct investments to deal with the 92 toxic radioactive waste sites in Kyrgyzstan.

Copyright Environment News Service (ENS) 2009. All rights reserved.

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