EU helps Central Asia contend with radioactive waste left by Russia

By Kanat Altynbayev


Degmay tailings pond in Tajikistan. [M. Roberts/IAEA]

BISHKEK -- While European countries help Central Asia deal with the Soviet Union's uranium legacy, Russia continues to cause environmental damage to the region by using obsolete technologies, analysts and local citizens say.

The European Union (EU) plans to allocate €10 million to help combat problems with radioactive waste in Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan. Last spring, the EU allocated another €16 million for this purpose.

The EU announced the coming grant November 8 at an international conference in London on the disposal of uranium tailings in Central Asia, according to the EU Delegation in Kyrgyzstan.

In those three Central Asian states, the International Atomic Energy Agency and the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) have been carrying out studies, for more than 10 years at a cost of €14 million, aimed at fixing the uranium tailings sites.


This map shows radioactive waste sites in Central Asia. [EU Delegation to Kyrgyzstan]


A device in Mailuu-Suu in May shows ambient radiation of 91µR per hour. A maximum of 50µR per hour is considered safe. [Screenshot from Current Time TV programme]


Mailuu-Suu, Kyrgyzstan, shown in May 2017, is one of the world's ten most contaminated cities. [Askhat Sakebayev]

Dangerous uranium tailings

Central Asia has more than 1 billion tonnes of toxic uranium tailings, according to the EU.

Seven sites in the three countries are considered high priority. Authorities are seeking to prevent pollution of the densely populated Fergana Valley, which the three countries share.

Those seven sites include uranium tailings dumps in Mailuu-Suu, Shekaftar and Min-Kush (Kyrgyzstan), Charkesar and Yangiabad (Uzbekistan), and Istiklol and Dehmoy (Tajikistan).

The Soviet Union left behind many radioactive byproduct dumps throughout Kyrgyzstan, Baktygul Stakeyeva, an environmental engineer from Bishkek and an employee of the MoveGreen environmental movement, told Caravanserai.

"Our country needs foreign aid to eliminate threats from such tailings dumps," she said. "This [EU] aid is very important since the problem is acute."

Back in 2009, the UNDP warned that most Soviet tailings dumps "are located in densely populated areas and natural-disaster prone areas of Central Asia's largest river basins".

Uranium mining in the Soviet Union began in Tajikistan in 1944, Ulmas Mirsaidov, director of the Tajik Agency on Nuclear and Radiation Safety, told Fergana News in 2016.

After the Soviet collapse, with nobody in charge of the sites, impoverished Tajiks would salvage scrap metal from them and even sell the toxic scrap for use in construction, he said.

Lessons from Chernobyl

Mailuu-Suu in Jalal-Abad Province poses particular danger to the Kyrgyz population and environment, warned Bishkek-based environmentalist Ulan Ismailov.

The town has 23 tailings dumps and 2 million cubic metres of radioactive waste, he told Caravanserai.

"It's one of the ten most contaminated cities in the world," he said. "People live here because they can't afford to move."

The situation in Mailuu-Suu can be compared to the 1986 nuclear disaster in Chernobyl, Ukraine, Rakhmat Toichiyev, an employee of the Kyrgyz Academy of Sciences, told Current Time TV in 2017.

During the Chernobyl disaster, medics distributed iodine-containing drugs to help residents overcome thyroid disorders, he said. "The picture in Mailuu-Suu is the same: thyroid and liver diseases are reported in 98% of people living [in the vicinity of] the tailings dumps."

'Moscow's negligent attitude'

Uranium tailings dumps in Kyrgyzstan "are another sign of Moscow's negligent attitude toward Central Asian countries dating back to Soviet times", Ernis Suyukbayev, 42, of Jalal-Abad told Caravanserai.

"Under the guise of communist ideology, Moscow exploited Central Asia," he said.

Even as European countries help undo the damage from heedless Soviet practices, Russia today is still wreaking environmental havoc in Central Asia by applying obsolete technologies in militaristic undertakings throughout the region, Suyukbayev said.

For years Kyrgyzstan's environmentalists have expressed outrage over Russian military exercises near Lake Issyk-Kul, damaging the fragile environment.

In addition, locals have complained for decades about torpedo tests performed in the waters of Issyk-Kul by the Russian navy.

Protests around Russia's use of the Baikonur Cosmodrome, meanwhile, are not subsiding in Kazakhstan.

Kazakhs are voicing indignation because Roscosmos, the Russian space agency, uses hazardous heptyl as missile fuel. The substance is banned as fuel in Western countries.

Observers also are concerned because Roscosmos is burying toxic waste in areas closed to Kazakh environmental officials.

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7 Comment(s)

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This article contains error, made on purpose or not, i don't know. The radiameter shows 0.91. i cannot see the unit but if it correspond to 91 uR/h, it should be 0.91 uSv/h. That is a very low value which cannot represent a danger. The danger is therefore presnt due to the presence of radiological and chimical toxicity of uranium tailings. The contamination of soil and water is the real risk for population. Finally, have you ever seen an industrial company dismatling and decontaminating the production site after closure? No, excepted for nuclear plants bu mostly recently and certainly not in the fifties...


"A device in May shows ambient radiation of 91µR per hour" - if you enlarge the photo you can clearly see 0.091. Weird. Did they forget to photoshop the pic?


What does Russia have to do with it? This is the USSR's legacy


This website makes me stupefied. They quote some murky sources. An ordinary interpretation. Who reads it, anyway? Sheer loud statements. Dear editors, who pays you?


Thanks for your help


It's high time for the countries of Central Asia to get united and pursue policies beneficial for the region... where the USA and Russia would be of the same rank... [not so important for Central Asians]


Europe and America will help you... Yep, you wish! The Yanks have already helped Ukraine in Chernobyl. They built a huge repository, BUT only for their [radioactive] waste and for that of Europe a little bit