BISHKEK -- Efforts to clean up two Soviet-era uranium sites in Kyrgyzstan are set to begin soon, the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development (EBRD) said in a statement Monday (April 29).
Central Asia served as a key source of uranium in the former Soviet Union, which left behind a host of security and environmental issues. Tajikistan, for example, has expressed concern about the presence of enough left-over uranium at its tailing dumps to enable the manufacture of "dirty bombs".
Work on the two Kyrgyz sites is expected to begin this year, initially at the former Shekaftar mine in Jalal-Abad Province, in accordance with a grant agreement signed by Kyrgyz authorities and the EBRD, the statement said.
The grant comes from the Environmental Remediation Account for Central Asia (ERA), a fund that the European Commission (EC) initiated and that the EBRD manages.
The project is part of a wider plan to deal with the harmful legacy of Soviet-era uranium mining and processing in Central Asia.
Balthasar Lindauer, the EBRD director for nuclear safety, and Kyrgyz Minister for Emergency Situations Nurbolot Mirzahmedov signed the agreement.
It enables a tender process to start for selecting a contractor to work on the Min-Kush and Shekaftar sites. Min-Kush is a tailing dump, while Shekaftar is both a tailing dump and a former mine.
Authorities have identified the two sites as top environmental priorities.
"We are grateful to the Kyrgyz government for the strong partnership we have established," Lindauer said after meetings with Kyrgyz authorities in Bishkek Monday. "Today we have taken important decisions to start work and reduce the risks to the people of the Kyrgyz Republic."
ERA was set up in 2015 to clean up high-priority sites in Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan. The EBRD has signed framework agreements with all three countries.
Soviet, then Russian, neglect
The EBRD and its Central Asian partners have a monumental task ahead of them.
The Soviet regime mined uranium in Central Asia for more than 50 years and imported uranium ore from other countries for processing.
"A large amount of radioactively contaminated material was placed in mining waste dumps and tailing sites," the EBRD said. While most of the mines were closed by 1995, Russia did little remediation before or after abandoning those milling and mining sites.
The EBRD is the only international financial institution engaged in nuclear safety and decommissioning programmes and has been active in the field since 1993.
ERA receives contributions from the EC, Belgium, Switzerland, Norway and Lithuania.
The EBRD is also active in the transformation of Chernobyl, Ukraine, the site of a notorious nuclear plant disaster in 1986; the decommissioning of former Soviet-type nuclear reactors in Bulgaria, Lithuania and Slovakia; and the management of radioactive waste in northwest Russia.