Kyrgyzstan bans uranium mining as it struggles to deal with Soviet waste



Kyrgyz villager displays silicon at a dump site of a former uranium mine outside the village of Orlovka, some 110 km from Bishkek. [VYACHESLAV OSELEDKO/AFP]

BISHKEK -- Kyrgyz President Sooronbay Jeenbekov has signed a law banning prospecting for and processing his country's uranium and thorium deposits.

The purpose of the law, which the Kyrgyz parliament passed October 31 and was signed by the president on Monday (December 16), is to "protect the health of the population, land, water bodies, flora and fauna and ensure the rights of citizens to a favourable environment for life, work and leisure, as well as radiation and environmental safety in Kyrgyzstan," the statement said.

The law also bans imports of raw materials and waste that contain uranium and thorium.

The law will take effect 15 days after its publication, the statement said.


Zarina Moldosheva, a radiologist from the Kyrgyz Emergency Situations Ministry, takes a reading of radioactive activity at run-off depository number one, 150km from Bishkek near Ak-Tyuz village on April 23, 2009. The area has four run-off depositories from a defunct metal-processing plant. They hold about 4.7 million cubic metres of waste including cadmium, lead, molybdenum, zinc, copper, beryllium and other metals. [Vyacheslav Oseledko/AFP]


A Kyrgyz uranium dump is shown in this undated photo. [European Bank for Reconstruction and Development]

'Dirty bombs'

Central Asia, including Kyrgyzstan, 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".

Rehabilitation work to clean up Soviet-era uranium sites at seven facilities in Central Asia -- three of which are situated in Kyrgyzstan -- was slated to begin this fall with €85 million ($95 million) in financing from the European Union (EU).

The work to help combat radioactive-waste problems in Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan was set to begin in September, with the bulk of the fund -- €39 million ($43 million) -- earmarked for remediation in Kyrgyzstan, the KyrTag news agency reported.

Work there was to start in Mailu-Suu, Jalal-Abad Province.

Central Asia has about 1 billion tonnes of toxic uranium tailings, according to a 2017 EU estimate.

The Soviet Union mined and processed uranium in different regions of Kyrgyzstan and then left behind a multitude of tailing dumps with radioactive waste, Baktygul Stakeyeva, a Bishkek-based environmental engineer affiliated with MoveGreen, a youth environmental movement, said in July.

Kyrgyzstan needs help from outside donors to eliminate the threats that arise from such tailings, she said.

"This help is important for us since the problem is severe," Stakeyeva said.

Soviet neglect

The European Bank for Reconstruction and Development (EBRD) announced in April efforts to clean up two Soviet-era uranium sites in Kyrgyzstan.

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.

Disrespecting national treasures

Last year, Kyrgyz citizens, civil society activists and environmentalists expressed indignation at Russia's military testing and exercises at Lake Issyk-Kul, which they say are causing damage to the environment.

The mountain lake is the country's main tourist attraction.

"This is something worth seeing! 20 photos of military exercises in Issyk-Kul" reads the headline of a photo essay of the drills published by Sputnik, the Kremlin's propaganda arm.

Many local readers perceived this phrase as sarcasm and took special offence at the combat drills around the lake, which is considered almost sacred because of its therapeutic waters and delicate ecosystem.

Baktygul Stakeyeva, an environmentalist engineer from Bishkek who works for the MoveGreen environmental movement, condemned the exercises around Issyk-Kul for seriously harming the lake's ecology.

The explosions that inevitably come with combat training spread harmful substances, she told Caravanserai.

"Craters form where these explosions occur, and the surrounding soil and vegetation are ruined," she said. "Not only can pollutants penetrate soil, water and animals' bodies, you have noise pollution too."

The local ecosystem is already fragile enough without the damage from military exercises, she said.

"Killing off the already compromised ecology of our beloved lake is the wrong decision," she said.

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Issyk-Kul gets contaminated daily. The resorts located on the Issyk-Kul's shorelines inflict enormous damage. And their number is getting bigger every year. Drivers park their cars right by the water; and they wash their vehicles in the rivers that flow into Issyk-Kul. Why isn't there a ban on opening different recreational facilities on the lake's shores? Their wastewater flows right into Issyk Kul. And [they are] slashing bushes that make a natural filter for the lake! What are our environmental authorities doing? There's no control. That's what needs to be immediately addressed if people care about nature in Kyrgyzstan and Issyk-Kul! Why did they put in place a ban on the construction along the Issyk-Kul shoreline in the past, and enforced proper waste disposal rigorously, but now no one gives a damn? Where are these service personnel doing their jobs honestly for their paychecks?


Harmful old Soviet-crap [mining] enterprises