Work begins on cleanup of Soviet-era Kyrgyz uranium waste sites

By Kanat Altynbayev

Work has started in Kyrgyzstan at a former industrial centre near the Uzbek border to clean up an old uranium mining site. [EBRD]

Work has started in Kyrgyzstan at a former industrial centre near the Uzbek border to clean up an old uranium mining site. [EBRD]

BISHKEK -- Work has begun on remediating the toxic uranium tailings that the Soviet Union created and left behind in Kyrgyzstan, according to the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development (EBRD).

Despite the coronavirus pandemic, preparations that began months ago are allowing the removal of radioactive and toxic waste from uranium mines abandoned by the Soviet Union to start on schedule, the EBRD said in a statement on July 28.

The Environmental Remediation Account for Central Asia (ERA), which the EBRD established and managed for the international donor community, is funding the work.

The EBRD set up the ERA to help Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan clean up some of the most toxic sites of Soviet-era uranium production. It has received contributions from the United States, the European Commission, Belgium, Switzerland, Norway and Lithuania.

Central Asia was a key source of uranium in the former Soviet Union, and today seven hazardous uranium tailing dumps are there. Three of them are in Kyrgyzstan.

The sites remain largely unsecured, with potentially enough low-grade uranium for terrorists' misuse. Tajikistan in the past has expressed concern about the presence of enough left-over uranium at its tailing dumps to enable the manufacture of "dirty bombs".

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

Last summer, the EU allocated €85 million (7.7 billion KGS) to clean up seven uranium sites in Central Asia. Before that, it earmarked €15 million (1.3 billion KGS) to prepare the tailing dumps for remediation.

Health, environmental concerns

In the first phase in Kyrgyzstan, crews will close six shafts in one of the most dangerous areas, the village of Shekaftar in the southwest of the country, and will relocate five waste dumps to a remote site, said the EBRD.

"Once a thriving community based on uranium mining, today the town has an unemployment rate of 70%," the report said.

The remediation of other sites in Kyrgyzstan will begin soon, following a master plan developed by a group of experts under International Atomic Energy Agency guidance, according to the EBRD.

The Soviet legacy presents serious safety and environmental threats, besides the security threats of left-over uranium, warn analysts.

When natural disasters occur, toxins can escape the tailing dumps, endangering the health of rural populations.

In addition, pollution of groundwater and surface water by the toxic waste threatens agriculture.

The financial support of Western states in initiatives to remediate the uranium tailing dumps in Kyrgyzstan and other Central Asian countries is crucial, said Baktygul Stakeyeva of Bishkek, an environmental engineer with MoveGreen, a youth environmental movement.

After Moscow used Central Asia as a source of radioactive materials during the Soviet era, it left the region's countries "alone with a horrible problem they're incapable of coping with by themselves", she said.

In Kyrgyz villages near the tailing dumps, the threat of an environmental disaster is not the only pressing issue -- so are acute public health problems, said Aziza Abdirasulova of Bishkek, director of the civic group Kylym Shamy.

"It's not just adults and children who suffer ... There are cases where women give birth to stillborn babies who were exposed to radiation in utero," Abdirasulova said.

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