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Environment

European Bank cleans up poisonous Soviet uranium dumps in Central Asia

By Caravanserai

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The EBRD and its partners are supporting nuclear remediation efforts in Kyrgyzstan. [EBRD]

The European Bank for Reconstruction and Development (EBRD) and its partners are continuing to support nuclear remediation efforts in Kyrgyzstan, cleaning up two abandoned Soviet-era uranium mines.

Workers have completed most planned remediation work in Min-Kush, Naryn province, with the project set to end this autumn -- well ahead of schedule, the EBRD reported September 15.

Workers have covered radioactive hot spots, closed mine shafts, and properly disposed of buildings and structures.

Work has proceeded quickly at a second, even larger pilot site in Shekaftar, Jalal-Abad province, near the Uzbek border.

Workers have filled and closed the site's six mine shafts, relocated and safely stored waste rock, and demolished old industrial buildings, safely disposing of the waste.

The work is funded by the Environmental Remediation Account for Central Asia (ERA), which pools donor funds to help Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan remediate the most dangerous uranium legacy sites left by Soviet-era uranium production.

The European Commission established the fund in 2015, and it became operational in 2016.

A grim legacy

Central Asia was a key source of uranium in the former Soviet Union. The mines were closed in the 1990s with the collapse of the Soviet Union, but very little remediation took place before or after the mines were closed.

Today there are seven hazardous uranium tailing dumps in the region. Three of them are in Kyrgyzstan.

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

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

In the notable absence of Russia, the EBRD has been working closely with its donors -- the EU, Belgium, Norway, Switzerland and the United States -- and partner, the International Atomic Energy Agency, to clean up nuclear waste, the EBRD said.

Environmental, health hazards

Serious environmental hazards are hidden in the deceptively scenic landscape of Min-Kush ("1,000 birds" in Kyrgyz). The rural town is surrounded by snow-capped glaciers, even as nuclear waste contaminates its land and water.

The contaminated water used to flow down from the former mine, with the risk of entering the food chain directly or through irrigation, according to the EBRD.

Climate change has also led to greater rainfall, raising the risk of landslides and further contamination. Meanwhile, local creeks and rivers feed the Syr Darya River, which runs across the Fergana Valley, Central Asia's fertile agricultural heartland.

"The consequences of contamination and the ensuing ecological, health and social disasters would be unimaginable," the EBRD said.

Local officials welcome the EBRD's cleanup efforts.

"We need to get rid of the uranium waste dumps. We need the mines to be sealed up and the waste removed," said Kanat Almambetov, chairman of the Min-Kush town council.

"We want the work finished as soon as possible, so Min-Kush can be a clean and safe place to develop tourism," he said.

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