Nuclear waste dumps threaten environment

Wednesday, September 10, 2008

MAILUU-SUU, 10 September 2008 (IRIN) - "I carry clean [drinking] water with my truck to the villages upstream almost on a daily basis. I was born here and I remember that in the past the road on this side of the river was closed to traffic. They say that was because of some mines and radioactive waste tailings," Bakyt told IRIN in Kairygach, about 10-15 minutes' drive from Mailuu-Suu.

There are some signs warning about radioactivity - meaning there are waste dumps located not far from the road and the river. Actual waste dumps are natural or artificial holes filled with the toxic waste and covered with soil as a protective cover.

"Nowadays, you can see cars moving on this road and there are some houses in the area. They say there is radioactivity here, but further upstream it is clean. I am a local and that's what I've always heard," Bakyt said.

"Those radioactive waste dumps in different locations in the Mailuu-Suu area are the legacy of the Soviet nuclear programme in the past century," Amanbai Sarnogoev from the UN Development Programme (UNDP) project on radioactive waste management in Kyrgyzstan, told IRIN in the capital, Bishkek.

Kyrgyzstan was one of the former Soviet Union's most important sources of uranium and rare-earth metals. The enterprises that extracted those materials - which began in the 1940s - left behind enormous amounts of industrial waste, including radioactive materials, according to UNDP.

From 1946 to 1968, more than 10,000MT of uranium ore was extracted from the Mailuu-Suu uranium mine and processed in the area, according to the Kyrgyz Emergencies Ministry. The ministry said some 2 million cubic metres of radioactive waste was being stored in 23 dumps and 13 tailings in the region.

Some 6,500 hectares of land in Kyrgyzstan have been exposed to radioactive contamination. It now hosts 92 hazardous waste dumps holding 254 million cubic metres (475 million tonnes) of waste containing radionuclides and other toxic substances.

This volume of waste includes dormant mines, untreated tailing dumps and untreated rock debris. The most urgent clean-up measures needed to render the tailings safe would cost up to US$40 million, estimates UNDP.

Trans-boundary threat
While the four most problematic areas with radioactive dumps, including Min-Kush, Aktiuz and Kajisay, are in the north, the ones in Mailuu-Suu in the south pose a trans-national environmental threat, according to scientists.

With more than 94 percent of its territory over 1,000m high, Kyrgyzstan is prone to natural disasters such as landslides, earthquakes, floods and mudslides. The damage costs the country some $35 million annually, according to the Ministry of Emergencies.

Specialists say the potential for environmental pollution from radioactive waste in Kyrgyzstan is high and they have highlighted several factors that increase this risk - earthquakes; soil erosion, through floods, mudslides, and landslides; long-term lack of controls and reconstruction/maintenance engineering at the tailing sites; and the location of most of the radioactive waste close to transboundary river basins, which creates a risk that contamination could spread across the Central Asian region.

"If something happens and that radioactive waster spills into the Mailuu-Suu River, which flows into the Naryn River, a tributary of Syrdarya River, then it will be a trans-border catastrophe," Sarnogoev said.

Sarnogoev said in that case 27,000 people in Kyrgyzstan and more than three million people in Uzbekistan, Tajikistan and Kazakhstan would be affected.

"Therefore, it is a trans-national, regional or Central Asian problem and it is impossible to ignore it," he said.

While a World Bank project is under way rehabilitating the most dangerous six waste dumps, the rest of the sites need to be secured and rehabilitated as well and for that the Kyrgyz government does not have enough resources, Sarnogoev said.

"Given that it is a regional issue, it is appropriate that regional states and international donors are involved," he said.

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