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Tajikistan seeks help to clean up uranium dumps
Country seeks international help to deal with nuclear weapons legacy
By Maks Maksudov
KHUDZHAND – Tajikistan is requesting international assistance to dispose of uranium waste as the country doesn’t have the money to clean up the sites itself.
Tailing dumps date to Soviet times, when closed cities producing fissile materials for nuclear weapons operated in Tajikistan, Gafor Makhkamov, a professor at the Tajik Academy of Sciences (AN), said.
"The tailing dumps are in Sughd Oblast ... where uranium ore processing plants fell into disuse after the Soviet Union's collapse," he said, adding that there are more than 15 such sites, with several near the cities of Taboshar, Chkalovsk, Gafurov and Adrasman.
Besides the tailing dumps, underground mines, open-pit mines and waste from the unenriched-uranium factory in Taboshar remain. So do other facilities involved either in uranium ore processing or operations to mothball, liquidate or restructure those manufacturing plants.
Although the sites vary in area, volume of waste and activity level, they have common characteristics, such as vulnerable locations. They lie in the Syr-Darya River basin near population centres, in an unsafe seismic zone, and are subject to wind erosion and scouring, Makhkamov said.
"These sites are very hazardous, but regrettably, Tajikistan ... lacks the money and specialists to do the job,” he said.
Support sought from neighbours, international bodies
The parliamentary Ecology Commission has called on regional neighbours and international organisations to provide assistance, with nearly 55m tonnes of radioactive wastes that need to be buried, the Sughd Oblast government said.
"Those wastes pose a threat not only to the population of Tajikistan, but to the whole region," the appeal said.
"Tajikistan is unable to seal off all the tailing dumps, particularly those near Taboshar, single-handed," parliamentary Ecology Commission Chairman Rustam Latifov said. "We lack the money to do that work independently. Dump-sealing equipment costs US $500,000 to US $1m (2.4m to 4.8m TJS) per unit."
Tajikistan already receives some assistance, but not enough, he said. Of the 1.156 billion RUB ($34.9m or 166.4m TJS) annually disbursed by the Eurasian Economic Community (EEC) to help clean up Soviet-era nuclear waste, more than 20% goes to Tajikistan.
But that’s just a fraction of what is needed. Cleaning up 400,000 tonnes of waste at a site near Chkalovsk in 1991-1992, for example, cost about US $10m (47.7m TJS), said Numondzhon Khakimov, director of the oblast branch of the AN Nuclear and Radiation Safety Agency.
Scope of the problem
Radioactive waste occupies almost 5% of Sughd Oblast's territory, according to the oblast government.
"The deputies' appeal seems very appropriate, and I support their desire to get rid of the Soviet Union's (nuclear) legacy," said Khakimov, this year’s winner of an AN prize for his work on managing minerals and uranium wastes.
His agency, he said, was established in 2003 to regulate the safety of nuclear sites and co-operate with international organisations in projects to reclaim land and bury uranium waste in accordance with international standards.
"The waste dumps have been monitored by NATO, OSCE and IAEA since 2003, and steps have been taken to attract international donors to help solve the problem," Khakimov said.
International aid still short
No donor country or organisation has so far responded to the appeal, Khakimov noted, though the IAEA has pledged to look for support.
"At the same time, there is an organisation in place now, the EEC, which has formed the USSR Uranium Legacy Council involving Russia, Belarus, Tajikistan, Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan," Khakimov said. "This council has completed the organisational formalities and collected monetary contributions from the member states.”
Russia provides the lion’s share (75%) of the EEC clean-up funds, Kazakhstan has contributed 15%, but Tajikistan, Kyrgyzstan and Belarus are still reluctant to pay, he said.
Meanwhile, people are identifying some key problems.
"(Cleaning up) the Taboshar uranium waste dump needs to be made a priority, because those wastes endanger not only the environment but also public health," said Dmitry Prudtskikh, a Taboshar City Council deputy and leader of the Youth Group to Protect the Environment.
Other high-profile spots include open mine entrances near residential areas, one of which “is oozing contaminated water in which children play, or still worse, might drink” and an acid lake that attracts swimmers and is near grazing land for cattle.
"The OSCE Office in Tajikistan has donated modest funds to improve the environmental in Taboshar," Prudtskikh said. "As one of the latest measures, part of the lake was surrounded by a fence, and signs saying 'Beware of radiation' were put up. But we're glad to see at least this much done."
"I'm sure that, after Tajikistan’s official appeal, we’ll receive help,” he concluded.