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Authorities work with the international community for support and to develop a reclamation plan.
By Asyl Osmonaliyeva
BISHKEK – Kyrgyzstan is about to start an earnest clean-up of 90 Soviet-era nuclear tailing dumps, including one of the most toxic locations at Mailuu-Suu.
"Solving this problem is a major long-term priority for the Kyrgyz government," Deputy Prime Minister Dzhoomart Otorbayev said. "Costs and potential risks are very high in both the domestic and regional contexts."
But analysts and authorities say a successful clean-up will depend on help from the international community.
Serious environmental threat
The Soviet-era uranium industry's nuclear-waste legacy poses a threat to Kyrgyzstan and the region as a whole.
Countrywide, Kyrgyzstan has 90 tailing dumps that contain 286m tonnes of highly toxic uranium waste. At least 33 of those sites and 25 high-elevation stockpiles are especially hazardous, and their conditions have seriously worsened since the Soviet Union's collapse, according to environmental experts.
Natural factors, such as winds, mud- and landslides, earthquakes and other factors have contributed to the deteriorating situation by further exposing the waste, environmentalist Zhaslan Chokoyev told Central Asia Online, adding that the hazards are exacerbated by the fact that "many jobless residents of nearby areas ... have rummaged in tailing dumps for items that might be sold."
Isabek Torgoyev, who heads the geo-environmental monitoring laboratory at the Institute for Geo-Mechanics and Utilisation of Subsoil Resources of the National Academy of Sciences, elaborated on the reach of the problem.
The negative environmental impact is first manifested with surface and underground water contamination, Torgoyev told Central Asia Online. "For example, water in the Mailuu-Suu River and soil around the tailing dumps are heavily contaminated by uranium and selenium, and increased chromium and arsenic content is found in human organs, together with some uranium content," he said.
In the past five years, Kyrgyzstan has worked to pass national legislation regulating the handling of uranium and other hazardous waste.
For the first time ever, a special agency has been established at the Ministry for Emergency Situations to manage the tailing dumps. To maintain the safety of those dumps, the government annually allocates about 10m KGS (US $213,000), the ministry’s press office said.
While that sum has been described as much too little to deal with the problem, international assistance – including World Bank, Eurasian Economic Community (EurAsEC) and other initiatives – have substantially helped Kyrgyzstan in tackling nuclear-waste challenges, Chokoyev said.
"In April, at the initiative of EurAsEC and the government, US $16m (751.8m KGS) was allocated for reclaiming the major tailing dumps at Min-Kush and Kadzhi-Sai," he said. "The process is already under way, and this is a very important step, considering the two dumps' location in the border zone. Generally, it would be fine seeing at least US $10m (469.9m KGS) annually allocated in this country for clean-up purposes."
Otorbayev noted the World Bank’s aid in implementing the Emergency Situation Prevention Project at the Mailuu-Suu waste site.
"This is one of the most dangerous tailing dumps," he said. "Reclaiming such waste sites has a degree of trans-border importance. The World Bank has provided US $11.9m (559.1m KGS) for the purpose, of which US $11.7m (549.7m KGS) had already been used by October 1, according to the Emergency Situations Ministry's press office. The project is to be completed by year's end."
Kyrgyzstan October 24-25 held an international conference with Kazakhstan, Russia, Tajikistan, Uzbekistan, the EU, UN, International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), EurAsEC, RosAtom (Russia’s nuclear regulator) and the World Bank to discuss further strategic steps in cleaning up its tailing dumps.
Building on those efforts
Kyrgyzstan and the international community have devised a new plan for tailing-dump reclamation, RosAtom Deputy Director General Nikolay Spasskiy said. The 2013-2018 programme, which took several years to develop, will cost US $37m (1.7 billion KGS), three-quarters of which Russia will pay, he said.
The project envisages the full-scale clean-up of the Kadzhi-Sai and Min-Kush tailing dumps and measures to bolster the safety of other nuclear-waste sites.
At the first stage (2013-2014), officials plan to devise a set of safety criteria and to compile a database featuring medical and demographic characteristics of the population in the areas slated for reclamation.
Analysis of archival data on the tailing dumps and on-site research are planned for 2015. The 2016-2017 work programme includes safety fence construction, area clean-up, water-reservoir enclosure, warning-sign placement, etc. Also, officials will organise the training of personnel at that stage to maintain tailing-dump safety as a full-time job.
While the programme won’t solve all of the challenges facing Kyrgyzstan, the effort should substantially aid the country in making progress and obtaining an extensive database, Otorbayev said.