Institute for War and Peace Reporting | Giving Voice, Driving Change

Kyrgyzstan Blocks Nuclear Shipments

Government move to ban radioactive imports pleases environmentalists but angers processing plant workers.
By Gulnura Toralieva

A battle between environmental groups and western nuclear energy firms trying to send radioactive materials to Kyrgyzstan came to a head in recent weeks, with the government siding with locals worried about possible contamination.


On September 28, the Kyrgyz government announced it would block efforts by energy producer British Nuclear Fuels, BNFL, to send uranium-contaminated graphite for processing in Kyrgyzstan.


In a statement, which was re-released in English in London on October 5, the government said it had reached its decision because of safety concerns.


The declaration came after state-owned BNFL tried to send about 1,800 tonnes of uranium-bearing graphite, a byproduct of the nuclear fuel production process, to the Karabalta mining and processing plant, KGRK.


BNFL and other western firms are struggling to dispose of these materials because of strict controls at home and growing environmental opposition in developing nations.


In the civilian sector, uranium is used to fuel commercial power plants and in certain fertilizers, among other things. Exposure to the substance has been linked to several types of cancer.


BNFL maintains that it is not looking to dump radioactive waste in Kyrgyzstan. Instead, it intends to extract uranium and send it back to the UK, leaving the remaining material in Kyrgyzstan, the company says.


Kyrgyz activists are strongly opposed to the British shipments, “We will not allow the delivery of such dangerous cargo from abroad. If this goes ahead, we demand that the government resign,” Toktaiym Umetalieva, the leader of a coalition of non-governmental groups, told IWPR.


A deal between the plant and BNFL would make economic sense for the British firm, but would be bad news for Kyrgyzstan, which is struggling to cope with existing radioactive waste on its soil, said Peter Roche, a nuclear expert at global environmental campaigner Greenpeace.


“BNFL not only gets to dispose of its waste in Kyrgyzstan, but will also get back 60 tonnes of useable uranium in return,” he said.


BNFL spokesman Alan Beauchamp rejected allegations that the company was effectively dumping uranium waste in Kyrgyzstan.


“We are not looking to dispose of the waste,” he said, adding that the material that would stay in Kyrgyzstan is not known of as waste but “processed residue”.


German contractor, RWE Nukem GmbH, which provides services for the nuclear industry, has been trying to arrange the delivery of BNFL consignments of uranium-contaminated graphite to the Kyrgyz plant, but has so far failed to get an import license for it.


The contractor started negotiating with the authorities earlier this year, but in July a group of NGOs sent letters to the government protesting against an official commission's decision to support the deal.


The matter appeared to have been settled after the government gave assurances that the shipments would not go ahead. But the controversy resurfaced again in September when the British media reported that BNFL, through Nukem, was negotiating the delivery of uranium-contaminated graphite - prompting a renewed outcry from Kyrgyz activists and apparently forcing the government to issue its ban.


In an interview with IWPR, a Nukem spokesman denied claims that they were organising the dumping of radioactive material, insisting that it was merely being sent for processing. He added that Kyrgyzstan has been processing uranium-containing raw material for 45 years and had been receiving such consignments from Kazakstan quite recently.


For the workers in the Karabalta plant, one of the few factories in the world that separates uranium from graphite, the government’s decision imperils their livelihoods.


“We haven’t been paid for half a year, and we don’t have raw materials to work with. Our plant was built to process uranium, nothing else. What should we do, die of starvation?” said a KGRK employee, who wished to remain anonymous.


Boris Karpachov, the head of the radiation safety service at the Governmental State Agency for Geology and Mineral Resources, lashed out at the groups trying to derail the contract with BNFL.


“KGRK is looking for partners, trying to survive, while NGOs are busy with their intrigues and demagogy, preventing contracts from being signed, which are the only chance for the workers and for all residents of Karabalta,” he said.


Karpachov argued that money made by the factory would allow the country to address economic and social problems, and pay to cleanup and maintain pits containing processed radioactive material.


The BNFL is holding out for a decision in its favour despite the governments categorical statement banning its proposed shipments.


Company spokesman Beauchamp insisted that BNFL “has not received any official notification” about the ban.


“We will find an alternative to the Kyrgyz plant if necessary but we do not have any lined up at the moment because we hope to get the [Kyrgyz import] licence.”


Gulnura Toralieva is an IWPR contributor. IWPR intern Eleanor Bindman contributed to this report.


More IWPR's Global Voices