Kyrgyzstan: Nuclear Waste Fears

The government is struggling to make safe decaying Soviet-era nuclear waste pits.

Kyrgyzstan: Nuclear Waste Fears

The government is struggling to make safe decaying Soviet-era nuclear waste pits.

Prolonged rainfall and a series of earthquakes across Central Asia have renewed fears of waste uranium escaping from nuclear waste pits in Kyrgyzstan's southern province of Jalal-Abad.

Should a mudslide or earthquake displace millions of cubic metres of material from the nuclear waste disposal areas, there is concern that it could pose a threat not just to southern Kyrgyzstan but also to the wider region.

Following an urgent appeal by the Bishkek government, a European Union inter-parliamentary commission is expected to visit the region on May 13 to investigate the burial sites, known as tailing pits.

Anarkul Aitaliev, from the department of environmental monitoring, part of the ministry of the environment and emergencies, described a chilling worst-case scenario, involving the river Maily-Suu triggering a radioactive mudslide of 120,000 cubic metres "tearing through Central Asia all the way to the Aral Sea". Emphasising the scale of the problem, he added, "That's what only one of the pits can do".

The river Maily-Suu currently flows just a few metres away from the nearest tailing pit and according to the local civil defence headquarters there are 165 sites in the province with a high risk of landslide. Heightening the sense of alarm, the last earthquake to shake the area, which occurred only a few days ago, was close to the burial sites.

Kyrgyzstan inherited its nuclear waste burial sites from the Soviet Union. The material is covered only by thin layers of gravel, sand and clay. The largest pits are located in the Jalal-Abad province, where a uranium refinery served a number of Soviet-era nuclear power projects.

There are 23 uranium-tailing pits and 13 slag heaps near the town of Maily-Suu alone, containing upwards of a million cubic meters of waste. The ministry of the environment and emergencies officially took over the care of the sites in March 1999.

Prior to this, Aitaliev said, the pits were kept in a "basically safe" condition by several government agencies, although no maintenance had been undertaken in the five years before the hand-over.

The radioactivity level around the burial sites stands at a safe level of between 18 and 30 micro roentgen/hour, he said, well below the maximum permitted level of 100 micro roentgen/hour.

However, Aitaliev warned that the condition of the pits had deteriorated each year. "All extraneous influences, such as high water, mudslides and earthquakes, contribute to their erosion. The pits are not safe now," he said.

Local residents hold the pits responsible for a high cancer rate and a growing number of children born with deformities, although Nemat Mambetov, head doctor of the local sanitation and epidemic prevention station in Maily-Suu, said such fears could not be proven.

"Most of the cancer patients here are senior citizens. Some of them actually used to work in uranium mines. We have no way of ascertaining whether their illness is related to the tailing pits."

Rumours about radioactive meat from cattle grazing on the restricted sites also periodically shake the local communities, though Mambetov ruled this out. "All the cattle are checked by veterinarians. We live in a dangerous area, so we have to be vigilant. We would be the first to know if something like this happened," he said.

TACIS, the European Union project for technical assistance to the former Soviet Union, has pledged 500,000 euros towards research on the tailing pits. Aitaliev said European consultants would produce a report outlining the pits' design and rehabilitation requirements. "Phase one has already been completed, including research and repair of two kilometres of fence around one of the repositories," he said. "The effort will be continued this year."

Kyrgyzstan's worried neighbours are also contributing to the effort. Uzbek experts are due to conduct research on the uranium repositories together with their Kyrgyz counterparts. Russia's Ministry of Nuclear Power has also offered assistance.

However, TACIS, World Bank and Kyrgyz experts estimate it will cost 24 million US dollars to properly secure the pits. It is a sum that Kyrgyzstan, with its struggling economy and deficit-plagued budget, cannot afford.

The 40,000 dollars the government has allocated so far for emergency work was barely enough to clean the landslide drains and repair decrepit dams.

But as the unprecedented rainfall sees rivers rise in southern Kyrgyzstan and mudslides become increasingly destructive, the cost of inaction may start to alarm everyone.

Tolkunbek Turdubaev is a BBC stringer in Kyrgyzstan

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