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Tajikistan's Atomic Dustbin

Years after uranium mining ended in northern Tajikistan, people are waking up to the threat posed by radioactive waste.
By Daler Hamidov

Over a decade after uranium mining ended in Tajikistan, the country is finally facing up to its nuclear legacy. Specialists estimate that almost 55 million tonnes of uranium waste lie buried across the north of the country, posing a major ecological threat.

Specialists from Kazakstan, Kyrgyzstan, Uzbekistan, Russia and Germany met on July 3-5 for an international conference on the nuclear hazard, held in Kairakkum in the north of Tajikistan. The meeting was a follow-up to the Bishkek Declaration of 2003, which seeks to address the problem of nuclear waste across Central Asia.

Kasym Kasimov, the governor of the northern Sogd region, opened the conference by recalling how uranium mining began in northern Tajikistan as well as in neighbouring Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan in 1942. In May 1945, as the Second World War drew to a close, the USSR’s feared security chief Lavrenti Beria took charge of a new agency called Vostokredmet – still in existence - to mine uranium which was later used to create the first Soviet atom bomb.

For the next 50 years, uranium mining and processing took place in three areas in northern Tajikistan: Chkalovsk, Taboshar and Adrasman. Waste produced by the mines and factories was buried in a network of radioactive dumps in the Tajik part of the Fergana valley.

Conference delegates visited all the waste dumps in Sogd region, which are estimated to contain 54.8 million tonnes of radioactive material.

The waste is not highly active, but it could remain harmful for hundreds of years. Making it safe would require the kind of technology Tajikistan just does not possess.

"Tajikistan does not have the resources needed to solve this problem," Kasymov told delegates. "No country can solve this kind of problem alone."

In 2003, experts from Russia’s nuclear ministry investigated the state of radioactive waste dumps in Tajikistan and passed its conclusions to Vostokredmet, whose role is now to monitor radiation levels and the effect on the environment.

Vostokredmet director Zafar Razikov told IWPR, "Over the past few years specialists from the IAEA [International Atomic Energy Agency] have come to Sogd region four times. Several evaluation projects were undertaken with the Russian nuclear ministry, but neither Russia nor Tajikistan have the necessary funds to go forward. At present, Vostokredmet can only monitor the situation. Around 10-15 million US dollars would be needed to make any progress."

Ecologists have been warning that because many dumps and disused mines lie close to a major Central Asian waterway, the river Syr Darya, any natural or manmade disaster could produce an ecological catastrophe right across the region.

At the conference, Razykov confirmed that radioactive waste could indeed be washed into the river. For example, dumps outside the village of Dehmai, which lies only nine kilometres from the water, hold over 36 million tonnes of waste, some of it brought in from Kyrgyzstan.

Hotam Muratazoev, head of the non-government group Ecology and Scientific and Technical Progress, raised the case of a radioactive dump in Degmai, which has remained unguarded for over ten years even though it holds over two million tonnes of waste. In winter, the pit foundations fill up with water, and this produces material which then dries into radioactive dust during the summer, he said.

This dust settles over residential areas of Chkalovsk, a town near the regional capital Khujand. Local experts in Khujand say that in some surrounding areas, background radiation is over 80 microroentgens per hour - way above the Tajik official safety level of 57 microreoentgens per hour. Background radiation is even higher closer to the old mines, where experts say there are levels of 1,000 microroentgens per hour.

Unaware of the terrible dangers posed by uranium waste, people continue to build houses and plant gardens next to the dumps. The government’s agency for civil defence and emergencies recorded the case of a family in the village of Adrasan whose yard is located almost on top of a dumping pit, exposing them to radiation levels in excess of 500 microroentgens per hour.

Only one kilometre outside the village of Taboshar, six million tonnes of waste lie in three dumps. Ecologists say that the dumps are insufficiently covered over, and material from them is washed into a nearby creek which locals use for drinking water.

Mahmadullo Teshaev, a resident of Taboshar, told IWPR that his son was among several children who used to play next to a mine where uranium was once mined.

"There were no warning signs there and no guards and we had no idea of the danger," he said. "My son was six years old then, and now he is 15 and seriously ill - he has osteomalacia [softness of the bones] and anaemia and doctors have said that he will never be able to father a child."

Muratzoev told the conference that poor security at the disused mines allows thieves to steal old bits of railway track, reinforced concrete and metals, and sell them on as construction materials at markets. This means that houses and other buildings are now being made out of radioactive materials.

Vadim Ostroborodov, representing Russia’s nuclear ministry, appealed for international funding to help the Tajiks. "Tajikistan can’t deal with this problem alone," he said. "In Kyrgyzstan, land restoration is currently under way in the Lake Issyk-Kul area, with funding from the United States. Funds should also be allocated to Tajikistan."

Geophysicist Richard Knapp from the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory in California, which co-sponsored the conference together with Vostokredmet, said, "Radiation does not recognise time or borders. But the bulk of this problem is on the territory of Tajikistan. You have major technical knowledge and experience at Vostokredmet, and there is support for solving problems."

He said that the United States ambassador to Tajikistan, Richard Hoagland, had expressed an interest in the radioactive waste issue, but that past experience shows that the World Bank is the most likely funder of land restoration projects.

Daler Hamidov is the pseudonym of a journalist in Khujand.

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