Uzbekistan: Nuclear Waste Worries

Environmentalists warn that decades-old dumps in nearby Kyrgyzstan could poison the entire Fergana valley and beyond.

Uzbekistan: Nuclear Waste Worries

Environmentalists warn that decades-old dumps in nearby Kyrgyzstan could poison the entire Fergana valley and beyond.

Uzbekistan’s Fergana valley could be on the verge of a radioactive disaster following the disintegration of nuclear dumps buried in neighbouring Kyrgyzstan.

Soviet-era waste, which was buried in the Mailuu-suu valley, Osh, is leaking into a tributary of the Syrdaria river - the second largest in Central Asia - that provides drinking water for the entire Fergana region.

Analysts warn that around nine million people in the Uzbek areas of Fergana could be exposed to radioactivity if the problem is not tackled head on.

Bekjan Tashmuhamedov, chairman of the local UNESCO Man and the Biosphere committee, told IWPR that the nuclear waste dumps are already beginning to break down, and that the river bed is showing signs of increased radioactive pollution.

“This material is spreading down the river bed at a rate of around a kilometre a year – and it’s heading for Uzbekistan,” he warned, adding that lighter concentrations have already been found in waterways near the border.

The contamination threat is a hangover from the Soviet Union’s determination to create an atomic bomb in the late forties. The first uranium mine was constructed in the area in 1948, at the beginning of the Cold War - but little thought appears to have been given to the consequences.

Mining continued in the area for the following two decades, until the reserves were exhausted and production moved to the processing of imported raw materials.

Today, the state geological body Kyzyltepageologia estimates that around 7,000 tons of semi-liquid radioactive waste is buried in the valley. Three sites in particular are giving cause for concern - all are hastily excavated mounds covered with soil, which analysts say, are unsafe.

Aside from the buried waste, 13 abandoned dumpsters filled with balancing ores used during nuclear processing have been judged to contain dangerously high levels of uranium.

Tashmuhamedov believes that the construction of an artificial reservoir on the Uzbek-Kyrgyz border could eliminate the threat, as this would trap the heavy radioactive particles and prevent them from being washed further down the river.

However, investment would be needed not only from Tashkent but also from the other Central Asian countries that border the Fergana area.

Seven years ago, Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan and Kazakstan signed a declaration that recognised buried nuclear waste represented a serious threat to the whole region.

A coordinating group, Interstate, was formed to investigate the problem and identify possible solutions. It found that Mailuu-suu was the most dangerous place possible to bury radioactive materials – but officials failed to act on this advice. Tashkent later spent only 22,000 US dollars monitoring the area.

Analysts insist that more has to be done in Uzbekistan, and soon. While state officials are pondering the best way to tackle the problem, natural disasters such as floods, landslides and earthquakes threaten to cause an environmental catastrophe.

The area has come close to disaster several times before. In 1958, 6,000 cubic metres of radioactive material were released into the environment after a protective dam burst in Mailuu-suu valley.

Tectonic tremors triggered several landslides in the Nineties, further weakening the dump sites and leading to more toxic waste leaks.

Kyrgyzstan is now taking steps to tackle the problem. A parliamentary commission was set up to investigate the condition of the pits last year, and the international community pledged to help the government make them secure.

Senior Kyrgyz official Anarkul Aitaliev warned at the time that a massive landslide in the region could wash millions of tonnes of deadly nuclear waste all the way to the Aral Sea – which would have chilling implications for Central Asia.

Timofei Zhukov is a journalist with the Zerkalo newspaper.

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