Cleaning up Central Asia’s poisonous uranium past
Min-Kush means 1,000 birds in the Kyrgyz language. It’s a beautifully poetic image that the name of this rural town, surrounded by Central Asia’s snow-capped glaciers, suggests.
However, this idyllic place hides a poisonous secret: its surrounding lands and water are contaminated by nuclear waste. The town is the site of former uranium mining and processing operations. Uranium made Min-Kush prosperous in Soviet times but now the town has fallen into poverty.
The collapse of the Soviet Union, and the abandonment of the uranium plant, have caused population numbers in Min Kush to plummet as people of working age leave for the capital Bishkek or for Russia. Once numbering as many as 20,000, the town has fewer than 3,000 inhabitants today. Many young people leave as soon as they can.
Saparbek Rysaliev, a retiree who used to work in the local uranium mine, still refers to the “good old times”.
Everything was imported from Moscow. There was meat and the shops were full. After the collapse of the Soviet Union they built a factory on the old site producing pencils and pens. Then it closed down and there has been no work since.- Saparbek Rysaliev
A new beginning
However, the situation is starting to improve, as the European Union is working together with the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development (EBRD) and other partners to clean up the nuclear waste and bring new hope to the area.
Various problems make the clean-up works particularly urgent. Contaminated water used to flow down from the former mine, with an obvious risk of entering the food chain either directly or through irrigation. Furthermore, climate change has led to increased rainfall; one of the uranium sites was at risk of being affected by landslides, potentially harming the environment and people.
The problem does not stop here, as local creeks and rivers float into the Syr Darya River, which crosses the Fergana Valley, Central Asia’s fertile agricultural heart. The consequences of contamination and the ensuing ecological, health and social disasters would be unimaginable.
It is a long-term legacy from Soviet times, when Central Asia was a main hub for uranium mining and processing. Large amounts of radioactive waste were placed in mining waste dumps and tailing sites. Mines closed down in the 1990s but very little remediation took place before or after the mines were closed and milling operations ceased.
The good news is that this has now started to change. The EU is an important donor to an EBRD fund, that works in partnership with the International Atomic Energy Agency to clean up the nuclear waste.
Most of the planned works have been completed in Min-Kush, well ahead of schedule, with the project expected to come to an end this autumn. Radioactive hotspots have been covered, mine shafts closed, and buildings and structures properly disposed of.
A second pilot site in Shekaftar is close to the border with Uzbekistan. Works have proceeded at speed there too. All six mine shafts have been filled and closed, waste rock material relocated and safely stored, dilapidated industrial buildings demolished and the waste safely disposed of.
This vital work is funded by the Environmental Remediation Account for Central Asia (ERA), which pools much-needed donor funds to help the Kyrgyz Republic, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan remediate the most dangerous uranium legacy sites left by Soviet-era uranium production. The fund was established at the EBRD in 2015 at the initiative of the European Commission and became operational in 2016.
Among the workers taking part in the project is Kutman Bekchoro Uluu, 20 years old, employed as a welder at the remediation site. He originally worked in the construction industry, but joined the programme to help complete it as quickly as possible.
All his relatives live in the surrounding area, so he was keen to join the project and help transform Min-Kush into a better place.
Kutman’s daily responsibilities include welding, taking care of machinery and dismantling metal items extracted from the site. When the remediation work is completed, he wants to start his own business, build a house and start a family.
A brighter future for the next generation
In Min-Kush, Kanat Almambetov, Head of the Town Council, stresses the importance of these activities for his town. “We need to get rid of the uranium waste dumps. We need the mines to be sealed up and the waste removed,” he says. “It’s all over the internet and obviously bad PR for Min-Kush. We want the work finished as soon as possible, so Min-Kush can be a clean and safe place to develop tourism.” The town lays in a stunning location, inspiring hope that it could become a centre for tourism, once the residual radioactive contamination has been cleaned up.
Saparbek worries about the next generation, which needs to be able to find opportunities for work.
To have a decent life, that’s the main thing. I don’t have so long to live. But I want the young people to live well. That’s all I ask for.- Saparbek Rysaliev