Crossroads Asia

Dealing With Central Asia’s Poisonous Nuclear Legacy

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Crossroads Asia

Dealing With Central Asia’s Poisonous Nuclear Legacy

Soviet-era uranium mining and waste facilities spread across Central Asia remain a serious public and environmental risk.

Dealing With Central Asia’s Poisonous Nuclear Legacy

Degmay tailings pond in Tajikistan.

Credit: M. Roberts/IAEA

A delegation from the International Atomic Energy Agency’s Coordination Group for Uranium Legacy Sites (CGULS) visited Tajikistan last week. The visit was part of ongoing preparations for the remediation of uranium legacy sites — efforts to reduce the public and environmental risks linked to what remains from the nearly five decades in which the Soviet Union mined and processed uranium in the Central Asian region.

More than 25 years ago, the Soviet Union collapsed. One of the biggest open questions as the Soviet Union disintegrated into 15 separate states was what would become of its nuclear weapons and material scattered across the constituent states. Kazakhstan and Ukraine, for example, hosted Soviet nuclear weapons. Kazakhstan, the Nuclear Threat Initiative notes, “inherited 1,410 nuclear warheads and the Semipalatinsk nuclear weapon test site” with independence. Semipalatinsk was where the Soviet Union conducted more than 450 nuclear tests, including its first. The testing site also experienced accidents and fallout worse than Chernobyl, though little mentioned and covered up by Moscow at the time. Concerted international efforts helped repatriate the nuclear weapons left in Kazakhstan to Russia by April 1995.

But the Soviet Union’s nuclear legacy in Central Asia went beyond testing and missiles, to include a large uranium industry spread across the region. According to a 2010 IAEA report on the Soviet Union’s uranium legacy in Central Asia, in the 1970s and ’80s, more than 30 percent of the Soviet Union’s uranium production was occurring in Central Asia. When the region’s states became independent they inherited uranium mining, processing, and waste facilities. “The closure of mines and processing plants took place at various times between 1961 and 1995,” the report notes, “but only the waste sites located relatively close to large population centers were remediated to any degree.” Some sites, the report says, were simply abandoned.

In addition, each Central Asian state — due to their own administrative and technical capacity, as well as economic strength — handled the industry’s remnants differently. In Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan, uranium production continued. Currently, Kazakhstan is the unquestioned leader in uranium production, providing 39 percent of the world’s supply of uranium from mines, more than 23,800 tonnes U, in 2015. Uzbekistan’s share is considerably smaller (2,385 tonnes U in 2015) but still ranks in the top 10 global producers.

In Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan, however, uranium mining and production stopped when the Soviet Union collapsed. The 2010 IAEA reports notes that Tajikistan closed all of its mines and Kyrgyzstan closed all of its mines but later reopened a mill at Kara-Balta with uranium from Kazakhstan.

The risks are serious as both Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan sit upstream from the rest of the region — and many of the mines and waste sites sit near tributaries to one of the region’s major rivers, the Syr Darya. The 2010 IAEA report contains a worrying list of issues at the sites, from the lack of historical records and absence of modern testing and monitoring to the risks posed by the region’s seismic activity, particularly in relation to tailings storage facilities, and the low level of public awareness even in the immediate vicinity of these sites. Even what remediation efforts had been made require maintenance, which requires funds. “The Central Asian countries appear not to have sufficient resources (such as specialized equipment, trained and experienced personnel, infrastructure, practical regulations applicable in practice) to solve the issues associated with numerous uranium legacy sites,” the IAEA report notes.

It is in this vein that dealing with the region’s nuclear legacy sites has become a feature of international aid to the states of Central Asia.

The recent foray to Tajikistan will result in an independent cost analysis of the necessary remediation at legacy sites known as Map 1-9, Degmay and Taboshar in northern Tajikistan.

The European Bank for Reconstruction and Development (EBRD) established the “Environmental Remediation Account for Central Asia” in 2015 at the request of the European Commission (EC). The EC referred to the account as a “key milestone” — it is “a vehicle to channel international efforts to find long-lasting solutions to the severe environmental problems related to former uranium mining and milling activities in the region.” According to the EC last year, “The European Union has contributed €16.5 million [$17.8 million] from the Instrument for Nuclear Safety Cooperation (INSC) to make the fund operational.”

Other critical steps include trips like the recent experts’ visit to Tajikistan and a similar visit to Kyrgyzstan last year, which help develop on-the-ground knowledge of the situation at the legacy sites, in addition to cost estimates to inform governments and donors of the scale of resources needed to appropriately tackle the problem. The objective is ultimately to craft a strategic plan for remediation efforts across the region.

In January, the EBRD signed framework agreements with Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan, “which will provide the legal basis for implementation of projects in these countries.” Initial projects will be funded by the EC’s founding contribution to the account mentioned above.

“The conclusion of framework agreements with Tajikistan and the Kyrgyz Republic marks an important milestone,” EBRD First Vice President Phil Bennett said. “The preparatory phase of the Environmental Remediation Account has come to a close and work can start to address a serious hazard for the population of Central Asia and for stability in the region. We look forward to cooperating with our partners in the region as well as with donors to help achieve this important goal.”

It’s not going to be simple, quick, or easy but at least progress is being made toward dealing with the Soviet nuclear legacy, beyond weapons, in Central Asia.