The legacy left by twenty years of intensive uranium mining near Mailuu-Suu in Kyrgyzstan risks becoming an ecological disaster for Central Asia. Landslides and earthquakes threaten to wash huge quantities of uranium waste into the Syr Darya river basin. The OSCE Centre in Kyrgyzstan's capital Bishkek encourages international co-operation in solving the issue and is raising public awareness of related health hazards.
The former USSR used intensive production methods near the town of Mailuu-Suu to extract uranium ore between 1946 and 1967. "The USSR's first atomic bomb was made from Mailuu-Suu's uranium," said Torgoev Isakbek Asangalievich, a scientist at Kyrgyzstan's National Academy of Science.
What remain now are not atomic bombs, but almost two million cubic metres of radioactive waste that threaten the entire Fergana valley. The valley is the most fertile and populated area in Central Asia, home to millions of people in Uzbekistan, Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan.
"The methods of waste disposal ignored basic environmental protection policies, and information about associated risks was withheld from the general public," said Asangalievich.
A critical situation
The cost of rehabilitating the 23 existing dumps is estimated at over $15 million US. The World Bank has approved a $5 million US grant for rehabilitation of dumps in 2004. Asim Acikel, an Economic and Environmental Officer at the OSCE Centre in Bishkek, said some local people are pessimistic. They fear the money will be misused, underlining the need for international co-operation throughout the rehabilitation process.
Meanwhile, soil erosion and possible earthquakes are creating a growing risk of landslides and floods. In 1994, a landslide blocked the Mailuu-Suu river, flooding houses and pushing part of a waste reservoir into the river.
In May 2002, the worst-case scenario nearly happened when a huge mudslide blocked the course of the river and threatened to submerge another waste site. At present, one of the dumps is endangered by a landslip over 250 metres high.
In 2003, plans for a technical database were laid out at a meeting of experts, co-organized by the OSCE Centre in Bishkek. The database would address the need to centralize existing material about managing radioactive waste. Accessible online, it would be an effective resource for those working on the issue, providing documents, maps, photographs, technical drawings, and radioactive and chemical measurements.
Since the initial meeting, a detailed list has been drawn up of almost 90 documents that provide historical and current information on the situation in Mailuu-Suu as well as on the state of the uranium dumps.
Public health campaign
Despite the health risks presented by radioactive waste, public awareness remains alarmingly low in Mailuu-Suu. Livestock graze on contaminated sites, houses are built using radioactive material and children wander freely over poorly-marked, dangerous areas.
In response, the OSCE Centre, the GeoPribor scientific engineering centre and the Kyrgyz National Academy of Sciences organized a public awareness campaign entitled "Life Safety in Mailuu-Suu." The city's administration, schools and the local medical college were presented with brochures explaining the dangers of radioactive waste and offering preventive advice.
During the presentations, students asked questions such as "What happens if we drink from the Mailuu-Suu river?" and "Who will be responsible for managing the rehabilitation funds?".
Recently, the OSCE Centre proposed a project - still awaiting funding - to develop a Volunteer Rescue Team in Mailuu-Suu. The Team would be staffed with trained volunteers for preventive and rescue operations, as well as rehabilitation works in cases of emergency.