A Rich and Radioactive Past Haunts a Factory Town
The IAEA is looking to help people in Baku, Azerbaijan clean up radioactive waste from an old iodine factory. (Photo: Pavlicek/IAEA)
Baku, the capital of Azerbaijan has been an international trading hub for two thousand years. Still standing in the city centre are the medieval stone caravanserais - the homes for travelling caravans - where merchants bargained over their wares.
The city´s fortune was made in the 19th century with the large-scale oil extraction and the elegant buildings are a testament to wealth. With surging oil prices the oil boom continues but took its toll.
Half an hour´s drive from the centre of the city, the landscape is dominated by abandoned derricks and oil rigs surrounded by pools of stagnant water.
Oil comes from the bowels of the earth with plenty of water which soaks up many minerals and radioactive elements on its way to the surface. One of the components - iodine - was evaporated after groundwater had been filtered through pellets of activated coal.
The coal absorbed all the radioactive elements but the stocks have not been replaced for decades and the coal has accumulated excess radioactivity. The two iodine factories near Baku supplied almost 70% of all the iodine needed by the then USSR. When the factories were closed down in the early 1990s and slowly went into decline, mountains of radioactive coal were left to lie in the open air.
Agababa Huseynov, chief manager of a radioactive waste storage facility on the outskirts of Baku, stumbles on heaps of tiny black pellets. The radiation meter in his hands continuously whines as the radiation levels are 60 to 80 times higher than the background.
"This is a mini Chernobyl in its own way", he grimly admits. Carcasses of buildings, stray bricks and industrial litter underscore the feeling of lingering catastrophe. The sinister landscape might have passed for a set in a war movie when the site had been heavily bombed.
Agababa has been blowing the whistle for many years now, but the lack of funds and proper technology has stalled any clean-up effort, though radiation experts were aware of the disaster. "Accumulated on the territory of these two factories are about 200 000 tons of waste contaminated by radionuclides. It includes equipment, soil, construction materials, installations, and 80 000 tons of radioactive coal," he says. The coal lies unattended and subject to elements.
The place looks deserted at first sight, but after awhile a child runs by, or a woman goes to hang up her laundry. Slowly a small crowd of people convenes in front of dilapidated office buildings and tell about their woes. About two dozens of families are the refugees who fled from the zones of conflict with Armenia and ended up in empty office rooms of these abandoned factories.
Inhaling tiny particles of radioactive coal can be a potential health hazard for people who settled here. The winds blow the dust to houses nearby.
But there is a ray of hope. The government of Azerbaijan has asked the International Atomic Energy Agency to start a clean-up project through its technical cooperation wing. The project requires a huge investment.
Andrei Chupov, the IAEA Project Manager, is optimistic, "We are looking for donor agencies to help us, but I am sure we will take up this challenge and relieve this radiological and humanitarian problem."
The clean-up project is to roll out in 2007 – finally addressing a problem haunting the community and radiation experts for years.