Central Asian Countries Face Radiological Legacy

Uranium mine tailings at Taboshar in Tajikistan. (Photo: P. Rickwood/IAEA)

Steps towards securing millions of tonnes of uranium tailings in abandoned sites in Central Asia are being taken with the support of the IAEA and its Technical Cooperation programme.

The tailings sites, a potential source of radioactive and heavy metal pollution, are the legacy that has accumulated in the region over five decades of operation of uranium mines and mills without proper environment management programmes in place.

During a three day mission to Tajikistan, at the end of May, Ana María Cetto, IAEA Deputy Director General and head of its Technical Cooperation Department, was told in meetings with the Deputy Prime Minister, Asadullo Gulomov and Foreign Minister, Hamrokhon Zaripov that securing its 10 deserted (or abandoned) tailings sites is a priority for Tajikistan.

Some of them are sited near towns and villages. All of them are in the north of Tajikistan. In Taboshar, a former centre of uranium mining and milling, a hill of more than one million tonnes of process residue tailings lies unprotected, vulnerable to erosion by wind and rain.

Animals drink from pools of water that gather at the foot of the hill when seasonal rains fall, and children play around it. Some material from the tailings sites has also been used in home construction.

But Tajikistan, recovering from near economic collapse and a civil war in the 1990´s, is ill equipped to undertake, on its own, the task of securing the tailings legacy.

An IAEA programme is assisting Tajikistan assess the impact of the sites - a first step towards seeking donor funding to secure them.

"The IAEA doesn´t have the resources to undertake management of the tailings sites," said Ms. Cetto, "but we can provide the expertise and the knowledge to Tajikistan that will assist it best help itself," she said.

During her visit to Tajikistan Ms. Cetto was awarded an honorary doctorate by the Tajik State National University. She also became the first non-Tajikistan woman to be accepted into the National Academy of Sciences of Tajikistan.

Since Tajikistan became a member of the IAEA in 2001 it has received technical assistance in other areas of nuclear and radiation applications to develop diagnostic nuclear medicine, cancer treatment, as well as control of soil erosion and improved land management practices.

Last update: 11 November 2014