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Cleaning Up Uranium Legacy Sites for a Safer Future: Environmental Remediation in Central Asia

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(Photo: IAEA)

Monitoring and managing radioactivity levels and the environment at abandoned uranium production sites across rural Kyrgyzstan, thanks in part to IAEA technical support, is helping to keep the public and environment safe. This work is ongoing at around 10 sites, while further funds for the implementation of long-term remediation plans still need to be secured.

“Many of these sites contain toxic residues, and the possibility of seismic instability, such as landslides, poses the biggest risk to the surrounding environment,” said Asel Seitkazieva, Deputy Director at the country’s Ministry of Emergency Situations.

“Kyrgyzstan’s positive experience with the IAEA could serve as a useful roadmap for future remediation efforts, especially when seeking ways to implement programmes within existing national regulatory frameworks,” she said.

According to the Ministry of Emergency Situations of the Kyrgyz Republic, Kyrgyzstan has 35 tailings dumps and 25 sites with waste rock piles.

These uranium sites were built at a time when planning for eventual end-of-life management was not a common practice. For decades, they were used for uranium production (see The Science box) and were eventually shut down in the 1990s.

The immediate focus has since been on addressing risks associated with the sites to help protect people and the environment. These risks include leftover residues of long lived radioactive and highly toxic chemical contaminants that pose substantial risks to public health and the environment, as well as flooding and seismic events, such as landslides.

“By some estimates, the quantity of uranium production residues in Central Asia — such as waste rock and tailings — approaches one billion tonnes,” said John Rowat, Head of the Decommissioning and Remediation Unit at the IAEA Department of Nuclear Safety and Security. “Many of these materials are stored in an unsafe manner at sites scattered across the region. Due to lack of funding, work over the last decade has focused mostly on containment of the toxins in the former mining sites to restore their safety.”

Through IAEA technical cooperation projects and financing through the Peaceful Uses Initiative (PUI), specialists from the country’s Ministry of Health, the National Academy of Sciences, and the State Agency for Environmental Protection and Forestry have learned to use gamma and alpha spectrometry technology to assess and monitor radiation levels. IAEA-facilitated aid from other international organizations, such as the European Commission, is also helping them to make progress in partially remediating and cultivating waste piles and mill tailings. Several landslide-prone spots near tailings have been improved and re-engineered to reduce the likelihood of instability.

Alongside these immediate actions, environmental remediation plans and projects have been prepared by Kyrgyz authorities through support from the IAEA’s Coordination Group for Uranium Legacy Sites (CGULS). While lack of funds has stalled progress on implementing remediation plans, preparing sites by “beginning to transfer tailings to safe zones and beginning to restore other tailings,

the groundwork has been set for future remediation. Once further funding is secured, physical transfer of the waste and re-cultivation of the site will take place,” Seitkazieva said.

Neighbouring countries can learn from each other

“Kyrgyzstan’s experience with IAEA-supported remediation efforts may be helpful for neighbouring countries considering similar projects,” said Seitkazieva. Tajikistan and Uzbekistan, for instance, have engaged the IAEA to procure laboratory equipment, arrange training of staff and assist in site characterization exercises, much like what Kyrgyzstan has already done.

Kyrgyzstan’s neighbours often share common challenges when it comes to remediation. Along the border of Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan, a valued agricultural watershed in the Ferghana Valley is under threat of contamination by toxic substances from former uranium production sites.

“The Ferghana Valley is a good example of why it’s important to take a regional approach to uranium legacy site remediation in Central Asia, to complement country-specific programmes,” Rowat said. The IAEA is working with the three countries to address remediation at the regional level. “Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, and Uzbekistan all draw upon the water resources of the Ferghana Valley.”

Sustainable today for a better tomorrow

Uranium and associated minerals remain central to nuclear energy production. As countries continue to show an interest in nuclear power, ensuring proper regulatory frameworks and control capacities is essential.

To this end, the IAEA, in part through PUI, has helped countries worldwide to develop a better understanding of how uranium resources can be exploited in a safe and sustainable manner and how to reduce potential problems with uranium legacy sites. This includes helping countries to learn how to safely assess site-specific radiological impact on people and the environment stemming from uranium production, as well as the remediation and long-term management of sites.

Maintaining a sustainable approach to uranium production and the use of nuclear energy also contributes to the Sustainable Development Goals, which were adopted by the United Nations in September 2015.

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