Clean-up set to start at Uzbek legacy uranium sites

25 October 2021

Preparations for the environmental remediation of former uranium mining sites at Yangiabad and Charkesar are set to begin following the signing of a EUR2.0 million (USD2.3 million) grant agreement between the Environmental Remediation Account for Central Asia and the government of Uzbekistan.

The Yangiabad site in Uzbekistan (EBRD)

The grant agreement was signed on 22 October at a hybrid ceremony attended by Balthasar Lindauer, director of the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development's (EBRD's) Nuclear Safety Department, and Islombek Boqijonov, Deputy Chairman of the State Committee for Ecology and Environmental Protection of Uzbekistan.

The grant will support a recently established Project Management Unit (PMU), which will be dealing with the clean-up of the Yangiabad and Charkesar sites, located in the mountains east of the Uzbek capital Tashkent, the EBRD said. As a first step, the PMU can start preparing the necessary tender documentation for remediation works at the two sites. Physical work on the ground is expected to begin in the third quarter of 2022 and will take approximately two years to complete.

Located at an altitude of 1300 metres in an area with a high risk of seismic activity, and around 70km from Tashkent, Yangiabad was a uranium mining site for nearly 40 years. It is spread across a 50-square-kilometre area and contains about 2.6 million cubic metres of radioactive waste. Planned remediation works include closing four shafts, demolishing contaminated buildings and processing facilities, relocating several waste rock dumps to a central covered dump and other associated activities.

The village of Charkesar, located in the mountains 140km to the east of the Uzbek capital, was a uranium mining site until 1995 and is still home to approximately 3500 people. Planned remediation works at this site include the closure of two shafts and the demolition of abandoned buildings.

The EBRD established the Environmental Remediation Account for Central Asia in 2015 at the request of the European Commission, to tackle the legacy of Soviet uranium mining in region. The account, which became operational in 2016, is supported by contributions from the European Commission, Belgium, Lithuania, Norway, Spain, Switzerland and the USA.

The signing of the Uzbek grant agreement follows the approval last month of an updated Strategic Master Plan (SMP) for resolving the uranium legacy in Central Asia. The SMP was approved by Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan, as well as the International Atomic Energy Agency, the European Union, the EBRD and Russian state nuclear corporation Rosatom. The revised plan will be published by the end of this year. It will outline the current status of the uranium legacy sites in Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan, including updated cost estimates for their remediation.

Central Asia served as an important source of uranium for the former Soviet Union. Uranium was mined for over 50 years and uranium ore was also imported from other countries for processing, and large amounts of radioactively contaminated material were placed in mining waste dumps and tailing sites. Most of the mines were closed by 1995 but very little remediation was done before or after the closure of the mining and milling operations. The contaminated material is a threat to the environment and the health of the population. The hazards include the possible pollution of ground and surface water in a key agricultural centre of the region.

Researched and written by World Nuclear News