Drones to monitor Central Asian uranium legacy sites

01 July 2021

A new technology using drones is set to be deployed for the remote monitoring of radiation measurements at former uranium mining and processing areas in Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan. The unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) equipped with gamma spectrometers have been developed by a German consortium in collaboration with the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA).

Tailings pond #11 sits on a hill overlooking the town of Mailuu-Suu in Kyrgyzstan (Image: WNN)

The Fergana Valley, which links Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan, is home to 14 million people and one of the most fertile and densely populated areas of Central Asia. The valley could be negatively affected by the release of radionuclides and heavy metals from tailing dumps and heaps resulting from historic uranium mining in the area. The Syr Darya River, which runs through the valley, is one of the principal rivers in Central Asia.

The new technology will make monitoring radiation at the sites - an integral part of environmental remediation - easier and safer. Up to now, experts in Central Asia monitor these sites for radioactivity on foot, wearing backpacks equipped with gamma-ray spectrometers that detect the presence of natural radionuclides, including uranium. As most of the uranium legacy sites are located in difficult-to-reach mountainous and seismically active areas, monitoring with backpacks is challenging and less efficient.

Research project

This challenge was recognised by the IAEA's Coordination Group for Uranium Legacy Sites (CGULS), which in 2017 partnered with a consortium of experts from Germany, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan to implement a research project to develop the drone that is currently in the final testing phase.

The three-year DUB-GEM project (Development of a UAV-based Gamma spectrometry for the Exploration and Monitoring of Uranium Mining Legacies), was launched in April 2019 with about EUR1.0 million (USD1.2 million) in funding from the German Federal Ministry of Education and Research. The Federal Institute for Geosciences and Natural Resources (BGR) is coordinating the project on the German side. Third Element Aviation from Bielefeld is providing the required drone to carry the gamma spectrometers. IAF-Radioökologie GmbH from Radeberg is responsible for one of the two planned parallel development lines for drone-based gamma spectrometry. BGR is responsible for the second development line planned in DUB-GEM.

The UAV will carry a gamma spectrometer that has been specially selected for its accuracy in detecting the presence and concentration of the radionuclides that may be present at the sites, the IAEA said.

The initial phase of the project was completed last year with the practical tests of the system in Ronneburg, Germany, where detailed contamination maps were obtained from the flights over partially remediated uranium legacy sites. Throughout this phase, the IAEA's CGULS facilitated participation of Central Asian experts in practical workshops and coordination meetings and provided logistical assistance for the field work. Practical training for Central Asian experts by the IAEA on the use of the system in the region is scheduled to take place later this year.

Easier monitoring

"The tailor-made UAV-based gamma spectrometer will make it possible for experts to explore sites without the need to trek through difficult terrain with lots of gear," said Sven Altfelder, an IAEA remediation safety specialist. "By using the UAV to conduct monitoring duties, experts in the region will be able to easily gather the necessary data quickly, while avoiding potential physical and radiological risks altogether."

"UAV-based gamma spectrometry is easier to use and has lower operational costs compared to well-established airborne methods such as helicopter-based gamma spectrometry," added Malte Ibs-von Seht, the project coordinator from BGR. "It also has a fast mapping speed."

Azamat Mambetov, State Secretary of the Kyrgyzstan Ministry of Emergency Situations, said: "We will be able to use the results obtained by the UAV to explain remediation results to the local population and demonstrate that those areas are now safe."

Clean-up efforts

In 2017, the Strategic Master Plan for Environmental Remediation of Uranium Legacy Sites in Central Asia, which focuses on Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan, was adopted by the IAEA, the European Commission, the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development, the Commonwealth of Independent States Economic Council, as well as the governments of Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan, to establish a strategy and concrete mechanisms to remediate the sites safely and sustainably.

Remediation is under way at several sites in Kyrgyzstan, while preparatory work is ongoing in Tajikistan and Uzbekistan. The upcoming revised version of the plan will focus on seven priority uranium legacy sites - Mailuu-Suu, Min-Kush and Shekaftar in Kyrgyzstan; Degmay and Istiklol in Tajikistan; and, Charkesar and Yangiabad in Uzbekistan - to advance remediation efforts and help bridge the remaining funding gap.

Researched and written by World Nuclear News