More funding needed to complete Central Asian remediation

22 September 2021

A renewed call has been made for additional donor funding in order to tackle the most urgent problems caused by radioactive and toxic waste at legacy uranium sites in Central Asia, with the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) estimating an additional EUR40 million (USD47 million) is required. The call came as all parties directly involved in the project signed a revised Strategic Master Plan.

An employee of the Kyrgyz Academy of Sciences monitors radiation levels at the former uranium processing site in Min Kush. Careful monitoring ensures that demolition and remediation works are carried out safely (Image: Maxime Fossat / EBRD)

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.

The European Bank for Reconstruction and Development (EBRD) in 2015 established the Environmental Remediation Account for Central Asia (ERA), at the request of the European Commission, to tackle this legacy. The ERA, which became operational in 2016, is supported by contributions from the European Commission, Belgium, Lithuania, Norway, Spain, Switzerland and the USA.

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 EBRD and 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. The plan - published in May 2018 - identifies seven former uranium production sites in the region as the highest priority: Mailuu-Suu, Min-Kush and Shekaftar in Kyrgyzstan; Degmay and Istikol in Tajikistan; and, Charkesar and Yangiabad in Uzbekistan. The total cost of remediating the seven sites was estimated at around EUR85 million.

The EBRD said the ERA has already brought significant progress, with work at two critical sites in Kyrgyzstan approaching completion ahead of schedule and within budget. However, five more sites in the region are in urgent need of rehabilitation. While work on a new site in Kyrgyzstan and - for the first time - one in Uzbekistan is scheduled for next year, more funding is needed to complete the programme and mitigate the existing danger to people and the environment in Central Asia.

During the IAEA General Conference yesterday, all parties directly involved renewed their commitment with the signing of a revised Strategic Master Plan. The updated plan provides a renewed framework for permanently resolving the uranium legacy in Central Asia. The EBRD said the plan serves as the basis for the coordinated effort of multiple parties and ensures the optimal use of limited resources. Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan, as well as the IAEA, the EU, the EBRD and the Russian state atomic energy corporation Rosatom, have endorsed the plan.

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.

"The renewed coordinated approach to remediation of uranium legacy sites in Central Asia will allow the EBRD to continue to work effectively and ensure safe and sustainable funding decisions," said Balthasar Lindauer, director of the EBRD's Nuclear Safety Department. "The steps taken should allow other donors to join the Environmental Remediation Account of the EBRD."

Researched and written by World Nuclear News