"Which is worse? The wolf who cries before eating the lamb or the wolf who does not."— Leo Tolstoy

Wednesday, September 14, 2011

Calling Chicken Little.

Kyrgyzstan is one of the poorest of the former Soviet republics. The sudden dissolution of the Soviet  Union in 1991 resulted in severe hardships for the Kyrgyz people including Mass unemployment, food shortages, and wrenching social, political  and economic change. Twenty years later, Kyrgyzstan is still struggling with the legacy of the Cold War and its sudden independence from the former Soviet Union. 

In Karabalta, a town located in the shadow of the northern slopes of the 7,000 meter Kyrgyz Ala-Tau, a local storage facility has been collecting uranium ore tailings and production waste since 1955.  In the nearly fifty years since the Soviet military began mining uranium for its nuclear weapon programs generations of local residents have been raised a few kilometers away from a dump that is now filled with 32,5 million tons of 84,600 curie radioactive waste.  Kyrgyzstan has 92 dumps similar to the Kara-Balta storage facility which hold a total of 475 million tons of radioactive waste in a country smaller than the State of New Mexico.  By contrast, the total accumulation of uranium mill tailings in the entire United States is approximately 140 million tons. 

An information website affiliated with the United Nations Environmental Program describes the problem as a "Nuclear Time Bomb." Nevertheless, nearly a decade of dire warnings have been virtually ignored by the international community.

The risk of a regional ecological disaster is shrouded by the haunting reality that most of the tailings are located in the densely populated regions of the lush, conflict ridden and fertile Fergana Valley. The Fergana Valley spreads across Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan, forming a three nation agricultural zone in which the the Naryn and the Kara Darya rivers flow from the Tian Shan and Pamir mountain ranges to unite as the Syr Darya. In 329 BC, Alexander the Great founded a Greek settlement on the southern bank of the Syr Darya, and Medieval Islamic writings refer to the river as Sayhoun, described in the Quran as one of the four rivers of Paradise. 

The Fergana Valley is also an area of high seismicity, with strong natural forces, such as floods and mud slides, that are becoming more frequent as the climate changes.  The condition of the containment facilities in Kyrgyzstan has significantly deteriorated since the collapse of the Soviet Union. “There is a problem concerning inventory of dams,” cautioned Zharas Takenov, an environmental program officer with the United Nations Development Program. “At some, an inventory [of the dam’s condition] has not been made in 30 years.”

Although there have been few scientific studies, experts agree that at least 6,500 hectares of land in Kyrgyzstan has already been exposed to radioactive contamination. One study presented by U.S. and Kyrgyz scientists at the 2002 Tailings and Mine Waste Conference at Colorado State University reported that some of the retention basins have sediment breaches where the clay-lining has cracked and is producing plumes of airborne radioactive contamination of "unknown magnitude." A 2006 study by German researchers concluded that the long term fate of uranium tailings in mountain areas is different from tailings in flat landscapes, noting that "[t]he deposited uranium and other toxic elements will contaminate the downstream aquatic environment for thousands to more than ten thousand years depending on the scenarios chosen."

The Mailuu-Suu district was a massive Soviet-era underground uranium-mining operation extracting ore from 5 separate sites between 1946 and 1968. In April 1958, Mayluu-Suu tailing #7,suffered a dam failure after an earthquake and heavy rain houses in the town were destroyed, people were killed, and 600,000 m3 tailings were spread over 40 km down by the river, contaminating flood plains.

"There are real risks of pollution of ground water, as well as rivers in the water basin of Central Asia." according to Neal Walker, UN Resident Coordinator in the Kyrgyz Republic. "The risk is very high and consequences of potential catastrophes can be huge, not only for millions of people, but also for the environment and sustainable development process." 

If the risk of a potential catastrophe is "very high," one would expect that the nations of the region would place a moratorium on further uranium mining activity until the uranium tailings issue has been resolved. Yet uranium mining is not just a ghost industry from Central Asia’s Soviet cold-war past. Uranium exploration and prospection is galloping across the Central Asian Steppes like the Mongol hordes with energy-rich Kazakhstan leading the way. 

A Japanese energy consortium lead by Toshiba Corporation began operations in 2008 on a uranium mine at the Khorasan-1 Section of the North Khorasan field with reserves of 21,000 tonnes and an expected yield of 3,000 tonnes of uranium a year. It took only three years to build the Khorasan-1 uranium mine, half of the average time it takes to develop a producing uranium mine, and production is expected to continue until 2053. 

Kazakhstan’s national nuclear corporation Kazatomprom also recently agreed to provide China's Guangdong Nuclear Power Co. (CGNPC) with 24,200 tons of uranium by 2020. Semizbai-U, a joint venture that is 49% owned by Kazatomprom, has also agreed to develop two new uranium fields for CGNPC that will, respectively, produce 750 and 500 tonnes of uranium per year. CNGPC also has plans for the development of a third uranium field with 40,000 tonnes of reserves. Investment in this one project will exceed $432 million, ten times the amount the UNDP estimates is needed to clean up the uranium tailings dumps in all of Kyrgyzstan.

Meanwhile, in Kyrgyzstan, uranium exploration is being performed by Monaco Mining NL , Sinosteel Corp. , Eurasian Minerals Inc. , Linia Prava Uranium Ltd.,Nimrodel Resources Ltd , Stans Energy Corp. , Greenwich Global Capital Inc. , MonitorEnergy Ltd , Leopard Minerals plc , Tau Mining Ltd (UK), Long Alpha Mining Company LLC, Dynamite Resources Ltd , and Pangaea Energy Ltd. The Kara Balta uranium processing mill continued to process Kazakh uranium ore until the plant was decommissioned in 2005 due to a lack of resources. Kara-Balta resumed production in 2008 and, after a $200 million renovation, is currently importing ore for processing from the Zarechnoye ISL uranium mine in southern Kazahkstan, a Kazakh-Russian-Kyrgyz joint venture. In addition, Kara-Balta has also signed a contract with Germany's RWE Nukem GmbH to process 1,800 tons of uranium scrap waste from fuel fabrication. The waste from Kara-Balta's processing activity is dumped into the refinery's antiquated, overcrowded and unstable tailing storage facility.

The UNEP, UNDP, OSCE, World Bank, and all the other international organizations have known about the catastrophic threat from the Central Asia uranium tailings for over a decade. As early as 1998 the World Bank had completed an assessment that warned of the risk of major ecological devastation caused by the deteriorating condition of Central Asia's radioactive waste storage facilities. Radioactive uranium tailings were also the focus of an OSCE-supported international conference in Bishkek on April 11 2007, and NATO held an Advanced Research Workshop on Radiological Risks in Central Asia in Almaty, Kazakhstan in June 2006. Other studies and regional conferences on the subject have occurred nearly every year since 2002. 

There have also been dire warnings published in the international media. A 2000 report by The New York Times quoted an internal analysis prepared a year earlier by the American Embassy in Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan's capital, that warned of "[a] major environmental disaster waiting to happen." The analysis concluded that "[t]he United States government should take the lead in helping to defuse this environmental time bomb." 

The New York Times article cited an unpublished draft paper prepared that year by the United Nations Development Program, and quoted a senior United Nations official in Bishkek, both reaching the same conclusion: earthquakes, floods, and mudslides threaten to wash radioactive waste into the Fergana Valley's main water source and the resulting contamination could destroy the agriculture base, force the immediate evacuation of 500,000 people and damage the economies and stability of Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan

Two years later a 2002 report by the German news agency Deutsch-Welle warned that "experts fear an ecological disaster worse than the 1986 Chernobyl reactor explosion . . . : 

A sudden change in climate conditions or geological activity could send tons of the toxic waste into the Maili Suu River and ultimately the Fergana Valley’s entire groundwater system. . . . the Fergana Valley’s rivers, streams and extensive irrigation canals could carry radioactive material downstream and contaminate the 60,000 square mile basin (96,560 kilometers) between the Tian Shan and Pamir-Alai mountain ranges. The radioactive spill out would destroy the region’s entire agriculture base for several years, force the immediate evacuation of half a million people, and damage the economies and stability of the three neighboring countries.

Yet as late as June 2008, during a Regional Meeting of the UN's Environment and Security (ENVSEC) Initiative in Dushanbe, Tajikistan, the only progress that could be reported was that the "UNDP Country Office in Kyrgyzstan is working to attract the attention of international community to the issues of uranium tailings."

Given the catastrophic nature of the threat one would expect that the most recent conference in Bishkek will result in a frenzy of activity to forestall the nuclear nightmare facing the region. After congratulating the conference participants on developing a consensus of the "urgent need to act, " UN Resident Coordinator Neal Walker noted that this "consensus will help the broader international community to put together the best possible package of solutions in the near future." Near future? What is the urgent action Mr. Walker proposes? Another international forum on uranium tailings set to take place on June 29 in Geneva where "all stakeholders will meet to plan forward concrete actions." 

Aleksei Ermolov, who works for the Kyrgyz Republic's Ministry of Environment and Emergency Situations, recently visited the Karabalta storage facility, Kyrgyzstan's largest, which he described as a post-apocalyptic, almost lunar landscape of exposed radioactive ergs and beaches. A community of homeless scavengers lives on the outskirts of the dump attracted by the nonferrous scrap metal they can dig out of the radioactive ruins filled with technological trash. Ermolov relates an encounter with a handicapped, homeless and alcoholic scavenger -- covered in ashes, soot, and radiation -- who identified himself only as Sanyok. "We asked him whether he was afraid of radiation," Ermolov writes. "He replied that dying of starvation was worse." 

Thankfully,  international development workers at the UN, the World Bank and the IMF do not have to choose between radiation contamination and starvation. However, their continued inaction will result in dooming the people of Central Asia to both. While the experts are patting themselves on the back for reaching a consensus on the problem, the contaminant plumes of "unknown magnitude" continue to escape from the deteriorating retention basins and the radioactive waste continues to leach into the streams, the rivers and the groundwater. Meanwhile, the international community stands by holding conference after conference while one of the poorest and most densely populated regions on the planet faces the imminent risk of ecological and economic ruin, widespread population displacement, and mass starvation.  The sky is clearly falling.

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