Soviet-Era Uranium Waste Sites Now Threaten Central Asia
Storage sites for uranium tailings that were built in Soviet times in Tajikistan are now leaking radiation into the surrounding atmosphere and ground water supplies, undermining the health and well-being of the people of a republic and a broader region that lack the resources to clean up a problem that it did nothing to create.
At three formerly “closed” locations in Tajikistan - Taboshar, Chkalovsk and Adrasman - Soviet state enterprises mined uranium and left enormous piles of radioactive tailings in poorly constructed containment areas. After 1991, the mines closed – in many cases, the veins were running out – but the problems remain.
There are now ten tailings preservation sites, intended to prevent the leakage of radiation and chemical poisons into the surrounding environment, but none of them is working and intended. As a result, Tajik specialists say that they constitute “a serious danger for the environment and human life not only in nearby cities and towns but in Central Asia as a whole.”
A major reason for that conclusion is that they are located near major bodies of water: the Kayrakkum reservoir and the Syrdarya River which flows through the territory not only of Tajikistan but of Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan and Kazakhstan as well. As a result, what many might dismiss as Tajikistan’s problem is a much larger one.
Scholars have determined that the radiation from these tailings in some places is more than 30 times levels that threaten human health. But the problems these tailings pose is not limited to radiation directly. They also are the source of poisonous chemicals which have leached into the ground and now appear in plants, animals, and drinking water.
The impact of the release of radioactive materials on the health of the population is already clear. Not only are the numbers of people suffering from cancer increasing, but the age of onset of cancers is falling, with many local people showing signs of cancer when they are only 15 or 16 years old, something almost unheard of earlier.
Moreover, medical officials from Dushanbe say that the overall health statistics for the areas around the uranium tailings sites are chilling: The number of stillborn children has increased as have the number of newborns with congenital defects. Some 85 percent of women in the region suffer from anemia, as do more than 64 percent of newborns.
And they add that the weakening of the human organism as a result of radiation and chemical poisons has opened the way for an increase in other diseases not normally directly blamed on these sites, including Hepatitis-A and tuberculosis. The medical experts say that they see no sign of these trends being reversed anytime soon.
That is because, Numon Khakimov, the director of the Sogdian branch of the Agency for Nuclear and Radiation Security of the Tajik Academy of Sciences, says Dushanbe does not have the financial resources to conduct the necessary restoration and improvement of the containment sites for the nuclear tailings.
One way out of the current dilemma, Khakimov and other experts say, is the secondary reprocessing of these tailings, especially since Dushanbe has signaled that it has an interest in the peaceful use of nuclear energy. But the task ahead in that regard is daunting, quite possibly beyond the capacity of Tajikistan or its neighbors alone to meet.
Not only has there been no reprocessing of uranium in the area for more than a decade and not only have most of those with the necessary expertise left – as a result, the population adjoining the containment areas has fallen by half since 1991—but the amount of radioactive leavings is enormous, more than 450 million tons.
As a result the prospects are not good. “The elites have left the area forever because they know that the supplies of uranium are practically exhausted and that sooner or later all the factories and combines involved with the production of nuclear fuel will stop.”
In the end, the news service suggests, the local population will stand alone, facing “only the ruins of nuclear processing and mountains of ecological problems.”
© Translated by Paul Goble