The European Bank for Reconstruction and Development (EBRD) on 23 January signed framework agreements with the Kyrgyz Republic and Tajikistan, paving the way for EBRD-funded projects to deal with the remediation of former uranium mines and processing plants.
Central Asia was a key source of uranium for the former Soviet Union, leading to a large accumulation of radioactive contaminated material at mines in Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan and placed in waste dumps and tailing sites. Most of the mines were closed by 1995, but there has been little remediation of either mining sites or tailings storage facilities despite a number of international initiatives, including World Bank project in 2004, a study by the European Commission’s (EC’s) Tacis project in 2005 and a UNDP project in 2014.
Uranium mining and milling activities took place from 1948 until 1968. The uranium ores were processed in Mailuu Suu in Kyurgyzstan by ion exchange and alkaline leach in two factories. The resulting uranium oxide was sent to Leninabad (Tajikistan) for processing. Tailings, low-grade ore and waste rocks from mining were deposited in moderate mountainous terrain and alluvial areas, many near the Mailuu Suu River and its tributaries, the Kara Agach, Kulmen Sai and Ailampa-Sai Rivers. The Mailuu Suu River feeds the Syr Daria River, which is the major source of irrigation water in the Fergana valley, the agricultural area of Uzbekistan. Radioactive substances were stored in 23 tailings and 13 mine waste dumps over an area of approximately 44ha.
The most problematic areas with radioactive dumps include Min-Kush, Aktiuz and Kajisay in the north but Mailuu-Suu in the south poses a trans-national environmental threat because of the risk of landslides, earthquakes, floods and mudslides. If contaminated water gets into the Mailuu-Suu River, ultimately 27,000 people in Kyrgyzstan and more than 3m people in Uzbekistan, Tajikistan and Kazakhstan would be affected.
The World Bank contributed $11.76m into the “Disaster Hazard Mitigation” project in Mailuu Suu between 2004 and 2012 aimed at improving emergency management and response by national and sub-national authorities and local communities to disaster situations.
Under the $1.5m UNDP project, funded by Russia, communities near radioactive waste sites have received help to monitor their environment, create jobs and strengthen the socio-economic infrastructure of five towns – Min-Kush, Kaji-Say, Ak-Tyuz, Orlovka and Bordo. This programme was completed in autumn 2016, and in 2017 the Kyrgyz Ministry of Emergency Situations plans to begin a full-scale remediation of hazardous facilities. The UNDP estimates that the most urgent clean-up measures needed to render the tailings safe would cost up to $40m.
The EBRD established its Environmental Remediation Account for Central Asia in May 2015, at the request of the EC to finance projects to rehabilitate high-priority sites, and the EC provided an initial €8m m ($9m) in funding.
The new framework agreements announced by the EBRD set conditions for implementing a remediation programme, such as tax exemption, the application of EBRD policies, including the bank's environmental and social policy, procurement rules and policies, and provisions for effective and efficient project implementation.