New Internationalist

Toxic time bomb

Issue 382

Millions of cubic metres of poorly contained radioactive waste threatens to become an ecological disaster for Central Asia. Gulnura Toralieva visited Mailuu-Suu in Kyrgyzstan where authorities and local villagers are on edge after massive landslides hit local dump sites.

Gulnura Toralieva
Gulnura Toralieva

On 21 March of this year, the first day of Spring and Muslim New Year, a landslide in the town of Mailuu-Suu left 13 families homeless and killed 2 girls – 7-year-old Asel and 14-year-old Nazira. According to one neighbour: ‘The parents of the girls are in great sorrow. They are still in shock. It took a long time to find the younger girl’s body and the funeral took place very late. Her parents were in Russia working at the time. On that day it happened Asel was sleeping and did not hear Nazira’s screams. Nazira then risked entering the house to save her. But both girls got buried under a mass of earth.’

The next day a mauve tide of mud and detritus engulfed 24 homes on the other bank of the river. Torrential rains have brought landslides dangerously close to nearby uranium tailings and have destroyed the protective dams surrounding the region’s radioactive dumps.

But the natural disasters did not stop there and the next threat involved uranium dump #3 that lies along the only road connecting the two parts of the town, with up to 3,000 inhabitants in the northern part.

On 13 April, yet another landslide, one of the largest Mailuu-Suu has ever seen, came close to over-running the dump which now literally sags over the bank of the local river. Just three weeks later, on 4 May, a three-metre deep landslide brought down all the bank-protecting dams around several sites. Local residents and authorities fear that further natural disasters in the town may cause not only significant material damage but large-scale environmental disaster and human tragedy.

Legacy of neglect

Mailuu-Suu lies just on the northern edge of the Fergana Valley – the most fertile and populated region in Central Asia. The valley cuts across Kyrgyzstan, Uzbekistan and Tajikistan and shelters the vital Syr-Darya river basin. Around the immediate vicinity of the Mailuu-Suu river – which feeds into Syr-Darya – there are a total of 23 landfill dumps and 13 slag heaps containing radioactive waste.

Gulnura Toralieva
Down in the dumps: a young boy tends his family’s chickens amidst radioactive debris from uranium dumps breached by landslides and rains. Gulnura Toralieva

Mining operations in the area produced uranium for the Former Soviet Union from 1946 to until operations finally closed down in 1973. But the waste was left where it lay, buried in the ground or simply piled in heaps in the open air. Highly toxic, it lies dispersed over a number of sites, which were never properly sealed or made stable.

The local residents have had to live with the continuous threat of contamination, initially because of lax Soviet safety standards, and more recently due to mismanagement and under-investment by the post-communist government of Kyrgyzstan. As a result of this legacy of neglect and disregard for the local populace ‘the citizens of Mailuu-Suu breathe air contaminated with a level of radon particles far exceeding the acceptable level for human settlements,’ according to one scientist. Now the structures built to contain the waste are in dire need of renovation, and there are more landslides every year, not to mention the risk of earthquake damage in this geologically volatile region.

Zainidin Shekhov, deputy general director of construction company Azat, which has conducted emergency and renovation work at the dumps for the last 13 years, observed: ‘The landslide fell right next to the dump. If the dump were hit, it would be entirely possible that the next time the landslide started moving, the entire dump, together with earth would fall down into the river that flows right below it. Then the river would carry off radioactive elements and spread them all along the entire Fergana Valley, contaminating the flora and fauna of the country’s south and the Uzbekistan part of the valley inhabited by more than 3 million people.’ Another Azat employee, Vladimir Shkrobot, warned that after all the damage caused by the downpours, many toxic dumps are now no longer fortified adding that ‘certainly the consequences could be grave’.

Precarious existence

There are many people in the town who believe that there is little danger of radioactive contamination. Many are not aware of the problem while others prefer not to think about it. The daily routine of life amongst the tailings has desensitized people to the dangers of living in the area. As a result many do not take precautions to protect themselves and their families. Residents stroll amongst toxic waste dumps, graze their cattle around uranium tailings and use radioactive earth in construction and repair of their homes. Some do realize the severity of the situation but feel unable to do much about it.

Gulnura Toralieva
Local resident Junusaly Stanov points out the damaged uranium dumps. Gulnura Toralieva

Local resident Japar Kojoakmatov’s pasture is located directly on radioactive dump #6. He worries for his family but is unable to move elsewhere: ‘To be honest, I don’t know what consequences the grazing of cattle on the dump site might have and I don’t care. I need to feed my family. My family lives in the danger zone, where a landslide can strike any time and wash down the dump together with our house. I try not to think about what might happen. I don’t have another house or funds to buy one.’

Those who are aware of the danger, consciously risk their health in order to provide for their families as widespread poverty in rural areas of Kyrgyzstan leaves them little choice. The poor and the unemployed go to the radioactive dumps, take down enclosures and warning signs, break the protective layer and take out from dumps the equipment buried there, in order to sell it to scrap metal dealers. ‘I don’t have any other way of making a living. I was once warned about the danger but I am safe and sound so far,’ laughs Sergey who trades in the radioactive scrap.

‘citizens of Mailuu-Suu breathe air contaminated with a level of radon particles far exceeding the acceptable level for humans’

Health statistics from the region are alarming. Studies reveal that during 1990-2000 incidences of cancer increased by 20 per cent, while cancer-related deaths rose by 40 per cent. According to new data released by the town’s Centre for Sanitary and Epidemiological Control, the number of patients with cancer is twice the national average.

The incidence of congenital anomalies in children has also increased four-fold.

As Kyrgyz scientist Yuri Aleshin from the research and engineering centre Geopribor says sadly: ‘It is frightening to see the children playing amid lead and zinc dust, raising its particles up into the air and breathing it. All of this might turn out to be a personal tragedy for them in future.’

The legacy of the nuclear industry is an unfolding tragedy in Kyrgyzstan with devastating implications for the wider region and future generations. Recent landslides and the perennial threat of earthquakes have brought this ticking time bomb into sharp focus for local people and the governments of Central Asia. Hopefully, remedial action will not come too late.

Gulnura Toralieva is a freelance journalist based in Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan.

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