Dealing With Central Asia’s Poisonous Nuclear Legacy – by Catherine Putz (The Diplomat – March 29, 2017)

Soviet-era uranium mining and waste facilities spread across Central Asia remain a serious public and environmental risk.

A delegation from the International Atomic Energy Agency’s Coordination Group for Uranium Legacy Sites (CGULS) visited Tajikistan last week. The visit was part of ongoing preparations for the remediation of uranium legacy sites — efforts to reduce the public and environmental risks linked to what remains from the nearly five decades in which the Soviet Union mined and processed uranium in the Central Asian region.

More than 25 years ago, the Soviet Union collapsed. One of the biggest open questions as the Soviet Union disintegrated into 15 separate states was what would become of its nuclear weapons and material scattered across the constituent states. Kazakhstan and Ukraine, for example, hosted Soviet nuclear weapons.

Kazakhstan, the Nuclear Threat Initiative notes, “inherited 1,410 nuclear warheads and the Semipalatinsk nuclear weapon test site” with independence. Semipalatinsk was where the Soviet Union conducted more than 450 nuclear tests, including its first. The testing site also experienced accidents and fallout worse than Chernobyl, though little mentioned and covered up by Moscow at the time. Concerted international efforts helped repatriate the nuclear weapons left in Kazakhstan to Russia by April 1995.

But the Soviet Union’s nuclear legacy in Central Asia went beyond testing and missiles, to include a large uranium industry spread across the region. According to a 2010 IAEA report on the Soviet Union’s uranium legacy in Central Asia, in the 1970s and ’80s, more than 30 percent of the Soviet Union’s uranium production was occurring in Central Asia.

When the region’s states became independent they inherited uranium mining, processing, and waste facilities. “The closure of mines and processing plants took place at various times between 1961 and 1995,” the report notes, “but only the waste sites located relatively close to large population centers were remediated to any degree.” Some sites, the report says, were simply abandoned.

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