MAILUU-SUU, Kyrgyzstan (Reuters) – Hidden in a remote Central Asian gorge, thousands of tonnes of radioactive waste are one landslide away from contaminating the water supply for the whole Ferghana valley, home to millions of people, environmentalists say.
Neglected for decades by the Soviet Union and then Kyrgyzstan, uranium ore dumps near the town of Mailuu-Suu must be urgently reinforced to prevent disaster, according to the European Commission and European Bank for Reconstruction and Development (EBRD) which are raising funds for the project.
“There are 14 million people in the Ferghana valley and in the event of a natural disaster water may wash away the tailings into the Naryn (Syr Darya) river which will be a tragedy for the whole valley,” says Bolotbek Karimov, an environment researcher based in the southern Kyrgyz city of Osh.
Once known simply as Mailbox 200, the town was founded in 1946 under a secret Soviet uranium mining program which employed de facto prisoners – people of politically suspect ethnicities such as Germans and former Red Army soldiers found guilty of surrendering in World War Two.
By 1968, when mining operations in the area ended, they had produced more than 2 million cubic meters of tailings, or mine dumps, which were hastily buried on mountain slopes along the Mailuu-Suu river.