Landslides threaten radioactive waste dumps

Some parts of radioactive waste dumps have been exposed by local residents looking for scrap metal.
(Gulnara Mambetalieva/IRIN)

Residents of the village of Min-Kush in Naryn Province, central Kyrgyzstan, are worried that a mudslide could destroy a nearby radioactive waste dump and contaminate the local river.

The Soviet-era radioactive waste dump is about 2km from Min-Kush and close to the River Tuyuk-Suu.

“We are afraid of a huge mudslide triggered by heavy rain. It could destroy the radioactive waste dump, leading to contamination of the river. What will we do?” asked 35-year-old Saparkul Burkokbaeva from Min-Kush.

The area is mountainous and earthquake prone, and Ministry of Emergencies experts say torrential rain could trigger potentially devastating landslides which could change the course of the River Tuyuk-Suu, and/or wash away the waste dump, one of the biggest identified. It contains about 450,000 cubic metres of radioactive waste.

“The problems of Min-Kush village need an urgent decision. We have had a lot of rain and there is a risk of landslides blocking or altering the course of the Tuyuk-Suu river,” said Emergencies Minister Kamchybek Tashiev.

Many radioactive waste sites in Kyrgyzstan - a legacy of the Soviet Union - are in areas prone to earthquakes and landslides, and thus pose an environmental safety hazard to Kyrgyzstan and the Central Asian region.

Kyrgyz Prime Minister Igor Chudinov was quoted by Kyrgyzstan’s AKIpress news website on 5 November as saying there were a considerable number of toxic radioactive waste dumps in the country, and that they posed a contamination threat to the whole Central Asian region.

Some 6,500 hectares of land in Kyrgyzstan have been exposed to radioactive contamination. The country has 92 hazardous waste dumps holding 254 million cubic metres (475 million tonnes) of waste, including radionuclides and other toxic substances. Dormant mines, untreated tailing dumps and untreated rock debris pose a risk. The most urgent clean-up measures needed to render the tailings safe would cost up to US$40 million, the United Nations Development Programme has estimated.

If radioactive waste were to be washed into the River Tuyuk-Suu, contamination could flow, via other rivers, into the River Syrdarya - a trans-border river that flows through Kyrgyzstan, Uzbekistan, Tajikistan and Kazakhstan - and thousands of people might be affected, the Kyrgyz Emergencies Ministry said.

Solutions

Experts have yet to come up with viable solutions to ensure the safety of the waste dump near Min-Kush and thus the local community. One option is to move the waste to a safer place, but some scientists oppose the idea.

“We studied all the data and came to the conclusion that we should not disturb the radioactive waste by moving it. It is better to build a new riverbed [for the River Tuyuk-Suu] and strengthen the dams that hold the actual waste. In this way we will prevent uranium waste seeping into the river and soil,” said Anatoliy Svirdukov, a senior Russian Federation official from the Federal Agency on Nuclear Energy, who visited the area in October.

“Uranium waste was dumped at Tuyuk-Suu between 1959 and 1963. More than 50 years have elapsed since the first professionally structured storage facilities were developed. If proper storage standards are maintained, uranium waste could be stored for more than 1,000 years without any harm. The local authorities should monitor and secure it,” Svirdukov said.

“But there are no fences or signs warning of the danger to people or livestock,” he said.

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This article was produced by IRIN News while it was part of the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs. Please send queries on copyright or liability to the UN. For more information: https://shop.un.org/rights-permissions

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