Environment & Security: Uranium Waste in Tajikistan
In northern Tajikistan nearly 55 million tonnes of uranium waste remains in uncovered and unsecured sites. One of the largest dump sites, with about 12 million tonnes of radioactive waste, is in Taboshar. Some residents of the town often walk to Old Taboshar to visit family that live in this outer lying area. Going just a few kilometres along the road, the era of uranium mining and its legacy are clear. Stretching out from the road for hundreds of metres on either side are hills of dirt, tinged with yellow and orange. Ranging in size to the highest, known as Taboshar Hill, these are mounds of uranium waste. They sit uncovered, with no fence between the road and the waste, open to the elements.
The small town of Taboshar sits at 1400m, high in the mountains of Tajikistan’s Sugd province. Entering on the winding mountain road, one is greeted by a collection of stone and brick buildings taking care of about 13,000 people. Children fill up water bottles at a tap by the road. Livestock wander the gravel strewn fields on the outskirts of the town, and down the hill trickles of water feed agriculture.
ENTERING THE TOWN WOULD NOT HAVE BEEN POSSIBLE IN THE TIME OF THE FORMER SOVIET UNION. Taboshar used to be a “closed-city” – strategic areas closed to the general public by the central government. Such mineral-endowed towns were scattered across Central Asia. They were once booming, blessed with good infrastructure, shops and sporting facilities, reflecting their strategic place in the Soviet economy. These mining towns eventually either ran out of uranium or the Soviet Union left after it collapsed. Some of the infrastructure is still standing; other buildings are starting to disintegrate. Until a few years ago many carried the posters of Soviet leaders. The time-capsule that was left behind, however, is a far more serious legacy than billboards.
Dmitry Prudtskikh first saw the hills in 2004 when he moved to Taboshar to work as an English teacher. He had previously worked on environmental causes, and when the Mayor of Taboshar heard this, he invited Prudtskikh to help wherever he could. The Mayor was aware of the implications of the waste for his town. Anecdotally, diseases are higher in the town, but concrete links between the population’s health and the uranium waste have never been studied. On a hot day, people often swam in the quarry lake – a pool of water that has bubbled up from the groundwater through the remains of uranium ore. Since the town’s main industry, uranium, dried up, little has been left in the economy. To etch out a living, people often forage scrap metal, drenched in radiation, to sell.
INTERNATIONAL ORGANISATIONS HAVE DRAWN ATTENTION TO THE URANIUM WASTE IN CENTRAL ASIA and are conducting analysis on the extent of the problem and its ramifications. One of the first projects investigating the environmental and health issues linked to the legacy of uranium extraction in Central Asia was supported under the North American Treaty Organization’s (NATO) Science for Peace and Security Programme. The project included the training of local experts, who carried out measurements and remediation activities in selected areas.
The established expertise and infrastructure is continuously being used in subsequent Environmental and Security Initiative (ENVSEC) projects. Remediation has been outlined as a top priority both by international organisations and Central Asian governments. The United Nations Development Program (UNDP) is also concerned by the socio-economic impacts of the issue and has a strong field presence in the region.
Ensuring the safety of people and sites related to radioactive materials falls under the remit of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA). The Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE), within its comprehensive approach to security, also pays significant attention to the radioactive waste issues in the region. Environmental impacts also have the eye of the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP), particularly as Taboshar sits near the border of Uzbekistan and upstream of the Syr Darya River, which flows between the two. The challenge of maximising various agencies’ strengths and logistical advantages is significant. Enter ENVSEC, an initiative that links six organizations – OSCE, UNDP, UNEP, along with the Regional Environment Centre for Central and Eastern Europe (REC), United Nations Economic Commission for Europe (UNECE) and NATO as an associated partner.
“I’ve seen how local people’s lives, especially the quality of their lives, are affected when I was working in the region and visited Charkesar (a town in Uzbekistan affected by uranium extraction),” says Laura Rio, ENVSEC senior programme manager. “Often people perceive a problem but don’t quite understand it and how to address it. Often local authorities realise the problem but don’t have the resources to manage it. Now I see that a regional perspective helps to understand the problem and to develop long-term solutions.”
ENVSEC WAS FIRST LAUNCHED IN 2003 AS UNDERSTANDING GREW THAT ENVIRONMENTAL DEGRADATION, inequitable access to natural resources and transboundary movement of hazardous materials increase probability of tension between states but also neighbouring communities. This can pose a risk to human and national security. The initiative provides a platform for different agencies to cooperate and to tackle issues, such as uranium waste, in an integrated way. The initiative works across four regions: Central Asia, Eastern Europe, Southern Caucasus and South-Eastern Europe.
These areas share a legacy of the former Soviet Union’s presence. When the Union rolled back from these regions, international organisations moved in to assist with development needs. ENVSEC set out to understand the challenges as part of an “in-depth field assessment of environment and security hot spots in the Ferghana-Osh-Khudjant triangle and adjacent areas.” Here, as in all ENVSEC projects, a lead agency is selected to run a project and then other organisations with topical expertise assist. In this case, the work carried out by OSCE and UNEP helped outline what was critically needed in the region. Needless to say, uranium waste was seen as one of the main challenges. But it was also realised that numerous other issues were interlinked. Many of the sites were in water catchment areas, which not only posed a threat to local populations but also had potential to reach transboundary waterways.
TRANSBOUNDARY RIVERS IN THE REGION ARE FRAUGHT WITH CONTENION; not only is the quality of water often low due to sources of pollution, but each state is keen to secure its quota. The challenge of pollution is compounded by risks like earthquakes and mudflows – heavy rainfall or snow melt that captures dirt, mud and any debris in its path. There is also a risk of climate change exacerbation through shifting weather patterns. Similar issues are at play in other ENVSEC regions, including a project by REC, OSCE and UNEP on strengthening regional cooperation to deal with problems, such as release of pollutants. UNECE in Central Asia, under the ENVSEC umbrella, is providing assistance to implement the convention on the transboundary effects of industrial accidents.
In the vast space of Central Asia, countries are woven together by their mountains, valleys and rivers. Environmental problems, such as transboundary pollution and climate change, don’t care for national borders. ENVSEC project managers came to the realisation that an inter-agency and regional approach was vital for solving environmental and security challenges. In 2009, Central Asian states and agencies working on uranium waste came together at a forum in Geneva, Switzerland, home of the coordination unit of the ENVSEC Secretariat. Tajikistan, Kyrgyzstan, Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan came – along with a list of 60 proposals. Where previously considerable inroads had been made by IAEA in assessing the issue of uranium waste at individual sites in Central Asia, in 2010 ENVSEC was able to fund a regional project lead by UNDP in close collaboration with UNEP and OSCE.
The ENVSEC project banner – “Strengthening Coordination of Project Formulation and Mobilization of Resources for Sustainable Radioactive Waste Management in Central Asia” – is a lengthy title representative of the work involved. The project has drawn on the expertise of IAEA to help bring Central Asian states into legislative and regulatory frameworks that account for radiation safety as well as remediation activities. This has been critical in order to support any remediation projects. UNEP has provided technical environmental components to ensure long-term results of the project, nesting within it socio-economic conditions, health and nuclear safety.
ALL AGREE THAT REMEDIATION SHOULD BE THE MAIN FOCUS ALONG WITH COMPLEMENTARY ACTIVITIES in improving socio-economic conditions. UNDP and UNEP, agencies helping the countries in assessing needs and developing proposals, have brought this list down to several priority projects. Preparing these priority projects to the point where they can be funded has been the biggest step in the last few years. That there is a problem – uranium waste – is clear. How to go about solving the problem is another matter. As Taboshar shows, it is not as simple as just covering the yellow dirt hills of waste. The extent of the issue needs to be analysed: How far are uranium waste particles spreading? What are the links to health? What is necessary to stop the waste from leaching into waterways and across borders, particularly in a region plagued by natural disasters? And underlying these questions is the reoccurring issue of weak socioeconomic conditions.
From proposals put forward, seven remediation projects in Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan have been endorsed by the respective countries. Another two projects on socioeconomic development from Kyrgyzstan are also ready to be implemented. Health assessments are planned under two other project proposals. Everything is ready to go and hopes for funding hinge on a donors’ conference in October 2012.
While these projects have been prepared, informational activities have been conducted. Inroads have been made towards mapping problems and a database on uranium waste and management plans has been created (Uranium Tailings: Local Problems, Regional Consequences, Global Solution). OSCE in particular has implemented a number of awareness-raising activities, partial rehabilitation of radioactive sites as well as expert assessment in Taboshar and its neighbouring areas. The OSCE Office in Tajikistan is building partnerships to conduct a comprehensive preliminary assessment of the Taboshar uranium tailings.
This context has meant the issue is now readily discussed and incorporated in government plans. The national regulatory agency of Tajikistan has said remediation of Taboshar and assisting the local population is a priority. For civil society organizations, such as Prudtskikh’s Youth Group on Protection of the Environment, this has meant they can do much more to raise awareness and create local activities. Prudtskikh initially began running green patrols and raising awareness in 2004, one of the first local environmental initiatives in the region. At that time he could only access uranium waste sites with special permission from the mayor, though there were few physical restrictions, such as fencing, on the sites.
This was reflective of Taboshar’s history as a closed city. In November 2011, with the support of OSCE, he organized a “hasher,” a community activity involving neighbourhoods, government and the enterprise Tabosharsky “Vostokredmet” responsible for the legacy site. Together they manually cleaned the mudflow channel, which normally drains a mudflow through the area. However, it passes through the hills of uranium waste usually spilling into the Utkensu River below. This activity built up a dam or mudflow catcher to prevent the channel from transporting pollution downstream. Other activities include installation of about 60 warning signs and fencing off the open pit uranium ore quarry where people used to swim.
“Ten years ago we couldn’t have organized such an event,” Prudtskikh said. “Now with the round tables that we organized, these matters get discussed a lot more.”
Prudtskikh’s organization also leads the Aarhus Centre in Khujand, one of the main cities in Sughd province. The Aarhus Centres, which have been established and supported across the region by OSCE under ENVSEC, are part of a scheme to raise participation and capacity of civil societies in environment and security challenges. Along with organizing round table and public hearings, Prudtskikh’s group has helped create the Strategy of Environmental Development of Taboshar City. This enabled creation of more activities towards the town’s long-term development.
THE EFFECT ON LOCAL CIVIL SOCIETY HAS BROUGHT IMMEDIATE IMPACTS. At the end of June 2012, substantial mud flows poured down the mountains towards Taboshar. Funneled into the mudflow channel, they were held back from the Utkensu River by the recently created dam.
“It’s good we cleaned it and for now it’s holding,” Prudtskikh said.
More substantial work on remediation and development rests in the hands of international donors. But ENVSEC managers are convinced the way forward must be through an inter-agency and regional approach.
Peacefully resolving the overriding political, economic and social concerns of our time requires a multifaceted approach, including mechanisms to address links between natural environment and human security. UNDP, UNEP, OSCE, NATO, UNECE and REC have joined forces in the Environment and Security (ENVSEC) Initiative to offer countries their combined pool of expertise and resources towards that aim. “Transforming risks into cooperation” is what ENVSEC is all about. For more information go to http://www.envsec.org/index.php?lang=en.
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