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Central Asia faces radiation threat

By MARINA KOZLOVA, UPI Science News

TASHKENT, Uzbekistan, Nov. 8 (UPI) -- Central Asia could be facing a major radioactive contamination risk, the Interparliamentary Assembly of the Eurasian Economic Community is warning.

At a meeting last week in Dushanbe, the Tajik capital, officials of the EEC -- composed of representatives from Russia, Belarus, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan -- said the risk emanates from aging and poorly maintained uranium ore dumps in a region of seismic activity in Kyrgyzstan. In case of a major earthquake, as much as 50 percent of the radioactive waste at the dumps could escape into local rivers and spread to a wide area.

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The uranium dumps are located in Mayli-Say, in the western Osh province of Kyrgyzstan. The Mayli-Say River feeds the Syr Darya River, which flows some 1,300 miles northwest from the Tien Shan Mountains in Kyrgyzstan through Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan to the Aral Sea. The Mayli-Say area is continually under threat of earthquakes and mudflows.

There are 23 waste dumps and 13 mining dumps in the area of the former uranium plant at Mayli-Say. The plant was built 50 years ago. The development of the uranium deposit started in the 1940s when the Soviet Union began to create nuclear weapons.

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"The construction of the uranium ore dumps in Mayli-Say do not meet the standards of safe storing of uranium wastes," Melis Sadykov, the counselor of the Kyrgyz embassy in Uzbekistan, told United Press International. "These dumps are a global threat," Sadykov said, adding Kyrgyzstan is short of money to take the necessary actions to secure the waste dumps.

Uzbek chemist Khusan Tursunov, who has studied the problem, said he is worried about the state of the uranium dumps in Mayli-Say.

"Some uranium compounds dissolve in water, and it will be impossible to extract them from rivers," Tursunov said, adding that if the compounds enter the water supply, they could contaminate soil, plants, animals -- and human beings.

Earlier this year, Anarkul Aytaliev, the head of the department that monitors and handles waste dumps for the Kyrgyz Ministry of Ecology and Emergency Situations, said the technical and ecological state of the dumps in the Mayli-Say area verges on catastrophe. Any external action will change the state of the waste dumps, he said.

For example, the landslide "Koy-Tash," which is about 10 million cubic meters in volume, constitutes a threat to three waste dumps near the Mayli-Say river. If the landslide moves, a lake will be created in the river. The lake could wash out the waste dumps. The ecological catastrophe could encompass territory up to the Aral Sea, an inland sea between Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan.

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Earlier in October, Kyrgyz President Askar Akayev said the uranium and second-rate ore waste in the area of Mayli-Say totaled about 2.2 million cubic meters.

In his speech in Bishkek, the Kyrgyz capital, Akayev said, "Sudden activation through such occurrences as a landslide, a flood and erosion on hillsides near waste dumps and the shortage of resources for repair, restoration and operation work have created a situation that is close to catastrophic."

If the waste dumps are destroyed, radioactive waste will flow into the densely populated Fergana Valley and further into the Syr Darya river basin. Overall, about 4 million people -- 26,000 people in Kyrgyzstan, 2.4 million people in Uzbekistan, 700,000 people in Tajikistan and 900,000 people in Kazakhstan -- are at risk, Akayev said.

He said about $15 million is needed to overhaul and rebuild the uranium waste dumps and mining dumps in the town of Mayli-Say.

"Today Kyrgyzstan does not have the money to solve these problems on its own," Akayev said.

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