- The Washington Times - Friday, March 5, 2004

MAYLUU-SUU, Kyrgyzstan — Outside the rusting, closed Izolit uranium-processing plant, 23 radioactive waste sites exist in the landslide-prone hills — a catastrophe in waiting that could spill poison into the river below and on to the most populous region of Central Asia.

About 70 million cubic feet of tailings left from refining uranium ore during the Soviet era are buried in this mountain valley along the Mayluu-Suu River. The river runs a short distance to Uzbekistan and the Fergana Valley, the region’s agricultural heartland with 12 million inhabitants.

Potential disasters could spill from the mountains, said Arip Kokkozov, an official at the Ministry of Ecology and Emergency Situations who monitors Kyrgyz waste sites. Landslides could carry waste into the river; snow and rain could cause leaks from containers built with outdated technology; wind could blow waste through the air; radioactive material could seep into groundwater.

“There are many problems. They need to be solved,” Mr. Kokkozov said in his office in the southern city of Osh. “If there was enough money, we could fly it all into space,” he joked.

This debt-saddled former Soviet republic has pleaded for outside help to clean up the sites, arguing it doesn’t have the resources to tackle the problem alone. Cleaning up Mayluu-Suu will cost an estimated $17 million, officials say.

“I can’t say we are receiving enough assistance from abroad, as the cost is very high,” said Bolot Aidaraliyev, deputy minister of ecology and emergency situations. “This is not one day’s work. Each site requires an individual approach. … It will take years of work to rehabilitate the sites.”

The World Bank has pledged $5 million for this year if preparations to address the problem go as planned. The money would be used to shore up waste sites against landslides and help government agencies get ready for a potential disaster.

Japan is giving about $500,000 under one of the first grants in the project. The European Union also has been involved through its technical assistance program for former Soviet states.

All the former Soviet republics are grappling with environmental problems sown by Moscow’s former communist regime, and radioactive, biological and chemical waste sites dot the landscape of Central Asia.

The vast steppes of Kazakhstan were used as a nuclear testing ground, and an island in the Aral Sea shared by Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan held a biological-weapons testing facility. But the waste at Mayluu-Suu poses the most immediate threat to the largest number of people.

Mayluu-Suu, which means “oily water” in Kyrgyz, first got into the uranium business in 1946 as the Soviet Union rushed to develop atomic weapons. Until the 1970s, the town was a restricted military zone that only people who lived and worked in could enter, a place not shown on maps.

It later became known for its light bulb factory, now a Russian-Kyrgyz joint venture that remains the main industry in town. “Our goods provide you with the joy of light,” a billboard proclaims in English on the road leading into town.

There are no cheery slogans at the shuttered Izolit factory, where profiles of Lenin and Marx still watch over a model of an atom. The crumpled metal remains of a bridge that once crossed the river to the factory are rusting, half-submerged in the water.

The city’s chief physician, Dr. Nemat Mambetov, says health officials found levels of radon — a radioactive gas emitted by decaying uranium — as high as twice the internationally accepted rates in 28 of 30 homes they examined. Dr. Mambetov said cancer rates in town also appear higher than normal, but he has no funding — and no oncologists in town — to do more detailed research.

At High School No. 4, American-studies teacher Valentin Ladeishikov is trying to educate people about the dangers in their back yard, and has founded the city’s only humanitarian organization to take on the issue. He said some residents have removed radioactive bricks or metal from waste sites and used them to build houses.

On his classroom chalkboard below a drawing of the U.S. Capitol, Mr. Ladeishikov draws a series of circles showing how the effects of a radioactive leak would expand across the region — creating ecological refugees who would spread worries about contamination for hundreds of miles.

Mr. Ladeishikov has held educational seminars for students on the dangers of stealing material from the waste sites and on what to do if catastrophe strikes. He is trying to get foreign donations to reach more residents.

“They do not realize the danger,” Mr. Ladeishikov said.

On the road into the mountains, Raimjan Osmonaliyev, a village elder and former uranium miner, and four other men pray on their knees facing toward Mecca, just steps from the entrance to the uranium mine and the Izolit factory. Mr. Osmonaliyev, 68, said he has no plans to move his six daughters and two sons — and so many grandchildren he has lost count — away from Mayluu-Suu.

“This is now in our blood,” he replied when asked about potential harm from radiation. “We’ve been here since birth; that’s why there’s no injury from it.”

Nearby, a sign warns people not to enter the mine, but the fence posts have been stripped of the barbed wire that once kept out trespassers.

“Even if we’re scared, what can we do?” Mr. Osmonaliyev asked. “We can’t fly into the sky. We can’t escape.”

Additional information is available on the Internet at the EurasiaNet site on Central Asia’s environment: http://www.eurasianet.org/departments/environment/index.shtml.

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