A Tiny Town Was the Soviet Union’s Uranium Hub. Now, It’s Racing to Avoid Disaster

A Tiny Town Was the Soviet Union’s Uranium Hub. Now, It’s Racing to Avoid Disaster

Anna Travkina remembers the day the water turned black. She was six years old in 1958, when heavy rainfall and seismic activity pushed up to 14 million cubic feet of radioactive uranium waste into the river that flowed past her home in southern Kyrgyzstan. Travkina had been playing with her friends along the riverbank, but when they saw the angry current rushing toward them, they scattered in all directions.

Travkina grew up in Mailuu-Suu, a town that wasn’t listed on maps, barred entry to outsiders, and was given a codename — “Mailbox 200.” At the time, Kyrgyzstan was part of the Soviet Union. Between 1946 and 1968, the town processed 10,000 metric tons of radioactive uranium ore, some of which was rumoured to have supplied the country’s first nuclear weapon. Even after mining operations moved elsewhere, more than two decades of waste remained scattered around the town. Today, it remains buried under now-crumbling concrete and gravel.

“I have a fear of the river, it has persisted for many years,” Travkina said from her office in Mailuu-Suu’s medical college, where she now works as an administrator. “At that time, they did not talk about these accidents, there were no reports anywhere that people died, but people died. They were buried, we remember these funerals.”

Now, climate change threatens to make history repeat itself. Heavier rainfall spurred by a warming climate increases the risk of landslides in a mountainous region already prone to such disasters, according to researchers and government surveys. Kyrgyzstan has 92 dump sites containing toxic or radioactive material, many of them located on already unstable hillsides along the banks of rivers that flow into neighbouring countries — ultimately endangering an entire region of more than 14 million people.

Mailuu-Suu was listed as one of the most polluted places on Earth in 2006, but cleanup efforts have picked up in recent years. International donors like the European Union and Russia are spending millions of dollars in an effort to shore up the sites, and the Kyrgyz government has successfully managed to move several of them farther away from rivers. But environmentalists and residents argue the efforts are moving far too slowly, raising the prospect of another surge of black sludge — or worse.

And although radioactive uranium has set off alarm bells, activists in the region have struggled to draw attention to the dangers posed by other pollutants and heavy metals like lead and arsenic. Though they’re less catchy than cleaning up nuclear waste left over from the Cold War, they could still threaten residents and ecosystems alike. The issue is part of a larger legacy of toxic waste left behind after the fall of the Soviet Union, which Central Asia is still struggling to deal with to this day.

Mailuu-Suu sits in a valley ringed by rust-coloured mountains, a three-hour drive from the nearest major city in southern Kyrgyzstan. The town’s Kyrgyz name means “oily water” in a nod to the petroleum extracted from the banks of the Mailuu-Suu River starting in 1901. But it was later optimistically nicknamed the “City of Light” for the lightbulb factory that provides employment to many of its 22,000 residents. Today, that factory is the last operating remnant of its industrial past. Between the oil and lightbulbs, though, sits another period residents remember: a time when the town was built on uranium.

After World War II, the Soviet Union looked to build up both its nuclear weapons program and its nuclear energy capacity. Its Central Asian republics were seen as a key part of those efforts as places to source and process raw uranium, as well as to conduct nuclear tests. The nation found plentiful near-surface uranium deposits in the mountainous karst landscape of southwestern Kyrgyzstan, and founded Mailuu-Suu in 1946 as a cornerstone in its uranium mining program.

Crimean Tatars, German prisoners of war, and Russian soldiers who were stranded in Germany at the end of World War II were all forced to work in the mines. They dug uranium ore out of the surrounding rock and brought it to the surface, where it was crushed into a fine sand and treated with chemicals at the nearby processing plant so that it was refined enough to use for nuclear energy as well as weapons. The remaining sludge — called tailings, which can retain up to 85% of the original ore’s radioactivity — was stored in 23 sites around the city, while miners dumped radioactive rock waste in 13 other places.

The days of digging up ore at scale are long past, but throughout Kyrgyzstan, radioactive tailings remain close to water sources like rivers and streams, or along hillsides vulnerable to landslides and earthquakes. Kyrgyzstan’s Ministry of Emergency Situations, the agency in charge of monitoring tailings and minimising the dangers they pose, has had to shore up sites to keep them from collapsing, said Aybek Kozibaev, an official based out of the agency’s office in the southern city of Osh. The main concern is that toxic material could contaminate a major waterway — like the Mailuu-Suu River, which flows into the Syr Darya, one of the country’s main waterways. It continues into neighbouring Uzbekistan through the Fergana Valley, a populous region of more than 14 million, meaning a spill could become an international crisis. And since the dissolution of the Soviet Union, no single company or country can take responsibility for putting the waste there in the first place, making cleanup that much more difficult.

“If uranium waste gets into the water, of course, it will be a worldwide catastrophe,” said Mailuu-Suu Mayor Nurlanbek Umarov. “The tailing dumps … are literally near the river. We have landslides, mudflows.”

That worst-case scenario is growing more likely because of climate change, Kozibaev said, as temperatures in Kyrgyzstan are expected to rise even faster than the rest of the world. A 2013 report from the United Nations found that mean annual temperatures in the country were predicted to increase 4.6 degrees Celsius by 2100. The heat would pose problems, though not necessarily to the toxic waste deposits. Rainfall, though, is also projected to increase. An average winter in Kyrgyzstan could be anywhere from 13 to 27 per cent wetter. Climate change will also increase the intensity and frequency of extreme weather events, the report found, leading to more floods, mudflows, and landslides.

Kyrgyzstan doesn’t have to wait until the end of the century, though, nor is climate change the only threat to the toxic waste sites. Isakbek Torgoev, the head of the National Academy of Sciences’ Laboratory of Geoecological Monitoring, said the frequency of disasters in Kyrgyzstan’s mountains has steadily increased since 1990, with more landslides joining the region’s already-frequent earthquakes. In 2005, about 300,000 cubic meters of uranium waste fell into the Mailuu-Suu River following an earthquake, local media reported, while in 2008, an emergency operation moved waste to a different site when a landslide threatened to dump it into the water. In 2017, a landslide just upstream from Mailuu-Suu changed the course of the river and nearly flooded two tailing dumps.

At Sumsar, another site in Kyrgyzstan’s southern Jalal-Abad province, lead tailings were dumped right next to a river that swells with meltwater every spring. In 1993, after a particularly heavy downpour, part of the tailing dump was washed into the river. Now, with glaciers in Kyrgyzstan having lost a third of their mass since 1930 — and research indicating that the country’s glaciers will melt entirely by the end of the century — that excess meltwater will enter the region’s rivers with even more force. That makes flooding more likely, said Indira Zhakipova, an environmentalist and founder of the NGO Ekois.

The direct effects of such a worst-case scenario, featuring monster floods and toxic waste flows, are hard to predict, but the experiences of towns with a high number of tailings sites may hold some clues. A 2006 analysis by Pure Earth, an environmental NGO, named Mailuu-Suu the third most polluted place in the world. The town’s cancer rate was 50% higher than the national average, the organisation reported, and local doctors described a large number of birth defects, poor immune systems, and nausea and vomiting among children. Many communities living around other tailings sites that contain pesticides and heavy metals have yet to be studied, said Petr Sharov, a regional coordinator for Pure Earth and one of the lead authors of its report on Mailuu-Suu.

Photo: Diana Kruzman
Photo: Diana Kruzman

Health officials in Mailuu-Suu say it’s difficult to draw a direct link between these medical problems and the tailings sites, insisting that more monitoring is needed. Sharov explained that the highest levels of radiation were found at the tailings sites themselves, where people grazed their livestock, planted crops, or even played soccer. In the difficult years after the fall of the Soviet Union, people also spent time at the sites searching for scrap metal to sell. But radioactive material also ended up in sediment found in drinking water, particularly after a storm would whip the river into a frothy brown torrent. Normally, the town’s water filtration system would separate the toxic particles, but it’s been in a state of disrepair for decades, Sharov said.

Over the years, progress has been made on some of these issues. Pure Earth installed water filters in local schools in 2012, while signs warning of the danger posed by radiation are now posted around tailings sites. People generally know to stay away from them, Umarov said, though a reporter who visited in July observed goats grazing at several sites. Rakhmanbek Toichuev, a local doctor and head of the Institute of Medical Problems of the Southern Branch of the National Academy of Sciences in the city of Osh, said that health problems seemed to decrease after residents were warned to take precautions to avoid radiation exposure.

“We told them, for example, ‘do not swim after it rains,’” Toichuev said. “It seems like a small thing, but it matters a lot.”

Several projects have also begun moving some of the tailings farther away from rivers and burying them more securely to lower the risk of contamination. Between 2008 and 2012, one tailings site was moved and reburied farther from the Mailuu-Suu River; several others will be relocated thanks to financial support from the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development, which established a fund for nuclear remediation in 2015 and began a $US43 ($59) million effort last summer. Work there should be completed within the next seven years, according to Kozibaev.

In Shekaftar, another town in southern Kyrgyzstan where uranium was processed, the ministry recently finished moving seven tailings dumps to a site 4 kilometres away from populated areas, Kozibaev said. And in Min-Kush, a town in the mountains of central Kyrgyzstan, two parallel projects — one by Russia’s state nuclear power company and another by the European Union — are expected to be completed by 2023. The EBRD’s fund will also support remediation for other nuclear legacy sites in nearby Tajikistan and Uzbekistan, though the bank said in September that it’s $US47 (A$65) million short of its goal.

Despite this progress, many activists in the region say that it’s not enough. Kalia Moldogazieva is an environmentalist whose NGO Kylym Shamy — Kyrgyz for “Tree of Life” — has researched the issue of uranium tailings. Her work was instrumental in getting a ban on uranium mining passed in 2019. But she criticised what she described as a lack of transparency and slow pace of the projects. She believes that Kyrgyzstan’s political turnover — three revolutions have taken place in the past 16 years — is partly to blame, with politicians and the public having other priorities on their minds.

Zhakipova also pointed to the numerous other toxic waste dumps that remain, including lead, mercury, antimony, arsenic, and pesticides like DDT. She said that in recent years, donors have started paying less attention to chemical pollution, instead focusing on problems like climate change. Convincing them that the two issues are linked, she said, has been difficult. But since hosting a forum on the issue two years ago, she hopes that awareness is starting to grow.

“I want to say that this is progress, that there is an understanding on the part of donors that it is necessary, that this is such a complex, large, very expensive problem,” Zhakipova said.

Residents living closest to uranium tailings sites — many of whom would be the first to feel the effects of contamination — also have mixed feelings about these solutions. Travkina believes strongly that Mailuu-Suu’s waste needs to be moved and buried far from the river, and has worked to convince others in her community to support the projects. But some, like Rahat Ahmataliev, a long-time resident of Min-Kush, are deeply suspicious of the government’s plans, fearing that disturbing radioactive material will spread it closer to them. Despite assurances that the cleanup methods are safe and adhere to international standards, Ahmataliev is concerned that once again, progress will come at the cost of his community’s health.

“People live here,” he said. “This is the whole problem. I am not against these works. I welcome them, I will even try to help. But the most important thing is safety.”

Photo: Diana Kruzman
Photo: Diana Kruzman

But even those who are grateful for the international attention don’t want their communities to be defined by the past. Travkina, who doubles as a local historian, has been working with the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe to establish a uranium museum in Mailuu-Suu, hoping to attract tourism to the town. She and other residents insist that characterizations of their region as a radioactive wasteland are wrong. Despite the danger posed by the uranium dump sites, and the risk that climate change could unleash a catastrophe, they want to show that their town is alive and well.

That sentiment was clear on a sunny day in July, when Mailuu-Suu residents held a rehearsal for Kyrgyzstan’s Independence Day festivities. A group of girls practiced a dance routine, while men in baseball caps and women in patterned dresses worked together to erect a yurt, the traditional dwelling of Kyrgyz nomads. Umarov, the mayor, chatted with members of the local women’s committee while drinking kymys, a mildly alcoholic beverage made by fermenting horse milk. They were all fiercely proud of their town, which made the need to save it from potential destruction even more urgent.

“I won’t say that everything is great — there is danger,” said Danakan Primkulova, a member of the women’s committee in Mailuu-Suu. “But instead of being afraid, we’re trying to do something about it.”

Diana Kruzman’s work has appeared in Undark, the New York Times, Vice, the Christian Science Monitor, and Religion News Service.

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