This year more and more Kyrgyz mass media outlets and NGOs are urging the Kyrgyz government to address the problem of radioactive waste left after the collapse of the Soviet Union. At the March 23 Eurasian Economic Community meeting in Minsk, Kyrgyz President Kurmanbek Bakiyev pleaded for international assistance in resolving problems connected with the radioactive waste abandoned on the territory of Kyrgyzstan. He reminded leaders of other former Soviet republics that during the Soviet era uranium mines in Kyrgyzstan served the needs of all Soviet republics. Today, however, because of poor maintenance, numerous radioactive tailing sites and uranium dumps threaten northern Kyrgyzstan and its neighbors with ecological catastrophe.
Initially the government assigned Kyrgyz Altyn, a gold-mining company, to handle radioactive waste. Then in 1999 the Kyrgyz Ministry of Emergency Situations assumed oversight. There are 36 tailing sites and 25 uranium dumps in Kyrgyzstan (Akipress, July 3). Radioactive waste is stored in reservoirs called tailing sites. Most tailing sites are submerged, but in Kyrgyzstan many are only covered by a strip of sand or gravel. The overall amount of radioactive waste reaches almost 8 million square meters of total 16 million square meter waste from mining. Most tailing sites and uranium dumps are located along rivers and an earthquake could unleash the materials into populated areas. Kyrgyz experts warn of a possible ecological catastrophe affecting people in Kazakhstan as well as Kyrgyzstan.
In addition to uranium, Kyrgyzstan also faces problems with silicon. Orlovka village, located about 100 kilometers east of the Kyrgyz capital, Bishkek, has been a showcase of how impoverished population is involved in mining silicon (June 30). During the Soviet period Orlovka was a large industrial site processing nonferrous metals, enriching uranium, and silicon. The village was one of the more economically advanced areas in northern Kyrgyzstan because its silicon and uranium processing facilities were unique in the Soviet space. Since the collapse of the Soviet Union, however, Orlovka’s population has decreased from 15,000 to 6,000 people (Bely parahod, April 14). In the early 1990s most of the silicon was looted and exported to China. Most radiation-processing facilities were smuggled abroad as well.
The number of workers illegally engaged at the Orlovka silicon mine ranges from several hundreds to several thousand. People from neighboring villages and oblasts come to Orlovka to work in the mine. They work in difficult conditions and, according to Akipress, there are frequent injuries and deaths as a result of landslides (July 3). Children and women are employed at the mine as well. Several Kyrgyz political officials were reportedly involved in Orlovka’s mining endeavors.
It is likely that the radiation level in Orlovka exceeds acceptable levels and represents a health threat to miners as well as local residents. Cases of cancer in Orlovka are 16 times higher than the national average (IRIN, March 1). The Kyrgyz NGO Interbilim urged the governor of Chui oblast to take measures against inhumane conditions for Orlovka’s workers. However, workers as well as brokers engaged at the Orlovka mine try to prevent mass media outlets and NGOs from gaining access to the site.
According to Bely parahod, miners earn 1,700 soms ($41) for extracting 500 kilograms of silicon (April 14). However, dealers resell silicon for a much higher price. One Kyrgyz NGO worker commented to Jamestown that millions of dollars could be extracted from silicon resources. The Orlovka mine, thus, has become one of the region’s key money laundering sites.
People involved in smuggling silicon from Orlovka are rumored to have ties with government structures. Positions in the local government and parliamentary representation from Kemin district, where Orlovka is situated, are usually highly contested. In the 2005 parliamentary elections then President Askar Akayev’s son was elected from Kemin district.
According to one Kyrgyz MP, most nonferrous metals in Kyrgyzstan were looted in the early 1990s. As with other sectors of the shadow economy that were booming in the early 1990s, crimes committed in Orlovka village are difficult to prove today. At the time the undeveloped legal system did not allow for the prosecution of crimes related to the looting of natural resources. There are no appropriate NGOs in Kyrgyzstan that specialize in studying ecological problems connected with the organized crime issues, which further complicates prosecution.
According to Kyrgyz NGO activists, neither the government nor the parliament is adequately involved in resolving the problems related to radioactive waste. Toktaim Umetaliyeva from Interbilim says that Kyrgyzstan will need international assistance to solve the problem of radioactive waste (Akipress, July 3). Today, the International Development Association, the Embassy of Japan, and the Global Environmental Facility have allocated about $18 million for ecological disaster prevention programs in Kyrgyzstan (Akipress, July 3). Yet this is about half of the amount needed to neutralize the eight most dangerous tailing sites, according to the Kyrgyz Ministry of Emergency Situations.