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Eurasianet is an independent news organization that covers news from and about the South Caucasus and Central Asia, providing on-the-ground reporting and critical perspectives on…

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Kyrgyz Parliament Lifts Ban on Uranium Mining

  • Kyrgyzstan's parliament has approved lifting the ban on uranium mining, which has raised significant environmental concerns among activists.
  • The resumption of uranium mining is viewed as a potential economic boon, but fears of environmental disasters and poor safety records are causing alarm.
  • Environmentalists warn that uranium mining could exacerbate existing environmental issues and potentially lead to severe ecological damage.

Environmental activists in Kyrgyzstan are worried about the rising potential for a disaster following the parliament’s decision to resume uranium mining after a five-year hiatus. 

The Kyrgyz parliament, the Jogorku Kenesh, earlier in June approved a government bill to lift a ban on the mining of uranium and thorium that had been in place since 2019. The new rules will go into effect after the law is signed by President Sadyr Japarov, as is widely expected soon. 

In pushing for a resumption of mining, the government contended that uranium production could supply a much needed financial infusion for the Kyrgyz economy, which has struggled to overcome disruption caused by the Covid pandemic and Russian sanctions. Japarov has stated the resumption of mining could create a $2 billion windfall for state coffers. 

“We must continue to do any work that will provide even a small economic benefit to the state. Let’s at least in the next 10 years reach the level of neighboring countries,” Japarov has said.

While casting mining as an economic imperative, the country’s leadership has promised to use new technologies in the development of deposits to safeguard operations and maintain “strict environmental standards.”

Kyrgyzstan has a number of known uranium deposits that have not been exploited since the ban went into effect. Some of the largest deposits are found in environmentally sensitive areas, including adjacent to Lake Issyk-Kul, which is widely viewed by citizens as “the pearl of Kyrgyzstan.”

That lifting of the mining ban is seen by some environmentalists as paving the way for a nuclear power plant in the Central Asian state. Officials are moving forward with efforts to build a reactor with the help of the Russian state-run entity, Rosatom. Kyrgyz officials have confirmed interest in building a Small Modular Reactor that could supply power for about 1 million citizens. Kyrgyzstan’s interest in nuclear energy is an outgrowth of global warming and climate change, which is inhibiting the country’s main generator of electricity, hydropower.

The government’s embrace of uranium mining and nuclear power has environmentalists on edge. The prospect of a nuclear reactor operating in a country prone to earthquakes is unsettling to many. Beyond the threats posed by a natural calamity, Kyrgyzstan’s poor safety record in containing the toxic consequences of mining for precious metals, including gold and uranium, is another major concern. Popular protests against environmental contamination, after all, were what prompted the government to press pause on uranium mining back in 2019.

In May of this year, a group of Kyrgyzstani activists appealed to the Ministry of Environment, warning that the resumption of uranium mining could exacerbate already existing environmental challenges. “They are citing figures of up to $2 billion in profits from [uranium mining], but no one is saying what the cost of restoring the destroyed lands will be,” the activists wrote.

Fears of new hazards and accidents aren’t unjustified. On June 1, an accident in the Dzhumgal district of the Naryn Region saw a Rosatom truck careen into a river. The vehicle was involved in an ongoing operation to clean up uranium tailings. Officials at the Emergency Situations Ministry said the truck in question was empty at the time of the accident. But footage circulating on the Internet appeared to contradict official accounts, seeming to show black sludge had spilled from the truck into the river.

According to a report published in April by the Reuters news agency, reservoirs with large volumes of uranium tailings are contained by unstable dams. The dams experienced significant damage from landslides in 2017. Another such landslide or earthquake could cause the structures to fail “threatening a possible Chernobyl-scale nuclear disaster,” according to the Reuters report. Toxic waste could spread across the river network that supplies water for agricultural lands in the FerghanaValley, encompassing Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan.

By Ayzirek Imanaliyeva via Eurasianet.org

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