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Nuclear Disaster Threatens Central Asia

Heavy rains in the last few weeks have led to flooding in Central Asia’s largest uranium processing plant. The result could be a major ecological disaster for Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan and Kazakhstan.

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Remember Chernobyl? The Fergana Valley could be worse

The Fergana Valley is the breadbasket of Central Asia. Stretching out between the high mountains of Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan, its tens of thousands of acres of fertile fields, pastures and orchards feed millions of people throughout the surrounding region. For the last several centuries, farmers in Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan and Kazakhstan have relied on the richness of the valley’s soil for their livlihood.

But at the head of the valley, elevated slightly above the banks of the swift-flowing Maili Suu River, stands an outdated Soviet-era uranium processing plant whose estimated 2.5 million cubic yards (2 million cubic meters) of radioactive waste represent a potential environmental disaster.

Accumulated over years of Soviet and Warsaw-bloc nuclear production, the waste lies buried under thin layers of gravel, sand and clay. Much of it is still highly radioactive, emitting 4,000 micro-rays of radiation per hour – 10 to 50 times above internationally recognized standards. In the 1950s, when little thought was given to long-term safety, the toxins were deposited in unstable ground containers. Today these two-foot deep metal containers are susceptible to earthquakes, landslides and floods.

A sudden change in climate conditions or geological activity could send tons of the toxic waste into the Maili Suu River and ultimately the Fergana Valley’s entire groundwater system.

Spring showers bring hazards

After two months of heavy spring rains, the worst-case scenario seems to be happening. Unseasonably wet weather has dumped so much rain onto the water-logged valley floor, that the disposal site, Central Asia’s largest, is now flooding. Contaminated ground surrounding the waste containers has already washed into the valley’s waterways.

Early warning systems indicate that radioactive wastes have spilled into the rivers Maili Suu and Syr Darja. And experts fear an ecological disaster worse than the 1986 Chernobyl reactor explosion.

If the flooding does not subside, the Fergana Valley’s rivers, streams and extensive irrigation canals could carry radioactive material downstream and contaminate the 60,000 square mile basin (96,560 kilometers) between the Tian Shan and Pamir-Alai mountain ranges.

The radioactive spill out would destroy the region’s entire agriculture base for several years, force the immediate evacuation of half a million people, and damage the economies and stability of the three neighboring countries.

Preventable disaster?

For some time now, environmentalists and atomic energy watchdogs have been warning about the environmental hazards posed by the Maili Suu site and other Soviet-built repositories for nuclear waste and toxic chemicals in Central Asia. But so far, little has been done to improve their safety.

Despite the pending danger, no effort has been made to eliminate or reduce the risks of a radioactive spill out. Local officials in the Fergana Valley have requested their governments to supply new containment structures and authorize the relocation of the site away from the river. According to estimates by the Kyrgyzstan parliament, approximately three million dollars would be needed to completely clean up the Maili Suu River site and ensure its future safety. That’s more money than any of the states in the region have or are willing to spend.

And the former Soviet state governments are faced with more immediate troubles, ranging from incursions by Islamic rebels to rising poverty and fragile economies. In addition, the problem requires a regional solution and the countries have refused to discuss it jointly – there are too many cross-border rivalries preventing environmental cooperation.

International aid

Foreign governments and international agencies have also been too slow and reluctant to come forward with the necessary financial assistance. Although the US embassy in Kyrgyzstan has described the Fergana Valley as a "major environmental disaster waiting to happen", American officials have said that the responsibility belonged to the Central Asian countries. The United Nations also recognizes the potential environmental threat, but has not given Maili Suu the priority necessary to warrant an international response.

Only the World Bank has announced it will set aside a million dollars for a clean-up project. And the German Organization for International Development has said it will sponsor an early-warning system for landslides, a dangerous side-effect of flooding in a mountainous region. Several hillsides have already begun sending mud and debris down into the valley, and one damn has burst under the weight of the shifting earth.

However, if more is not done sooner, the entire region could face radioactive contamination of previously unknown proportions, making the Fergana Valley one of the world’s worst nuclear disasters.

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