President Almazbek Atambayev of The Kyrgyz Republic issued a strong warning at the 72nd session of the United Nations General Assembly (UNGA). In the event of possible accidents at uranium tailing sites, pollution of the rivers of the region with highly toxic waste would lead to major ecological and humanitarian disasters.

His warning was further discussed during a special meeting in New York on the same day (20 September 2017). The meeting underlined – once more – the key challenges and opportunities in addressing the legacy of past uranium mining in Central Asia. Action is urgently needed to remedy the situation, with the increased risk of mud and landslides further aggravating the situation. A number of large uranium tailing sites are located in close proximity to rivers and water sources. A future environmental disaster could impact all Central Asian countries.

The current situation presents a serious obstacle to environmental protection and sustainable development and endangers the well-being and prosperity of the region. For example, with more than 90 tailings sites in the Kyrgyz Republic alone, the problem could escalate to contaminate and pollute underground water and rivers, arable land and farming. In other words, it affects the lives of the people living in the immediate areas as well as the economic development of the region as it affects future generations. It represents a security risk and could undermine the stability of the region.

The issue was put on the international agenda back in 2013. A UNGA resolution was adopted asking for international support. 

But where does the international community stand five years later? Has there been any significant progress in solving problems of radiation and environmental safety in Central Asia?

So far, it has been the European Union (EU) that has taken a leadership role. It has expressed solidarity with the people in the region and is implementing a major environmental remediation programme in Central Asia to address the issue of uranium mining legacy.

The high volumes of toxic and radioactive waste from former Soviet Union mines has to be safely contained. The EU has funded feasibility studies and environmental impact assessments for seven priority sites in the Kyrgyz Republic, Tajikistan, and Uzbekistan. These priority sites were selected using the baseline document developed by the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) for the region, which identified the most hazardous hot spots that require rapid intervention. The studies provide plans for remediation that comply with the highest international safety standards. 

These plans are now ready for implementation, based on solid cost estimates. Some €85 million is needed to carry out the remediation works in the seven designated priority areas (see map). Financing of the remAerdaibaitaionnSpearojects will be through an international donor fund managed by the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development (EBRD) in London.

The EU understands that defining the right priorities and ensuring coordination and complementarity among the various programmes is essential to convince other donors to join the efforts. Therefore it has initiated the development of a Strategic Master Plan on environmental remediation under the stewardship of the International Atomic Energy Agency. This work was done with a core group of Central Asian and international experts. The plan sets out a detailed set of actions for the environmental remediation of the priority sites. The plan was endorsed on 18 September 2017 in the margins of the annual International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) General Conference.

What further actions are now needed?

Concrete remediation plans in seven priority areas are now in place, as is a multilateral donor fund to pool financial resources. The focus and priorities are clearly defined, allowing the project to move on to the next phase. There is clear information on each site about which tailings have to be relocated, which shafts, adits, and sinkholes have to be closed and which processing plants have to be demolished. All this work has been independently peer reviewed. But the fact is that the countries directly involved are not able to bear the cost of the remediation given the socio-economic challenges they face.

How will the international community now act? Will it be satisfied to maintain the current status quo in the region? Will it try “muddling through” with ad hoc decisions that deal with the most urgent issues? Or will it apply a structured and rationalised approach, as has been initiated by the EU with the EBRD, IAEA, and the United Nation Development Programme (UNDP)? The last option is the only reasonable way forward.

What does it take to further go down that path? Here are the main points:

  • To maintain political support. To that end, a new resolution is to be adopted by UNGA in 2018 as proposed by President Atambaev. Preparatory work has started. The matter will be discussed at the G7, the Organisation for the Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), and other international forums.
  • To work towards a successful Donor Conference in late 2018. The final technical work and financial setup should facilitate donors in their funding decisions. The Kyrgyz Republic, Tajikistan, and Uzbekistan will put the necessary management structures for the individual remediation projects in place, based on ratified agreements of cooperation between these countries and with the EBRD.
  • To continue stakeholder consultations led by the UNDP to obtain input from the local population on the planned remediation works.
  • To coordinate the donors and other programmes to avoid overlap and duplication and ensure efficient spending of public funds.

Based on the fundamental values of solidarity of Agenda 2030 – which is also one of the underlying principles of the EU’s strategy towards Central Asia – the EU will continue to lead in bringing expertise and resources to Central Asia. An allocation of €16.5 million has been made to the EBRD fund. However, the EU cannot and does not want to be the sole contributor to this fund.

There is now no lack of technical preparation or cost estimates that could be an excuse for other donors to hesitate. They should now follow the EU’s example and assist in bridging the current funding gap of €70 million. The people living in and around the sites deserves the support of the international community. They are waiting impatiently for the international response.  

Martin Andersen, Senior Programme Manager Nuclear Waste at the European Commission; Rocco Silverii, Scientific Officer at the European Commission Joint Research Centre in Petten; Pascal Daures, Head of Sector Nuclear Safety, Preventive and Corrective Actions at the European Commission; Adriaan van der Meer, Former EU Head of Delegation to Central Asia