Central Asia was a key source of uranium for the former Soviet Union. Uranium was mined there for over 50 years and uranium ore was also imported from other countries for processing. Most of the mines were closed by 1995 but very little remediation has been done and large mining and tailing dumps remain. The collapse of the Soviet Union in the 1990s saw the creation of separate independent states. This resulted in many former uranium mining and milling facilities, as well as associated waste (dumps and tailings) being abandoned.

Most uranium legacy sites (ULSs) are located in Central Asia where, from the mid-1940s to the 1990s, uranium mining and processing were prevalent. As planning for end-of-life management was not common at the time, the sites were left with residues of radioactive and toxic contaminants. These pose ongoing threats to the people in the region, as do abandoned mines and processing infrastructure.

Some ULSs are in seismically active areas and near to regional waterways, and all ULSs pose risks for the population and the environment. These include physical hazards to people and animals, elevated exposure to radioactive and toxic material of communities living in proximity to a ULS, negative impact on public health and socio-economic well-being, as well as potential for transboundary contamination.

The International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) says the release of radioactive and toxic contaminants is inevitable if the sites in Central Asia remain unremediated. Because Central Asian member states generally do not have the means to address this challenge, several international initiatives have been launched to support remediation in the region.

An IAEA initiative

The IAEA Coordination Group for Uranium Legacy Sites (CGULS) was formed in 2012 to help coordinate national and multilateral remediation activities. Through CGULS, IAEA supports a network of national and international organisations and institutions concerned with the safe remediation and management of residues at these ULSs.

The CGULS project facilitates the application of IAEA safety standards and international good practices in remediation projects conducted in Kazakhstan, the Kyrgyz Republic, Tajikistan, Uzbekistan and Ukraine. CGULS comprises the IAEA, the European Commission (EC), the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS – with activities now co-ordinated by Rosatom) and the EBRD. Support also comes from Germany, Norway, France and Belgium as well as other member states.

CGULS activities include:

  • Facilitating meetings between member states and international organisations planning remedial activities in their countries;
  • Proficiency testing for laboratories conducting work under the project;
  • Expert missions to explore remediation strategies;
  • Scientific visits to sites using good practices;
  • Expert missions to evaluate remediation activities;
  • Advisory missions to evaluate support facilities and coordinate reviews of remediation plans;
  • Expert assistance in developing site specific monitoring plans; and
  • Developing regulatory guidance documents related to the remediation of existing sites.

The CIS Programme for remediation of ULSs in Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan is based on a concept developed during 2008–2012 for remediation of the territories of EurAsian Economic Community (EurAsEC) member states affected by uranium mining. Funding is being provided by CIS member states participating in the programme – Russia (75%), Kazakhstan (15%), Kyrgyzstan (5%) and Tajikistan (5%) Their contributions are based on various socioeconomic indicators, including GDP.

In 2015, the Environmental Remediation Account for Central Asia (ERA) managed by the European Bank for Reconstruction & Development (EBRD) was established at the initiative of the European Union (EU) to address the Soviet legacy. The EU is ERA’s biggest donor, with contributions also coming from Belgium, Lithuania, Norway, Spain, Switzerland and the USA.

The strategic master plan

In 2017, Central Asian countries where remediation projects planned endorsed a Strategic Master Plan (SMP) developed with CGULS. This prioritised remediation in Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan. The IAEA, EC and EBRD signed a joint commitment on coordinating remediation efforts under the SMP. The EBRD estimated the cost of measures outlined in the plan at €210m ($222m), of which €56m had already been made available by the EU, the CIS and the World Bank.

The SMP promoted a step-by-step approach, focusing first on those ULSs judged to present the highest risks, which were already part of active remediation programmes. The Technical Baseline Document ranked risks and relative priorities taking into account two active major international remediation programmes – EBRD’s ERA and the Inter-State Targeted Programme on Remediation of Member State Territories affected by Uranium Mining Industries (CIS Programme).

The ERA programme covers Mailuu-Suu, Min-Kush and Shekaftar in Kyrgyzstan, Istiklol and Degmay in Tajikistan, and Charkesar and Yangiabad in Uzbekistan. The CIS Programme covers Min-Kush (tailings) in Kyrgyzstan, and Istiklol (Yellow Hill and tailings 1-4) in Tajikistan. At the Kadji-Say site in Kyrgyzstan remediation has already been completed under the CIS Programme.

Coordination between ERA and the CIS Programme is supported by two mechanisms:

  • A 2018 Memorandum of Understanding between Rosatom and EBRD on cooperation in the remediation of former uranium production sites:, and
  • Implementation of joint activities based on a 2020 Action plan to raise public awareness in regions with ongoing and expected ULS remediation projects in the Kyrgyz Republic, signed by the Kyrgyz Ministry of Emergency Situations, Rosatom, OSCE, and the ERA-supported PMU in Kyrgyzstan. The plan is updated annually.

In 2021, the CIS Economic Council appointed Rosatom’s Fuel Company TVEL as the basic organisation of the CIS countries responsible for managing used nuclear fuel and radioactive waste and for decommissioning nuclear and radiation hazardous objects. The CIS includes Azerbaijan, Armenia, Belarus, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Moldova, the Russian Federation, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, and Uzbekistan. Georgia withdrew its membership in 2008 and Ukraine ended its participation in the CIS in 2018.

As a base organisation, TVEL assumed responsibility for: consolidation and systematisation of accumulated experience and scientific knowledge; development of common approaches; harmonisation of the regulatory framework; and training of personnel. It was also responsible for direct assistance in implementing various projects and programmes for nuclear decommissioning and rehabilitation of territories, including the construction and operation of storage facilities for nuclear materials.

“Giving TVEL the status of a CIS base organisation will expand the existing potential of international cooperation, ensure consistency and comprehensiveness in the formation of approaches to unify the norms and rules for safe decommissioning of nuclear facilities and radioactive waste management,” said TVEL President Natalya Nikipelova in a statement. TVEL would provide a “single window” function for the competent authorities of the Commonwealth of Independent States in the event of urgent requests from them on the topic of eliminating the nuclear legacy.

A revised version of the SMP was published in September 2021. It had been prepared by the CGULS Secretariat in cooperation with the EBRD, the EU, Kyrgyzstan, Norway, the Organisation for Security & Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), the Russian Federation, Tajikistan, the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP), the United Nations Economic Commission for Europe (UNECE) and also Uzbekistan.

Progress made since the initial SMP

It assessed progress since the initial SMP, noting that all preparatory work, including relevant studies and assessments had been completed within the first phase of the CIS programme by 2017 for a total cost of €3.2m. The second phase (2017-2023) focused on the physical remediation. The Kadji-Say site in Kyrgyzstan became the first ULS to be remediated within the CIS Programme. Remediation, which cost €1m, began in 2017 and was completed in 2019. In 2017 remediation also started at the Min-Kush tailings (total cost €23m). Funding (approximately €9.2m) had been approved to remediate Yellow Hill and tailings 1-4 at Istiklol in Tajikistan.

As to the EU’S Instrument for Nuclear Safety Cooperation (INSC), the revised SMP noted that a suite of environmental impact assessment and feasibility studies (EIA and FS) was completed, forming a portfolio of implementation-ready projects. ERA was “making steady progress” in accordance with the EBRD’s delivery model. Framework Agreements (FA) had been signed with recipient organisations in Uzbekistan (2017), Kyrgyzstan (2018) and Tajikistan (2020). Project Management Units (PMUs) had been operational in Kyrgyzstan since 2019, in Uzbekistan since September 2021 and were in preparation in Tajikistan.

EBRD funding was approved for remediation of Min-Kush (€3m for all objects except tailings) and Shekaftar (€3m) in Kyrgyzstan. Remediation of the Mailuu-Suu site, estimated at €26m, depended on the availability of ERA funds. Decisions were expected on funding for remediation at Istiklol excluding Yellow Hill and tailings 1-4 (estimated cost €13m) and Degmay (estimated cost €28m) in Tajikistan, as well as for Charkesar (estimated cost €0.8m) and Yangiabad (estimated cost €7.2m) in Uzbekistan. However, the report noted a significant funding gap to remediate all priority sites included in the scope of EBRD’s ERA programme.

Looking to the future, the revised SMP prioritised seven sites in Kyrgyzstan (Mailuu-Suu, Min-Kush and Shekaftar), Tajikistan (Istiklol and Degmay) and Uzbekistan (Charkesar and Yangiabad). These were selected based on the risk and priority rankings attributed to each site in the IAEA Technical Baseline Document on Central Asia ULSs, as well as on risk evaluations and remediation options.


The Shekaftar site, comprising three closed mines and eight mining waste disposal areas, contained about 700,000 cubic metres of waste rock and low-grade ores. Eroded waste disposal sites on the banks of the Sumsar river were releasing radioactive contaminants into the river. Works at Shekaftar, under an ERA project, included closure of six shafts by demolishing remaining above-ground structures and closing shaft openings with concrete. Material from waste rock dumps, including five dumps near schools and other buildings and one dump on the banks of the Sumsar river would be relocated to a more remote dump site and covered with a layer of soil. A new pipeline would provide Shekaftar village with a source of clean drinking water. The work was completed on schedule and below the projected budget. The site was certified and accepted by the Kyrgyz authorities in December 2021.

The Mailuu-Suu site is in an area prone to earthquakes, landslides and floods. More than 2m cubic metres of tailings were present at 23 locations along riverbanks. Mailuu-Suu has experienced several adverse natural events, most recently a landslide in 2019.

The preferred remediation options identified by European EIAs and FSs included relocation, soil cover and additional channels for tailings ponds, demolition and cover of buildings, closure of open shafts with concrete slabs, closure and filling of adits with concrete plugs, crushed rock and waste rock, and installation of warning signs. Objects included 39 waste rock dumps of various sizes, 20 tailings ponds, six shafts and 49 adits, two former ore processing plants and 83 former mine building or ruins. Remediation works were expected to take seven years. In May 2023, a grant of €23m was allocated from ERA for remediation at Mailuu-Suu.

The Min-Kush site comprises four closed mines, four waste rock piles and tailings ponds. Risks include the use of contaminated water for drinking and irrigation as well as physical hazards from dilapidated infrastructure and facilities. Close proximity to the Min-Kush river and a constant threat of landslide activity increased the risk of transborder contamination. Min-Kush remediation involved both the CIS Programme and ERA.

The CIS Council approved funding and work, with the total cost of €23m, started in 2017. This involved preparing the Dalnee tailings pond to receive relocated material from other tailings (including building protective screens and a new drainage system), building new roads, and in-situ remediation 36 tailings. This work is ongoing. The EU’s EIA and FS identified 24 uranium waste rock dumps covering approximately 13.5 hectares with an estimated total volume of approximately 0.9m cubic metres, 23 visible mine openings, three open shafts, 11 adits (some partially collapsed) and nine sinkholes. In addition, the abandoned processing site covered 10 hectares. In 2019, the ERA approved €3m in funding and work began in 2020. The work was completed on schedule and below the projected budget. The site was certified and accepted by the Kyrgyz authorities in February 2022.


The Istiklol site (formerly Taboshar) covering 400 hectares is near the Tajik-Uzbek border and mountainous water courses used for drinking and irrigation. Risks include the discharge of contaminated mine water and radiological and physical risks posed by open mine shafts, adits, and sinkholes. Various objects located at Istiklol were planned to be separately remediated by the CIS Programme, EBRD’s ERA and EU’s INSC.

The CIS Programme was responsible for recontouring and covering the Yellow Hill uranium dump, improving the existing covers of tailings 1–4 (about 1.17m tonnes), dismantling building structures where heap leaching took place, and decontaminating adjacent areas. In November 2018, the CIS Council approved funding of approximately €9.2m for the remediation and in 2022 a RUB700m ($11m) trilateral contract for the work was concluded by the Tajik Ministry of Industry & New Technologies, Rosatom and the Central Design & Technological Institute (TsPTI – part of Rosatom’s fuel company TVEL) won a contract for the work. The work was completed in October 2023, almost five months ahead of schedule.

As a result, the height of the uranium dump was reduced from 65 to 35 metres and covered with a 1.5-metre layer of clean soil. The radiation background in the perimeter of the reclaimed facilities fell to natural levels. Necessary infrastructure was installed to support the work including asphalting 3 km of road and reconstructing power lines. Old reinforced concrete structures and equipment at the low-grade ore factory were demolished and large-sized scrap was isolated in reinforced concrete bowls. A protective soil layer was put in place, and a drainage system organised. The low-grade ore factory dump and all four tailings ponds were covered with a protective screen of natural materials.

ERA’s responsibility is to remediate waste rock dumps, open shafts, adits and sinkholes, and demolish contaminated buildings. The preferred remediation options identified in EU’s EIAs and FSs include closure of shafts, adits and sinkholes, demolition of contaminated infrastructure and other legacy facilities, as well as relocation of waste rock dumps. The total cost was estimated at €13m and work was expected to take five years. This is subject to the availability of EBRD funds and fulfilment of the Framework Agreement requirements. A separate project to address the risks from contaminated mining water is planned to be implemented with support from the EU’s INSC. The overall budget is about €3.6m.

The Degmay site, with the largest concentrated volume of tailings material from uranium ore processing in Central Asia is located close to the Syr Daria river. Radon exhalation from the tailings is high and the dry exposed surface creates radioactive dust emissions. Contaminated infrastructure includes former tailings pipelines. The EU’s EIA and FS included tailings pond, tailings pipes, and two abandoned pump stations. The preferred remediation option was to cover the tailings and dam area with a layer of soil and crude rock, with a ditch for the water run-off and demolition of pump stations. The estimated cost was €28m with work expected to take six years. This was also subject to the availability of EBRD funds and fulfilment of Framework Agreement requirements.


The Charkesar site comprises two mines. Risks include contaminated mine water, which is being used for livestock and irrigation, as well as physical risks to the local population from open shafts and adits. One mine is an ERA’s priority sites and the other is being remediated by the Government of Uzbekistan. The preferred remediation option identified by the EU’s EIA and FS was closure of two shafts with a reinforced concrete plate, closure of five sinkholes with surface concrete plugs, and closure of one adit with waste rock.. The cost was estimated at €0.8m, with the remediation expected to take a year. The Government of Uzbekistan undertook some measures in 2019-2020, including levelling the site and covering it with a layer of neutral soil, and diverting a drainage creek to the underground well.

The Yangiabad site covering 5,000-hectare is also an ERA priority, including separate mines and central dumps of waste rock and low-grade ore. The preferred remediation option identified by the EU’s EIA and FS was closure of four shafts, 23 adits and eight sinkholes; demolition of contaminated buildings and/or processing facilities with debris transferred to central waste dumps or a storage cell; constructing discharge channels for surface water at five locations; reinforcement of the riverbanks at four locations and relocation of several waste rock dumps at Kattasay to a central dump that would be covered. Kattasay remediation accounted for over a half of estimated total costs of €7.7m. A facility was also needed to store contaminated material. Remediation was expected to take two years. In 2021 a €2m grant was agreed to support the PMU that would undertake the remediation.

In September 2022 EBRD agreed to provide a grant of €7m to support the work at Charkesar and Yangiabad. Construction and rehabilitation works is now underway under the supervision of local and German experts.

Clearly the IAEA is playing a key role in co-ordinating and overseeing the various European and CIS remediation projects, preventing duplication and monitoring progress. Details are published in the SMP. IAEA says it is currently reviewing the second edition of the SMP with a view to developing a third edition. This will describe latest developments and decide on priorities for the next remediation steps. This third edition should be ready for publication in 2024 or 2025.

Author: Judith Perera