Dam of the tailing pond at Min-KushKyrgyzstan's parliament on 2 May voted to ban uranium exploration and mining despite previously issuing licences to foreign companies.

The move followed a series of public protests against plans to develop the Kyzyl Ompul project in which Canada's Azarga has a 70% stake and may expose the Bishkek government to compensation claims from foreign investors. "Parliament has taken a historic decision… Uranium mining will be prohibited," speaker Dastan Jumabekov told the legislature which ordered the government to draft the necessary bills to enforce the ban. The only exception will be made for the reprocessing of waste in Soviet-era tailings.

Kyrgyzstan currently produces no significant volumes of uranium but has closed uranium mill dating from Soviet times. Several companies from the USA, Australia, China and other countries are exploring local deposits. UrAsia, the company developing Kyzyl Ompul, is being taken over by the Central Asian Uranium Company for $5.85 million in cash payments and a commitment to fund $1.5 million of exploration and development expenditures.

Earlier, on 29 April, the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development (EBRD) announced that remedial work at two uranium legacy sites is expected to start this year as part of a broader plan to deal with the legacy of Soviet-era uranium mining in Central Asia. Central Asia was a vital source of uranium in the former Soviet Union and mines operated for over 50 years. Uranium ore was also imported for processing leaving a large amount of radioactively-contaminated material waste dumps and tailing sites.

Mailuu-Suu, a former mining town in the southern Jalal-Abad region, has been identified by the EU, as one of the priority sites along with Shekaftar (also in Jalal-Abad) and Min-Kush in the Naryn region because of the environmental risks involved. Work will begin at the Shekaftar site, following a grant agreement signed between the Kyrgyz authorities and the EBRD. The grant enables the start of a tender process for the selection of a contractor for the work at the Min-Kush and Shekaftar sites.

The grant has been provided by the Environmental Remediation Account for Central Asia (ERA) – a fund set up in 2015 to rehabilitate high-priority sites in the Kyrgyz Republic, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan. The ERA is  managed by the EBRD and supported by contributions from the European Commission, Belgium, Switzerland, Norway and Lithuania.

The remediation effort is part of a more extensive Strategic Master Plan (SMP) announced by the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) and partners in September 2017 to coordinate efforts to achieve the safe and sustainable environmental remediation of Uranium Legacy Sites (ULS) in Central Asia. The SMP was developed with the Central Asian countries by core members of the IAEA’s Coordination Group for Uranium Legacy Sites (CGULS), which was formed in 2012 to help coordinate national and multilateral ULS remediation activities in Central Asia. The core group comprises representatives of the EBRD, the European Commission, Kyrgyzstan, the IAEA, the Russian Federation, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan. The Plan was submitted for consideration to the Economic Council of the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS), with formal endorsement received in March 2018.

The SMP includes a summary of the cost of work that has already been carried out or is underway, as well as estimates for the further work. Systematic and comprehensive evaluations of the risks and remediation options have been carried out at six sites (Min-Kush, Kadji-Say, Shekaftar, Istiklol (Yellow Hill’12 and tailings ponds 1–4), Charkesar and Yangiabad) and are underway at three more (the whole of Mailuu-Suu, Istiklol (excluding Yellow Hill and tailings ponds 1–4) and Degmay). The costs of
these studies amounted to about €12 million, of which around 80% has been provided from the EU Instrument for Nuclear Safety Cooperation (INSC) and the rest from the CIS Programme.

Remediation work has been carried out and is already underway at some sites. About €11 million of remediation work was carried out at Mailuu-Suu with World Bank funding; the CIS Programme committed around €25 million for remediation of tailings at Min-Kush and Kadji-Say, and €2.5 million was allocated by the INSC for a treatment facility for mine waters at Istiklol.

Photo: Dam of the tailing pond at Min-Kush