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A ticking bomb in Kyrgyzstan. Tons of radioactive waste threaten millions of people

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In Kyrgyzstan, time is running out to avoid a catastrophe whose scale may be as large as the explosion of the Chernobyl power plant. For decades, the Soviets extracted uranium from local mines, dumped the waste around the city, and then the problem fell on the local authorities. Dams that hold radioactive mud at bay could burst if an earthquake hits the area. Then radioactive waste will flood the basin, where 16 million people live.

Exactly 38 years after the explosion at the Chernobyl nuclear power plant, Central Asia is facing a radioactive disaster on a similar scale. – The city of Majluu-Suu is considered one of the most dangerous in Kyrgyzstan in terms of the amount of radioactive waste from the times of the Soviet Union stored here, says Ajbek Kozibayev from the Kyrgyzstan Mine Waste Agency.

There are 700,000 cubic meters of uranium-saturated waste there. For comparison, this is larger than that of 250 Olympic swimming pools. The dikes that block the flow of waste may collapse at any time. – If an earthquake or landslide occurs, water from a nearby river may overflow and damage the dams. The waste will then enter the riverbed and flood neighboring countries, explains Islambek Altumishev from the radiological laboratory in Majluu-Suu.

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Radioactive waste is in the form of a liquid goo, which only increases the risk. They are stored in the town of Majluu-Suu, which is located in a valley in the west of Kyrgyzstan. If the embankments survive, the radioactive wave may also flood the areas of Uzbekistan, and even the lands belonging to Tajikistan are at risk of contamination.

– This region is prone to earthquakes. A strength of 7 degrees is enough for the waste to flow into the river and contaminate the areas around the Fergana Valley, points out Sebastian Hess, an engineer from a German waste treatment company.

The region is home to 16 million people who make their living mainly from agriculture. Attempts to move waste have been going on for years, but the Kyrgyz government estimates that the operation to remove the two most endangered landfills will cost up to EUR 25 million. – There is no doubt that this is a huge risk. It's visible to the naked eye. Now it's relatively okay here, but a few years ago the smell was so strong that you couldn't stand here, says Toktobek Berdibekov, a resident of Majluu-Suu.

Waste was found underground and a fine of PLN 2 million was imposed on the owner of the gravel pitTVN24

One of the most polluted places on Earth

For two decades, the Soviets obtained uranium from the mines there to power nuclear power plants and conduct nuclear tests. They stored waste around and under the city. The mines were eventually closed, but more than 20 radioactive dumps remained. Majluu-Suu is one of the most polluted places on Earth.

– They suggested that I leave here and move to the border with Uzbekistan. They told me: go and build yourself a house. They just didn't give me money for it, said Enwer Berber, a resident of Majłuu-Suu, in 2019.

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At the same time, the dams became saturated with water and their erosion continued, and over the years, residents learned firsthand how dangerous it is to live in the vicinity of radioactive waste. Hospitals are full of people with cancer and diseases caused by land contamination.

– Most of the city's adult population suffers from diseases of the digestive and circulatory systems. There are four times more such patients than the average for all of Kyrgyzstan, noted ecologist Bolotbek Karimov in 2019.

Neutering has already occurred here in the past. At the end of the 1950s, a wave of radioactive mud flooded the areas along the valley. In the areas where people now live, rice is grown and animals are grazed.

Author:Przemysław Kaleta

Main photo source: Reuters

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