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Uranium mining's legacy and future in Asia

The sudden resurgence in interest in nuclear power has caused a huge rise in global uranium prices. It is also clear that the planned increase in the use of nuclear power will encourage states to find alternative uses for depleted uranium waste. Expensive and hazardous to store, the use of waste DU in civilian and military applications is likely to become more attractive.
29 September 2006 - ICBUW

But the constant, and often ignored back story to the nuclear energy debate, is the environmental and social effects of uranium mining. Across the world indigenous communities are suffering from toxic and radioactive pollution caused by the careless mining, processing and dumping of mine wastes and uranium products.

Uranium mining is a major worldwide industry. In 2004, about 50 mines in 16 countries produced more than 40,000 tonnes of uranium. Business is booming, according to the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development's Nuclear Energy Agency (NEA), which has 28 industrialised countries as members. In a report published on 1st June it says that uranium production increased 11 per cent between 2002 and 2004, and has the potential to double by 2010 to feed new nuclear reactors.

Although the fight against the expansion of uranium mines in Australia and the US is well documented, major reserves lie in other areas, in countries with far laxer environmental standards and poorer economic conditions.

Legacy in the 'Stans'

During the Soviet Union's Cold War arms race with the US, large deposits of uranium were discovered and subsequently exploited in what are now the former Soviet republics of Kazakhstan, Tajikistan, Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan. Between them the 'Stans' have more than 900,000 tonnes of reasonably assured and inferred resources, of which Kazakhstan has the lion's share.

In Kyrgyzstan, the situation is particularly dire, with dozens of poorly constructed tailings ponds in a geologically unstable area. Recently, problems in the Minkush area have been highlighted by the OSCE. The area contains dumps and waste from mining undertaken between 1958 to 1969 that pose a threat to the environment of the Naryn region and the fertile Ferghana valley. The region is also threatened by landslides. A radioactive dump near the Tuuk-Suu River risks being flooded if a landslide blocks the river, while heavy rain and snowfall in 2003-2005 contributed to the triggering of landslides. "The climate and the earthquake situation in the past 10 years have created conditions that could trigger landslides, which result in mudslides and catastrophic floods," said Bakir Jolchiev, Kyrgyz Deputy Minister of Emergency Situations.

Landslides aside, hazards from tailings dumps include direct exposure to radon gas and gamma radiation from poorly capped deposits; groundwater pollution from heavy metals such as arsenic that are often found in the same deposits as uranium; and exposure to toxic and radioactive dusts blown from the surface of tailings ponds. In the 'Stans' there has been concern over the grazing of livestock on abandoned workings and the pollution of groundwater. A recent study by Belgian and Kyrgyz scientists has found that villagers in some areas are receiving radiation doses up to 40 times the internationally recommended safety limit, mostly from the food they grow.

Legacy in India

A different arms race, this time between India and Pakistan, has left, and continues to leave, an all too familiar legacy. Last month the BBC reported on the health problems associated with the extraction of India's Jadugoda uranium deposit in the eastern state of Jharkand. The complex on the site is also now a dump for nuclear waste from across India.

More than 50 of the village's children are ill with undiagnosed wasting diseases, yet in 2004, and in spite of compelling evidence linking these health problems with contamination from the mine, the Supreme Court of India dismissed a Public Interest Litigation against the mine's operators, the Uranium Corporation of India Limited.

The BBC reported seeing villagers digging for water barely a stone's throw from one of site's tailings dams - behind which lies millions of tons of slurry and waste from uranium mines - while villagers use streams and rivers, polluted from the complex's outflow to wash vegetables and clothes. There are no signs to warn of contamination. In 2001, it was found that the external gamma dose rate exceeds 1 mSv/y in the villages, reaching 10 mSv/y around the tailing ponds, with the soil surrounding them heavily contaminated by uranium. Particularly high contamination levels were found in the village of Dungridih that borders one of the ponds, and waste rock from the mine has been used for construction. In Jadugoda, the political sensitivity of India's fledgling nuclear industry means that human rights come second to economic growth.