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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Kyrgyz Town Has Uranium in Its Blood

APA sign warning trespassers to keep away from a former uranium mine in Mayluu-Suu, Kyrgyzstan. The town has 23 uranium dumps.
MAYLUU-SUU, Kyrgyzstan -- Lenin's portrait still watches over the rusting, closed Izolit uranium processing plant here, where 23 radioactive waste sites infest the landslide-prone hills -- a catastrophe-in-waiting that threatens to poison the river below and the most populous area of Central Asia.

Some 2 million cubic meters of tailings -- leftovers from more than two decades of refining the uranium from mines in this Kyrgyz mountain town as well as from as far off as East Germany -- are buried in this valley along the Mayluu-Suu River. The waterway runs a short distance south to Uzbekistan and the Fergana Valley, Central Asia's agricultural heartland, which has 12 million inhabitants.

The potential disasters rattle readily off the tongue of Arip Kokkozov, an official at the Ministry of Ecology and Emergency Situations who monitors waste sites. Landslides could carry waste into the river, snow and rain could cause leaks from containers built with outdated technology, wind could carry waste through the air, or the heavy radioactive materials could seep into groundwater.

"There are many problems. They need to be solved," Kokkozov said in his office in the southern city of Osh. "If there was enough money, we could fly it all into space," he quips.

The debt-saddled nation of Kyrgyzstan has pleaded for outside help to clean up the sites, arguing it doesn't have the resources to tackle the problem alone. Cleaning up Mayluu-Suu will cost an estimated $17 million, officials say.

"I can't say we are receiving enough assistance from abroad as the cost is very high," said Bolot Aidaraliyev, Kyrgyz deputy minister of ecology and emergency situations. "This is not one day's work. Each site requires an individual approach. ... It will take years of work to rehabilitate the sites."

The World Bank pledged $5 million this year -- to be granted in 2004 if preparations to address the problem go as planned. The funding will go to shore up waste sites against landslides and help government agencies get ready for a potential disaster.

Japan is giving about $500,000 under one of the first grants in the project. The European Union also has been involved through its Tacis technical assistance program for former Soviet states.

All countries in the former Soviet Union have been saddled with the environmental problems sown by their Soviet masters, and such radioactive and biological and chemical waste sites litter the landscape of Central Asia.

The vast steppes of Kazakhstan were used as a nuclear testing ground, and an island in the Aral Sea shared by Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan was home to a biological weapons testing facility.

However, in Central Asia, the site at Mayluu-Suu poses the most immediate threat to the largest number of people.

Mayluu-Suu, which means "oily water" in Kyrgyz, first got into the uranium business in 1946 as the Soviet Union rushed to develop atomic weapons after seeing the United States unleash their destructive power in Japan.

The town was a closed city until the 1970s, a restricted military zone that only people who lived and worked there could enter, a place not mentioned on maps.

It later became known for its light bulb factory, now a Russian-Kyrgyz joint venture that remains the main industry in town. "Our goods provide you with the joy of light," a billboard boasts in English on the road leading into Malyuu-Suu, with a map showing beams radiating out to the world.

There are no cheery slogans at the Izolit factory, where profiles of Lenin and Marx still watch over a model of an atom. The crumpled metal remains of a bridge that once crossed the river to the factory lie rusting, half-submerged in the water.

The city's chief physician, Dr. Nemat Mambetov, said health officials have found levels of radon -- a radioactive gas formed by decaying uranium -- as high as twice the internationally accepted rates in 28 of 30 homes they examined.

Mambetov said cancer rates in the town also appeared higher than normal, but he has no funding -- and no oncologists in town -- to do more detailed research.

At High School No. 4, American studies teacher Valentin Ladeishikov is trying to educate people about the dangers in their backyard and has founded the city's only humanitarian organization to take on the issue. He said some residents have removed highly radioactive bricks or metal from waste sites and used them for building homes.

On his classroom chalkboard underneath a drawing of the Capitol building in Washington, Ladeishikov draws a series of circles showing how the effects of a radioactive leak would expand across the region, creating ecological refugees who would spread worries about contamination for hundreds of kilometers.

Ladeishikov has held educational seminars for students on the dangers of stealing material from the waste sites and on what to do if catastrophe strikes. He is trying to get international funding to reach more residents.

"They do not realize the danger," Ladeishikov said.

On the road into the mountains, Raimjan Osmonaliyev, a village elder and former uranium miner, and four other men prayed on their knees facing toward Mecca, just steps away from the entrance to the mine and also the Izolit factory. He said he has no plans to move his six daughters and two sons, and so many grandchildren that he's lost count, away from Mayluu-Suu.

"This is now in our blood," Osmonaliyev, 68, said of potential radiation from the uranium. "We've been here since birth, that's why there's no injury from it."

Nearby, a sign warns people not to enter the mine, but the fence posts have long been stripped of the barbed wire that once blocked trespassers.

"Even if we're scared, what can we do?" Osmonaliyev asks. "We can't fly into the sky. We can't escape."