IAEA researching radioactive waste and health in Mailuu-Suu

The International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) has been inspecting uranium waste dumps in the southern Kyrgyz town of Mailuu-Suu. Peter Waggitt, an IAEA scientist, visited the area in late October and took samples from the ground at several dozen sites for further testing under laboratory conditions, Tilek Akambaev, the mayor of Mailuu-Suu, told IRIN.

According to the mayor, final test results will be released later in November. The IAEA is interested in gaining specific information on the impact the radioactive dumps are having on the environment and people's health. The Kyrgyzstan National Sciences Academy (KNASA) has surveyed about 170 sites at Mailuu-Suu and concluded that high levels of radioactivity were present.

Mailuu-Suu's uranium began to be excavated after the Second World War, when the USSR rapidly developed nuclear weapons to counterbalance US technology. From 1946 to 1968, over 10,000 mt of ore were extracted, which were processed at two local factories. The radioactive tailings from the extraction process were simply dumped near the town with no concern for the health and safety of local residents.

The IAEA expert should verify the data and conclusions of the KNASA, Anarkul Aitaliev, of the Ecology and Emergency Ministry, responsible for monitoring the dumps, told IRIN. "For the last 15 years, various local and international organisations separately conducted research in the area of the tailing dumps but there have been no comprehensive research done on health aspects," Aitaliev told IRIN.

The radioactive dumps, although covered with a layer of top soil, lie on land susceptible to flooding and landslide, like most of southern Kyrgyzstan, meaning that high levels of radioactivity could be released into the air or water sources, potentially affecting millions of people in the region.

The first major accident happened in Mailuu-Suu at the end of the 1950s. Then, heavy flooding led to the destruction of a protective wall containing one of the dumps. Vast amounts of radioactive material were discharged into the air. The authorities concealed the accident from the world and there is no reliable information on how the radioactivity affected the population.

More recent landslides near the town have demonstrated the vulnerability of the dumps, where radioactivity levels in some parts are more than 10 times normal levels. Due to a lack of awareness, over the years many local residents have taken materials from, on or around the uranium dumps for house construction.

Dr Batma Baltagulova from the main hospital in the town highlights the growth of cancers in recent years.

Local resident Sharipa Habibullaeva, a former employee of the sanitation-epidemiological department, reported an increase in deformed children being born and concluded that it was the result of high levels of radiation.

"People complain about sleepiness, headaches and fatigue," Rasul Narmatov, a local 45-year-old taxi driver, told IRIN. "As for me, I have lost my hair and teeth early," the smooth-headed driver grinned toothlessly to IRIN.

Some suspect a conspiracy of silence. The local authorities are concerned about the consequences of alarmist reports about Mailuu-Suu in local and foreign newspapers. "It has gone so far that experts do not come to our town, and we lack personnel," the town's mayor told IRIN. Experts who have visited the sites complain of sleeplessness, sore throats and headaches.

Awareness campaigns have been partially successful in keeping local people away from the dumps. Last year, with the support of the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe's (OSCE) Bishkek office, booklets and calendars were published calling on locals not to graze cattle near the tailing dumps and to refrain from taking water from rivers and streams running close to radioactive waste sites.

But many townspeople do not follow these recommendations. "Not one-off, but constant precautionary, awareness and preventive work with the local population is needed," asserted Biymyrza Toktoraliev, a well-known local ecologist. The World Bank has allocated US $6.9 million, the Japanese Government $2 million, the Global Ecological Fund $1 million and the Kyrgyzstan government $1.8 million for rehabilitation of the dumps. According to the Ecological and Emergency Ministry, over 20 local and foreign firms have expressed interest in participating in tenders.

Local authorities say the time for action on this issue is now, before another generation is forced to live with this Soviet nuclear legacy. "After long-term and ineffective negotiations, at last the time has come for real action," Ashir Abdullaev, the assistant mayor of Mailuu-Suu, told IRIN.