Uranium extraction and environmental security in the central Asian republics

Chapters :

Background

High gamma dose rates used in building materials for homes

Uranium ore mining and processing was carried out in the then Soviet Republics of Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan for 50 years after the 2nd World War, resulting in large amounts of uranium tailing materials and waste rock deposits often dumped in, or close to, inhabited areas.

More...

What is being done

The work for this project consists of three phases:

  • Characterisation of source-terms and determination of local contamination in selected uranium tailing sites;
  • Radiation dose and impact assessment;
  • Identification of appropriate mitigation/remediation countermeasures.

Another important dimension of this project is that it will contribute to upgrading environmental radioactivity laboratories in the countries, as well as providing training for young scientists in the use of modern equipment, surveying methods and protocols.

Working with other international organizations

This project is part of the Environment and Security (ENVSEC) Initiative, a framework through which NATO is helping to tackle environmental issues that threaten regional security.  In order to ensure the best utilisation of resources and to avoid unnecessary duplication, the NATO country Project Director and the Partner country Project Director have participated in several meetings organized by the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE) and the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP). 

They have also met on regular intervals with representatives from the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), the UNDP, the OSCE and local governments to better define the objectives and the work carried out by these organizations in the Central Asian region. The project will also build on ongoing initiatives of the IAEA, the International Science and Technology Centre (ISTC), the Government of Norway and the World Bank.

Training of young scientists

In February 2007, a two week training course on radon measurements and advanced gamma spectrometry was held in Ljubljana, Slovenia. Eight young scientists from all four countries took part in this training and benefited from hearing first hand from international and national experts. Young scientists also gained a lot of vital practical experience from attending field radiological assessments.

End results

Portable equipment for instantaneous measurements of radon has been procured for the participating institutions in each of the four countries.  This equipment was extensively used in field missions to selected sites in Kyrgyzstan, Uzbekistan and Tajikistan for screening levels of radiation in homes and public buildings.  Smaller items of equipment including radioactivity monitors, GPS, nuclear track etch detectors for long-term radon measurements and field radioactivity instruments are also being fully utilized.

To date, all of the planned radiological field assessment missions to selected uranium waste sites in Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan have been carried out.  The missions consisted of gamma dose rate surveillance and identification of the source of radioactivity, indoors as well as outdoors, and sample collection for analysis in the laboratories of the participating institutions.  Experts on radon surveillance from Kazakhstan, Norway and Slovenia actively participated in the implementation of the mission programmes.

Preliminary results demonstrate a potential for high environmental impact from the tailings in sites in Tajikistan.  In Kyrgyzstan nuclear track etch detectors were exposed to determine average levels of radon over an extended time (in private houses, public institutions) in areas that had only been partly evaluated previously.

It is expected that local communities e.g. mayor’s offices and regulatory bodies, will make immediate use of the results of preliminary reports, in particular on indoor Rn levels in homes and public buildings.  The same applies for the drinking water supplies used by people living at, or in the close vicinity of U tailing/waste ore deposits.  The results achieved to date can serve to help lower the risk of exposure to the radionuclides by adopting simple countermeasures.

Other sites of interest in Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Uzbekistan and Tajikistan have been identified and recommendations have been made to assess the environmental pictures at these new sites from 2009.