After gaining independence, the Kyrgyz Republic and other Central Asian countries have faced a wide array of issues including environmental and security problems that they inherited with the collapse of the Soviet Union and its vast nuclear infrastructure. One such problem is the presence on the territory of the Kyrgyz Republic of abandoned uranium mines and unprotected uranium tailings, waste byproducts of uranium mining, in densely populated areas prone to natural disasters and other environmental threats. If an environmental catastrophe involving these tailings were to occur, particularly in transboundary areas, it could affect the health, economy, and environment of the entire region. Such well-known threats are widely discussed at various levels of government and by diverse groups of experts.
Another component that is less discussed is the security threat that these sites could potentially pose. This is particularly an issue in the Central Asian region, which has witnessed political instability and incursions of Central Asian Islamist groups believed to have terrorist ties. Highly radioactive materials, which could be used to produce radiological dispersal devices (RDDs or "dirty bombs"), might be present inside the tailings, as well as in abandoned equipment at these sites. Both the tailing impoundment sites and so-called "orphan" sources, which could contain reactor-produced isotopes, might present security risks if left unmonitored. Although the contents of uranium tailings themselves do not pose a large-scale RDD danger, it is uncertain at this point if other dangerous radiological materials exist at former mining sites, due to large-scale abandonment after the break-up of the Soviet Union and lack of access to Soviet-era documents that might contain such information.
This paper will analyze risks posed by uranium tailings and radioactive waste (RW) sources as well as examine efforts undertaken in recent years by the Kyrgyz Republic to address RW threats. The example of the Kyrgyz Republic presents an integral case study of radioactive waste dangers and could help to address similar issues in other territories.
In total, the Kyrgyz Republic has 70 radioactive waste sites, including 36 uranium tailings sites. The Kyrgyz Emergencies Ministry, however, states that there are "92 waste dumps [holding] 254 million cubic metres (475 million tonnes) of waste." The primary concerns that are voiced about these sites relate to environmental and health dangers, especially due to the proximity of the waste sites to densely populated areas. Of particular concern is the Mayluu-Suu tailings site, which is located only 30 kilometers (km) from Uzbekistan on the northeastern border of the Ferghana Valley. The health and environmental risks are widely addressed in international forums, although the security element is less often discussed.
The security risks include the possible terrorist theft of radioactive materials. Although the Republic does not possess highly-enriched uranium (which can be used to produce nuclear weapons), it does harbor radioactive materials that have been abandoned in sealed or unsealed sources or are poorly secured within non-operational mining facilities. In 2005, the Kyrgyz Republic reported that, with assistance from the United States and in cooperation with the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), it had secured or disposed of 1,000 items containing radioactive material believed to be vulnerable to theft. However, according to Kyrgyz authorities, there were still 500 more items to secure. They also noted that an unidentified amount of material is still missing. One cannot rule out the possibility that this material remains inadequately secured in numerous facilities in the Kyrgyz Republic, and the recent history of the area is replete with examples of theft and smuggling of such material across transnational boundaries. The main obstacles in securing the materials are lack of knowledge about the risks they pose and an inadequate inventory of potential radioactive sources, including uranium tailings sites, in the Kyrgyz Republic, and throughout Central Asia.
The information provided about the contents of the sites is scant; it is established that a significant amount of radioactive waste remains throughout Kyrgyz territory, although the contents (including possible mining equipment) are not wholly accounted for. Reports indicate that the isotopes within the Mayluu-Suu site's tailings include thorium, copper, arsenic, selenium, lead, nickel, zinc, radium, and uranium. These isotopes are of an environmental, although not a physical security concern; however, it is unclear if these environmentally toxic isotopes are the extent of radioactive items that exist in the Kyrgyz Republic and other Central Asian territories. Additionally, most of the sites have no security measures, allowing the general population to scavenge for radioactive metals and other waste. This lack of security also could result in intentional sabotage of the tailings to cause environmental degradation.
The additional, unknown radioactive sources that may exist on Kyrgyz territory, however, could pose a security threat, as certain mining equipment contains cobalt-60 and cesium-137, isotopes that would make attractive dirty bomb components. Although much work is being done to assess the environmental impact (e.g., soil and water samples taken near mining sites), an actual inventory of potentially dangerous RDD materials remains to be done. Indeed, much of the "original documentation about the content and structure of the tailings impoundments is missing or inaccessible."
The government of the Kyrgyz Republic recognizes the danger of unauthorized access to the radioactive waste sites and abandoned mines by scrap metal scavengers who "open up RW storage facilities and break into abandoned uranium mines and underground workings in order to extract contaminated metal, electro-technical equipment and cables from them." This government statement does not establish that there are RDD components within the territory, but it hints that there might be. Indeed, smuggling incidents attest that these materials are surfacing in the Kyrgyz Republic, although their source is not always within its boundaries.
Incidents of Smuggling and Potential Orphan Sources
Various incidents of smuggling have transpired in recent years, from very minor to extremely dangerous threats warranting IAEA investigation. Below are several examples of such incidents.
In December 2007, cesium-137 was "found on a train carrying ferrous scrap metal from the Kyrgyz Republic." It was scheduled to be transported to Iran. Litter and dust were actually the sources of the radioactive cesium emissions within the train, while other reports suggest the source was food-irradiation equipment. The material, cesium-137, is one of the most desirable ingredients for an RDD, and as such, the incident came to the attention of the IAEA, which appears to still be investigating the matter.
Another source of potential radioactive material comes from the decades-old Gamma Kolos program, initiated by the former Soviet Union as an agricultural research project, and which also involved the use of radioactive cesium-137. In a study several years ago, for which new information is largely unavailable, the concern was presented that "none of the cesium devices is known to have been stolen, but in some Central Asian states there are no records showing how many of the devices exist or what happened to them. Estimates of the total number of devices vary from 100 to 1,000."
An earlier example from September 2004 involves a Kyrgyz national, who was caught attempting to sell weapons-grade plutonium. Investigators determined the source of the plutonium-239 could not have been within Kyrgyz territory; however, the case illustrates the apparent ease with which citizens of Newly Independent States could obtain and peddle radioactive material originating outside their ownterritory.
Islamic Extremists and Terrorist Groups Operating in the Kyrgyz Republic
The threat of terrorist acquisition of radiological materials in the Kyrgyz Republic should not be discounted, especially in light of the illicit smuggling incidents as mentioned above and the proximity to likely Central Asian drug routes (in the south of the country where Mayluu-Suu tailings are located) which could be used for smuggling radioactive materials. The inadequate security maintained at uranium tailing sites could pose a serious proliferation threat from acquisition by terrorist groups, depending upon the level of radioactivity in materials that have been abandoned.
Many groups operate in and around the territory of the Kyrgyz Republic, including Al-Qaeda. The following terrorist and Islamic extremist groups also pose a threat to the region: Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan, Eastern Turkistan Islamic Movement, and Hizb-ut-Tahrir. Many analysts point to the fact that terrorist groups are being forced from the Afghanistan-Pakistan border areas and are "actively pursuing their agenda in Central Asia following the intensified attacks by the ISAF [International Security Assistance Force] in Afghanistan and Pakistan." In July 2009, Kyrgyz authorities arrested 18 people accused of assisting international terrorist groups. Many of those detained had been trained in Afghanistan.
Of particular note is Hizb ut-Tahrir, which has grown in number by 10,000 recruits worldwide over the last two years, but which also has a significant presence in the Kyrgyz Republic and other countries in Central Asia. Analysts point to the risk that this group might collaborate with Al-Qaeda. Ariel Cohen notes that a "Hizb takeover of any Central Asian state could provide the global radical Islamist movement with a geographic base and access to the expertise and technology to manufacture weapons of mass destruction." A takeover by this group of any Central Asian state might be overstating the threat; however, its possible impact in the region should not be underestimated, as it is difficult at this point to gauge Hizb ut-Tahrir's influence.
There are also indications that this group might encourage use of weapons of mass destruction, in addition to the use of radiological materials for an RDD. The United States does not yet classify Hizb ut-Tahrir as a terrorist group; however, source documents of Hizb ut-Tahrir ideologists indicate that the group supports terrorism and encourages the acquisition of bomb materials. While it is not certain that this group professes terrorism, the group deserves mention as a potential future threat. The State Department cited Hizb ut-Tahrir as an emerging and threatening group in the region in its Country Terrorism report released in 2008.
The primary threat present within the post-Soviet Central Asian Republics is the presence of splinter extremist Islamic groups believed to have links with the Taliban and Al-Qaeda. Such incursions in the region have particularly intensified after military operations against the Talilban and Al-Qaeda in Afghanistan, and more recently, in Pakistan.
In reference to Central Asia, Osama bin Laden has stated:
It is fact [sic] that the Islamic Republics region is rich with significant scientific experiences in conventional and nonconventional military industries, which will have a great role in future Jihad against the enemies of Islam.
The same source states that bin Laden viewed the former Soviet Central Asian Republics as "a happy hunting ground in which to seek WMD components." In November 2008, British intelligence agency MI6 warned that Islamic terrorists were intent on and were in fact closer to acquiring radioactive materials for a dirty bomb. The extent of Al-Qaeda's presence in the Central Asian region is not established, but again it cannot be ruled out that this group might choose Central Asia as its source of radioactive materials.
At a Kyrgyz government session in February 2008, the Minister of Emergency Situations made the following statement, when he requested security for the tailings sites: "If we do not guard the tailings dump and refuse, then the radioactive materials can become tools in the hands of extremist groups and terrorists." At this level of government, it seems that the threat is taken seriously, although again, it is unclear precisely which radioactive materials are involved.
National Obligations and International Cooperative Measures
As affirmed in the IAEA Implementing Guide on the Physical Protection of Radioactive Waste, every state has a responsibility to provide an adequate physical protection of radioactive waste within its territory or under its jurisdiction in order to reduce the risk of malicious acts involving these materials. This goes hand in hand with UN Security Council Resolution 1540 (UNSCR 1540), which calls for states "to take cooperative action to prevent illicit trafficking in nuclear, chemical or biological weapons, their means of delivery, and related materials." The key phrase here that applies to uranium tailings and their potential use for radiological materials is "related materials," which the resolution defines as "materials, equipment and technology covered by relevant multilateral treaties and arrangements, or included on national control lists, which could be used for the design, development, production or use of nuclear, chemical and biological weapons and their means of delivery."
Within the legislative documents report deposited by the Kyrgyz Republic to the United Nations, the government points to numerous laws prohibiting the manufacturing, acquisition, possession, stockpiling, and various other illegal uses of nuclear and radiological materials that fall within the guidelines of UNSCR 1540. The primary laws governing such activities include Articles 239 and 240 of the Kyrgyz Republic Criminal Code, which cover the "unlawful handling," theft, and extortion of radioactive materials. In regards to radioactive waste (such as tailings) the regulations that are established in the Republic are largely "focused on safety and may not address physical protection and security."
In September 2007, the governments of the United States and the Kyrgyz Republic signed a "Program of Cooperation on Combating the Smuggling of Nuclear and Radioactive Materials." The Nuclear Smuggling Outreach Initiative (NSOI) set the groundwork for the action plan, which involves 20 steps (including pre-existing and new initiatives) to enhance radioactive security in the Republic. The primary projects that still require funding include efforts: "to remove vulnerable radioactive sources from circulation if they are no longer in use and to enhance security for those sources still in use;" "to reduce the risk of illicit trafficking of nuclear and radioactive materials at airports and border crossings;" and "to decrease opportunities for corruption among personnel combating nuclear smuggling and reduce the influence of corruption on anti-smuggling assistance programs."
Additionally, a Memorandum of Understanding between the United States and the Kyrgyz Republic concerning Prevention of Illicit Trafficking in Nuclear and Other Radioactive Material was signed on August 15, 2008.
Another important measure addressing the problem of uranium tailings appears in the language of the Central Asian Nuclear Weapon Free Zone (CANWFZ) Treaty, of which the Kyrgyz Republic is a member. The treaty was opened for signature in September 2006 and entered into force in March 2009. The CANFWZ specifically mentions the imperative of dealing with uranium tailings. In the Preamble to the treaty, a purpose of the CANFWZ is "...promoting cooperation in the environmental rehabilitation of territories affected by radioactive contamination..." Article 6 in the body of the treaty specifically addresses environmental security: "Each party undertakes to assist any efforts toward the environmental rehabilitation of territories contaminated as a result of past activities related to the development, production or storage of nuclear weapons or other nuclear explosive devices, in particular uranium tailings storage sites and nuclear test sites."
Also of importance is the October 2008 draft resolution of the CANWFZ, in which the parties "[welcome] the convening of an international conference on the problem of uranium tailings, to be held in Bishkek in 2009, and calls upon the specialized agencies of the United Nations and other stakeholders to participate in that conference." At the 2009 Substantive Session of the Disarmament Commission, the Kyrgyz Republic representative, Nurbek Jeenbaev, reiterated his country's commitment to the clean-up of radioactive waste at uranium tailing sites, and pointed to the conference in Bishkek and the international forum to be held in Geneva on June 29 that would address the same problem.
In 2009, two high-level events addressing the tailings problem took place in Bishkek and Geneva. In April, the Kyrgyz government, with the participation of the United Nations Development Program (UNDP) in the Kyrgyz Republic as well as officials from Kazakhstan, Tajikistan, and Uzbekistan, and a number of international organizations, held a regional conference called "Uranium Tailings: Local Problems, Regional Consequences and Global Solutions." This conference resulted in the adoption of a plan for cleaning up the tailings and development of a number of recommendations that were then presented in June at the High-Level International Forum held under the same name in Geneva. This forum was organized by the UNDP in conjunction with the Kyrgyz Republic, Tajikistan, Kazakhstan, and Uzbekistan, and coordinated by the IAEA, the Eurasian Economic Community (EurAsEC), the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), and the European Union's Executive Commission.
The Bishkek conference participants focused primarily on humanitarian measures rather than security issues related to radioactive materials, although they released a Framework Document that noted: "UN organizations and the international community have expressed interest in these issues not only to prevent ecological hazards on a national and regional scale and the risk of a humanitarian crisis and to guarantee sustainable development of countries in the CA [Central Asian] region, but also to prevent the risk of RW being used by extremists and terrorists." The conference resulted in a number of important conclusions: 1) laws pertaining to uranium tailing rehabilitation require further development and elaboration; 2) current government handling of the situation indicates that there is confusion and overlap in allocation of resources; 3) the financial resources are inadequate to address the problem; 4) an adequate inventory of existing materials does not yet exist; 5) a safety assessment of adequate scope has not yet been carried out; and 6) a monitoring program must still be developed to assess radiological, ecological and geotechnical safety. The conference participants also noted the lack of equipment for monitoring and measuring radioactivity, as well as a lack of staff, particularly scientific experts. However, they placed the greatest emphasis on the lack of financial resources, which accordingly debilitates the entire radioactive monitoring system.
The framework document developed during the conference in Bishkek served as the basis for the international forum in Geneva on June 29. During the forum, Kyrgyz Prime Minister Igor Chudinov emphasized the need "to ensure further compatibility of national legislation with the best international standards relating to the problem of nuclear non-proliferation and prevention of illicit transfer and use of radioactive and other highly toxic materials for terrorist purposes." Chudinov announced the government's intention to establish "an agency for nuclear and radiation safety." He also highlighted investment projects as a method for combating environmental degradation and spurring economic growth. The participants at the forum released a Joint Declaration, which called for financial support from interested donors and international organizations for remediation of the hazardous tailings.
Recently, at the 64th Session of the UN General Assembly, the Kyrgyz government submitted a draft resolution entitled "On the role of the international community in the prevention of the radiation threat in Central Asia." Although it has not yet passed, Chudinov in his statement to the General Assembly indicated that the Kyrgyz people "hope for timely support, including sufficient financial, technical and other aid to region, [sic] from our international partners to help us eradicate the problem of uranium tailing dumps."
In 2004, The World Bank donated $6.9 million to the Kyrgyz Republic for "research, planning and surveying and practical measures" targeted at Mayluu-Suu, perhaps the tailings site posing the largest threat in the Republic. The project, called "Prevention of extreme situations," involves the transfer of two tailings of primary concern to a safer site by 2010. The Czech Republic, Germany, and the United States have donated an additional $600,000 for technical assistance. The European Union also has provided, and suggested it will continue to provide support to the four Central Asian countries (the Kyrgyz Republic, Tajikistan, Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan) most affected by the tailings problem.
The OSCE, in addition to funding conferences aimed at tailings remediation, has also worked on economic sustainability projects with the Kyrgyz government.
Rosatom, a Russian company, has directly invested in the cleanup of the tailings. The company is preparing a project "developed in the framework of the EurAsEC for reclamation of hazardous tailings in Kyrgyz Republic and Tajikistan in order to reduce the risks for the people and the environment associated with radioactive burials. Since 2008, Russia has allocated about 60 million rubles [$2 million] for the nuclear research in the Kyrgyz Republic. The project is designed for six years; in its entirety it will require 28 million dollars."
In 2006, the NATO Science for Peace and Security Program initiated a project called "Uranium Extraction and Environmental Security in Central Asian Republics," which examines the scientific significance of the uranium tailings and the extent to which the population is being affected. Some of this program's activities "[involve] determining how radionuclides migrate, the extent of local contamination and the doses to which different population groups have been exposed."
The International Science and Technology Center (ISTC) provided $48.5 million for 140 projects related to Radioactive Waste Management for various Central Asian countries. According to the ISTC website, in regards to tailings in particular, the ISTC funded 19 projects for a total of $4 million. Most of the funds were directed towards monitoring and development of the sites.
Despite these contributions, the Kyrgyz Republic needs additional funds to remediate the tailings problem. For example, UNDP estimates that at least $40 million would be required to address high priority sites, such as Mayluu-Suu, for reclamation. Furthermore, the total provided to date specifically for mining clean-up is insufficient.
The 2009 Bishkek conference's conclusions on uranium tailings and the subsequent Joint Declaration that resulted might boost international aid to the Kyrgyz Republic and other Central Asian countries for addressing the problems of their Soviet-era nuclear legacy. Various governments, including Canada, Finland, and Norway (in addition to the organizations that held the forum) indicated their support for future uranium tailings projects. Finally, the role of the private sector has been examined as a partial solution to the remediation of the tailings. At the conference in Bishkek, the idea of private investment in reprocessing of tailings was suggested as a potential means for garnering profit for possible remediation projects.
Whether the international community will continue to support the measures undertaken by the Kyrgyz Republic remains to be seen. Important strides are being made in the environmental realm, while the potential (and unconfirmed) security threat is less of a focus at international conferences; however, it is clear that increased attention and financial assistance are focused on the Kyrgyz Republic in particular due to its efforts in recent years to improve its situation.
Radioactive waste security in the Kyrgyz Republic and in other Central Asian territories is at a critical juncture, especially in view of growing Islamist ties in the region. This threat seems to be voiced at intermittent points by leading Kyrgyz officials, although there appears to be little coordinated effort to address radioactive security in the context of a terrorist threat. If this is indeed a serious threat, it is likely that an inventory of radioactive materials will need to be taken and incorporated into future efforts at waste clean-up. The security threat that officials keep hinting at may become a larger issue as attention continues to be focused on the region.
- Government of the Kyrgyz Republic: Framework Document, Preliminary Draft, "Uranium Tailings: Local Problems, Regional Consequences, Global Solution," www.uranium.kg.
- UNSCR 1540, United Nations, www.un.org.
- "UNSCR 1540 Implementation in Kyrgyzstan: Towards a National Action Plan," James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies, 26 September 2007, http://cns.miis.edu.
- Margarita V. Sevcik, "Uranium Tailings in Kyrgyzstan: Catalysts for Cooperation and Confidence Building?" The Nonproliferation Review, Spring, 2003. http://cns.miis.edu.
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- "Radiological Terrorism Tutorial," Nuclear Threat Initiative (NTI), www.nti.org.
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 Four isotopes "have enough cumulative radioactivity amounts in the un-recovered sources to raise the potential for a heightened security concern": these are: americium (Am)-241, cesium (Cs)-137, iridium (Ir)-192, and strontium (Sr)-90. For more information, see Charles D. Ferguson, et al., "Occasional Paper No. 11: Commercial Radioactive Sources: Surveying the Security Risks," James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies, January 2003, http://cns.miis.edu.
 These documents were returned to Russia after the dissolution of the Soviet Union.
 Saltanat Berdikeeva, "Enduring Radioactive Dangers in Central Asia," International Relations and Security Network, 2009, www.isn.ethz.ch.
 It is important to note that reports range from 70-92 in the total number of Kyrgyz radioactive waste dumps. "Central Asia: Conference maps out way forward on radioactive waste," IRIN, 2 October 2009, www.irinnews.org.
 Rob Broomy, "Kyrgyz Hunt for Radioactive Matter," BBC News, NTI Database, 7 October 2005.
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 "Radioactive Materials Getting Recycled Into Goods," Los Angeles Times, 12 November 2008, http://articles.latimes.com.
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 Government of the Kyrgyz Republic: Framework Document, Preliminary Draft, "Uranium Tailings: Local Problems, Regional Consequences, Global Solution," www.uranium.kg.
 Jonathan Tirone and Subramaniam Sharma, "Radioactive Beer Kegs Menace Public, Boost Costs for Recyclers," Bloomberg, 11 November 2008, www.beyondnuclear.org; and Jeffrey Donovan, "Kyrgyzstan: IAEA Seeks Answers to Radioactive Seizure," Radio Free Europe, 18 January 2008, www.rferl.org.
 Cesium-137 (Cs-137) is a byproduct of nuclear fission from reactors and can be used in medical devices. It has a half-life of 30.17 years and emits beta and gamma radiation. It is also one of the most effective isotopes to utilize in making a dirty bomb. Centers for Disease Control (CDC), www.bt.cdc.gov.
 Sergei Blagov, "Proliferation: All It Takes Is Thugs With Clubs," Asia Times, 23 January 2003, Center for Defense Information, www.cdi.org.
 Carolynne Wheeler, "Smuggler Seized in Kyrgyzstan with Weapons-Grade Plutonium," The Guardian, 30 September 2004, www.guardian.co.uk.
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 Roman Muzalevsky, "Kyrgyz Operation Against Imu Reveals Growing Terrorist Threat," 1 July 2009, Central Asia-Caucasus Institute, www.cacianalyst.org.
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 "Involvement of the private sector in the legacy tailings remediation in Central Asia: Reprocessing of tailings for recovery of valuable constituents," Kyrgyz Government.