Tag Archives: weapons-grade uranium

Where Waste Leaches into Water: uranium tailings in Central Asia

Mailuu Suu, Kyrgyzstan

Kyrgyzstan:   Dr Osekeeva’s 38 years practising family medicine in this idyllic-looking valley in southern Kyrgyzstan make her a cataloguer of death. Cancer rates are rising, she says, and she thinks she knows the culprit. Buried along the river in and around Mailuu-Suu, a town of some 20,000 people, lurks the poisonous legacy of the Soviet Union’s first atom bombs: 2m cubic metres of radioactive waste leaching into the water supply.  Mailuu-Suu was once closed to outsiders. Its well-paid workers were treated as members of the elite: they received perks such as handouts of beer and beach vacations in Crimea. Over the years, they mined and milled 10,000 tonnes of uranium ore into yellowcake, ready for conversion into bomb material. Uranium was also sent from as far as East Germany and Czechoslovakia to be processed here.

With the collapse of the Soviet Union and local industry in 1991, the specialists left. Supervision of the town’s 23 tailings sites—dumps containing the hazardous leftovers—became sporadic. Fences and warning signs have been looted for scrap metal. Today, cows graze atop the invisible menace. Goats sleep inside an abandoned uranium mineshaft. Local dairy products and meat are often unsafe; kitchen taps spew silty river water laced with heavy metals.

Neighbouring countries worry. The river through Mailuu-Suu is prone to earthquakes and floods. It is only about 15 miles (25km) upstream from Central Asia’s breadbasket, the Fergana Valley, which is home to over 10m people. Every few years landslides block the flow, threatening to flood the dumps and wash radionuclides over the melon patches and cornfields downstream. A European aid official warns of a “creeping environmental disaster”.

Mailuu-Suu is only a small part of the picture. Dotting hills above the Fergana—straddling the post-Soviet republics of Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan—lie dozens of other tailings dumps. Many also contain other heavy metals such as lead, arsenic and cadmium, which can be more dangerous to the body than radiation. Few are secured or monitored.

The three countries are hardly on speaking terms, so cross-border co-operation is non-existent. …Kyrgyzstan, however, has made a little progress. Between 2010 and 2012, an $8.4m World Bank-led project moved 150,000 cubic metres of waste from one of the most accident-prone tailings dumps in Mailuu-Suu to a safer spot up the hill. But locals complain they were not briefed properly about this. They say workers stirred up radioactive dust; many claim cancers have grown more frequent since the transfer.

The government is appealing to the European Union for $50m to deal with ten sites at Mailuu-Suu it says are in need of “urgent” relocation. Others estimate that even this relatively small project would cost hundreds of millions. Kyrgyz officials grumble that donors are slow to make decisions, spending millions on assessments that take years.

The International Atomic Energy Agency says the landslides and flooding make Mailuu-Suu “high risk” and a top priority. But donors can be forgiven for hesitating. Corruption and inertia have eroded many government institutions in Kyrgyzstan and its neighbours.

Uranium in Central Asia: Poisoned legacy, Economist, July 11, at 40

The Weapons-Grade Uranium of South Africa: more precious than gold

Yellowcake is a type of uranium concentrate powder obtained by the processing of uranium before fuel fabrication or enrichment.

In the early hours of 28 July 2012, three people, one of them an 82-year-old nun named Megan Rice, broke into the Y-12 Nuclear Security Complex near the city of Oak Ridge, Tennessee. Y-12 is where all of America’s highly enriched uranium (HEU) – for making nuclear weapons is stored… in November 2007, two groups of intruders cut through the security fences surrounding South Africa’s 118-acre Pelindaba Nuclear Research Centre, west of Pretoria. They got as far as the emergency operations centre before a barking dog alerted a stand-in security office….=

Pelindaba houses South Africa’s stockpile of HEU, which was extracted in 1990 from the six or seven nuclear bombs that the old National Party government had built. According to the Center for Public Integrity (CPI) report, the HEU was melted down and cast into ingots, which were stored at Pelindaba. Over the years, some of the HEU was used to make medical isotopes for sale…..

Now, according to the CPI report, about 220 kg of the HEU remains, with no immediate purpose. This gives Pretoria the theoretical ability to make nuclear weapons again. But what really bothers the US officials who the CPI interviewed is that terrorists could steal the HEU and use it to make nuclear weapons. The report says Pelindaba contains enough weapons-grade uranium to fuel half a dozen bombs, each powerful enough to obliterate central Washingt

…US President Barack Obama has been trying very hard since 2011 to persuade President Jacob Zuma to relinquish the HEU stockpile, as part of his global effort to mop up such fissile material from nuclear states.

So why won’t South Africa give up its HEU stockpile? …Pelindaba is now probably more secure than most US nuclear facilities – especially after the US spent nearly US$10 million in helping South Africa to upgrade security there after the 2007 break-in. … [T]he main reason Pretoria wants to keep its HEU is because ‘it’s a stick they are using to beat up on the US for not dismantling its own nuclear weapons.’

In the end though, the 220 kg of highly enriched uranium stored away in the depths of Pelindaba has much more than commercial or tactical value…the stockpile is a symbol of South Africa’s sovereignty, its power and its integrity: of its ability to use nuclear energy for peaceful purposes – and even of its technical ability to construct an atomic weapon. But also of its firm moral determination never to do so.  In that sense, the 220 kg of highly enriched uranium ingots are more precious to the African National Congress government than all the gold bullion in the Reserve Bank. They aren’t going anywhere.

Excerpt from Peter Fabricius, Foreign Editor, Independent Newspapers, South Africa ISS,  Why is Pretoria so jealously guarding it fissile material? Mar. 19, 2014