The Environmental Remediation Account for Central Asia (ERA) was established in 2015 at the initiative of the European Commission and became operational in 2016. The aim of the account is to pool donor funds to assist the Kyrgyz Republic, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan to remediate some of the most dangerous sites left by Soviet era uranium production in these countries.
Central Asia served as an important source for uranium in the former Soviet Union. Uranium was mined for over 50 years and uranium ore was also imported from other countries for processing. A large amount of radioactively contaminated material was placed in mining waste dumps and tailing sites. Most of the mines were closed by 1995 but very little remediation was done prior to or after closure of the mining and milling operations.
The accumulated amount of radioactively contaminated material in the region is a threat to the environment and to the health of the population as also recognized by the 2013 UN resolution 68/218, calling for international community to assist Central Asia with addressing this urgent issue. The status of the mining and processing sites is degrading further over time and monitoring and maintenance activities have ceased at many sites.
The hazards associated with uranium tailings which are unprotected or not well maintained are radon emissions and seepage of radionuclides, gamma-radiation emitters, heavy metals and other contaminants with possible pollution of ground and surface water.
The radioactive waste legacy represents a serious hazard in Central Asia.
In 2015 the EBRD established a multi-donor environmental fund, which aims to protect people and environment by remediating the most dangerous sites.
In addition, a breach of tailing impoundments may result in a release of a flood of tailings which may cause widespread contamination of waterways and land. Many of the uranium legacy sites in Central Asia are concentrated along the tributaries to the Syr Darya River which runs through the densely-populated Fergana Valley, the agricultural centre of the region which is shared by the Kyrgyz Republic, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan.
ERA activities will build on results of international cooperation and in particular on:
Achievements of the international Coordination Group for Uranium Legacy Sites which brings together affected countries, international organizations like the IAEA and EBRD as well as bilateral donors. A first important outcome of this cooperation was a baseline document providing an overview of the situation at various sites and remediation requirements. This document has been developed into a Strategic Masterplan which contains detailed analysis as well as cost and schedule estimates for priority remediation tasks.
- Feasibility studies and environmental impact assessments for selected sites in the three countries carried out by expert organizations for the European Commission.
The EBRD has concluded Framework Agreements with the Kyrgyz Republic, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan creating the legal basis for ERA operations pending ratification. Work has started with the Kyrgyz Ministry of Emergency Situations to set up a dedicated project management unit to oversee remediation at the Min-Kush, Shekaftar and Mailuu-Suu.
ERA currently holds insufficient funds to implement large scale remediation projects. Governments of the affected countries, supported by the European Commission and the EBRD, will continue to work together and raise awareness of the issue and plan a high level donor conference in the second half of 2018.