The Environmental Remediation Account for Central Asia (ERA) pools donor funds to help the Kyrgyz Republic, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan remediate the most dangerous uranium legacy sites left by Soviet-era uranium production in these countries.
The fund was established at the EBRD in 2015 at the initiative of the European Commission and became operational in 2016.
Central Asia served as an important source of uranium in the former Soviet Union. Uranium was mined for more than 50 years and uranium ore was imported from other countries for processing. A large amount of radioactive material was placed in mining waste dumps and tailing sites. Most of the mines were closed by 1995 but very little remediation was done before or after the mines were closed and milling operations ceased.
The accumulated amount of radioactive waste in the region is a threat to the environment and to the health of the population. Direct hazards include radon emissions and the seepage of radionuclides, gamma-radiation emitters, heavy metals and other contaminants into ground and surface water.
Climate change exacerbates the occurrence of landslides and flooding in Central Asia, and the region is prone to earthquakes. Such extreme events could have a direct impact on the uranium legacy sites, which are concentrated along the tributaries of the Syr Darya River, which runs through the densely populated Fergana Valley. This is the agricultural heart of the region, and is shared by the Kyrgyz Republic, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan. The entry of radioactive pollutants and heavy metals into the cross-border river system is a realistic fear and would cause an ecological disaster.
Two UN resolutions in 2013 and 2018 (68/218 and 73/238) have acknowledged the threat of the uranium legacy to the region and called on the international community to help Central Asia address this urgent issue.
Abandoned Soviet-era uranium mines and processing plants have left areas of Central Asia threatened by toxic waste dumps and radioactive contaminants.
The EBRD is at the forefront of work to clean up the sites to protect human health and the environment
The aim of the ERA is to remediate the seven highest priority uranium legacy sites in Central Asia. ERA operations are based on a solid foundation comprising:
a strategic master plan to resolve the uranium legacy developed under the leadership of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) and endorsed by the affected countries;
comprehensive environmental impact assessments and feasibility studies, funded by the European Union, for all seven sites; and
- strong cooperation with partners under the framework of the Coordination Group for Uranium Legacy Sites managed by the IAEA.
Preparatory works for the remediation of two pilot sites in the Kyrgyz Republic, located in and around the villages of Min-Kush (central Kyrgyz Republic) and Shekaftar (in the south of the country) were started in 2019. Both projects will be completed on budget and ahead of schedule by the end of 2021. The remediation of the third Kyrgyz site, a significantly more complex site located close to the border with Uzbekistan, is planned for 2022.
In Uzbekistan all the conditions for the start of ERA operations have now been met. A Project Management Unit will be established during September 2021 and the remediation works at the Yangiabad and Charkesar sites are expected to start in 2022.
The long-term ambition of the programme is to ensure that the legacy of uranium mining and processing in Central Asia is consigned to history so that the local populations can look forward to the future with confidence. While the fund has received very generous support from donors, sustained commitment and additional funding is needed to tackle the remaining and most risky sites in the region.