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Tajikistan's Former Soviet Nuclear Sites Pose Threat To Nearby Villages

  • Farangis Najibullah

A mound of radioactive waste 300 meters high rises above the town of Taboshar.

A mound of radioactive waste 300 meters high rises above the town of Taboshar.

The first Soviet atomic bomb, tested in 1949, was made from Tajik uranium.

Now Tajikistan is dealing with the dangerous legacy of its role in the Soviet nuclear program: 55 million tons of radioactive waste that, in some sites, is leaking into the soil and local water supplies.

Tajik and international specialists say the leaks pose a major risk to residents' health and the environment.

Most of the radioactive waste in Tajikistan comes from the country's Vostokredmet plant, in the northern city of Chkalovsk. The plant was built in 1945 to mine and process uranium from deposits in Tajikistan and other Central Asian republics.

Uranium processing often leaves a powder-like residue. Ideally, the powder is stored in properly sealed containers.

Tajikistan's northern Sughd region is home to 10 radioactive burial sites, eight of which have been sealed. But at the two remaining sites, loose powder from nuclear residue has simply been dumped in unsealed rooms, where it can blow through cracks or seep out into the ground during heavy rains or flooding.

Dangerous Sites

The two sites, located in the towns of Taboshar and Dehmoi, are near residential areas, and have remained unsealed despite being closed in 1992. The situation has raised concerns among officials from Tajikistan's Nuclear and Radiation Safety Agency (NRSA).

Taboshar residents queue for potable water.
Abdujabbor Salomov, the deputy head of the NRSA, says the risk of radioactive leaks in the area is "not catastrophic yet, but still very serious:"

Salomov adds that "during heavy rainfalls and strong winds, radioactive waste and dust gets spread throughout the area, and gets into the water. Sometimes the leaks go all the way to the Syr-Darya River. The dust has scattered all over the surrounding area."

Hundreds of millions of dollars are needed to seal off the Dehmoi and Taboshar sites. But such funding is far beyond the means of the country, which is one of the poorest in the former Soviet Union.

Currently, the sites are being regularly monitored by Tajik specialists as well as international organizations, notably the UN's International Atomic Energy Agency. Salomov insists that "everything is being done to control the risk, protect local residents and the environment, and raise people’s awareness.”

During the Soviet era, there was little public awareness of the threat of radioactive contamination or protection measures.

Radioactive storage sites were closed off to all but authorized personnel. Local residents often had no idea the storage sites were located near their homes, and that they posed a significant health risk.

After the collapse of the Soviet Union, the situation grew worse, as the sites were gradually abandoned. With no supervision, local people were free to enter the sites to search for precious metals. Their children played at the sites, and livestock was allowed to graze there.

Taking Toll On Residents

Health officials in Sughd say they have recorded higher numbers of cancer cases and skin diseases in Taboshar and Dehmoi. They suspect the rise in illness is linked to people's proximity to the waste sites.

Tajik officials several years ago adopted a national program to monitor and safeguard the toxic waste sites. But many Tajik doctors are concerned that safety measures remain inadequate and that many locals remain unaware of the risk of radioactive contamination.

A doctor working in the village of Ghoziyon, located near one of the sites, says many residents still do not take the dangers seriously. The doctor, who refused to give her name, says people tell her they have been frequently exposed to the sites, and have even come in contact with the loose powder residue stored in the facilities, with no ill-effects.

"People don't know it sometimes takes years until you see the harm that radioactive substances have done to your health," she says. “People should not be living here. But this a highly populated place."

"The radiation level is high there," she adds." I feel sorry for the children. Sheep herders pass through that area. Children go to look through the rubbish. I'm not sure all of them are local villagers, but you see many people wandering through there."

Local agencies, including the NRSA, have held meetings with residents and distributed brochures explaining the risks and recommending safety measures.

But Tajikistan is still many years, and millions of dollars, away from permanently sealing the sites. Until then, Tajik experts say all they can do is monitor the sites and hope nothing major -- like an earthquake or severe flooding -- takes place. But that, notes one local specialist, "is out of our control."