This is a call for developing low-tech solutions to treat water contaminated by uranium mining in low income, developing countries. After visiting Kyrgyzstan a few weeks ago, and talking to several residents, Boris Faybishenko (Earth & Environmental Sciences, LBNL) urges the scientific community to come up with simple solutions for treating uranium-and-radium contaminated water, whether for a rural home’s drinking water, or for a community water treatment plant. Anyone who is interested in this project should contact Boris (firstname.lastname@example.org) directly.
“During the field trip and from conversations with different people, I learned that one of the key issues for the population in the densely populated and poverty-stricken Ferghana Valley, shared by Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan, is that they have no access to clean drinking water. About 60% of the 10 million people in the valley have no safe water supply. There are many cases of various water-related diseases, as people drink water from irrigation channels and pools, or even water percolating through uranium tailings. Water is not only radioactively contaminated, but often is not filtered, as they don’t have even simple sanitation and filtering stations.”
Boris serves as a technical consultant to IAEA, a UN organization that promotes safe, secure and peaceful use of nuclear technologies. As part of an IAEA delegation, he traveled to Kyrgyzstan in May 2015, and taught a course to representatives from 15 countries of Eastern Europe and Middle Asia on remediation and contamination problems that occur after uranium mines shut down. He talked to them about uranium tailings’ problems and how to approach remediation: site characterization, modeling, slope stability, and groundwater remediation. During his visit, he recognized that the immediate need for the Kyrgyz people is to treat their contaminated drinking water.
It’s hard for outsiders to come in and invest, because Kyrgyzstan is dangerous: it’s crossed by the Central Asia narcotics route from Northern Afghanistan to Russia. The Kyrgyz people desperately need low-cost, low-tech, low-energy, portable treatment systems for drinking water.
Kyrgystan (also known as Kyrgyz Republic) is a former Soviet republic in Central Asia. It became an independent country in 1991. The Soviet Union had developed large uranium mining and milling facilities in Kyrgyzstan that served both Soviet industry and military. But with the Soviet Union collapse, many of these mines closed down, leaving exposed uranium-radium enriched mine tailings, and open mines leading to significant water contamination, both on surface and in groundwater. Many of these sites are dangerously close to streams and urban centers, and have already contaminated drinking water and food supplies for many people of Kyrgyzstan. The Kyrgyz don’t have the financial and technical resources to treat their water. The old Soviet water treatment plants have broken down, with no local expertise nor supplies for repair. And while there have been outside companies that have engaged in negotiations to reopen the uranium mines in exchange for remediation of mine sites and removal of tailings, the few deals made do not cover the many abandoned mines. So the Kyrgyz continue to face contaminated drinking water for the foreseeable future.
Photo credits: Gary Wealthall of Geosyntec, Inc., Canada, who also participated in the trip.