Tracking Central Asia’s Nuclear Traces

by Joshua Foust on 5/8/2009 · 1 comment

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Recently, three Chinese tourists from Xinjiang bought a 600-lb piece of “glittering treasure” at a flea market in Kyrgyzstan. Upon sending a piece of it to a lab at Tsinghua University in Beijing, they discovered it was an enormous hunk of depleted uranium. The tourists were unharmed, and the police chose to take no action since there was no criminal intent. While depleted uranium itself is relatively harmless—despite some concerns about trace amounts entering the food or water it is not a serious health or environmental hazard and is in fact used as radiation shielding—the incident has prompted increased concern about just how regulated and monitored the nuclear materials market in Central Asia really is.

These concerns have become grave enough for the OSCE to draft proposals for regional institutions to address the problems stemming from nuclear trace materials. It is important: last year a train bound for Iran from Kyrgyzstan was stopped at the border with Uzbekistan when sensors at the border crossing detected high amounts of radiation emanating from an empty car. While the train was isolated and eventually returned to Kyrgyzstan for decontamination, the question remains: how did so much Cesium-137 go undetected in Kyrgyzstan, or through two supposedly secure border checkpoints in Kazakhstan, only being stopped in Uzbekistan?

Indeed, Kyrgyzstan seems to be at the center of many nuclear security lapses in the region. Facilities like Kara-Balta or Mailii-Suu are little more than defunct uranium extraction and processing facilities with lots of random waste areas and tailings ponds that pose a significant environmental hazard to their respective areas. Luckily, the Kyrgyz government recognizes the problem these old facilities pose, and has begun devising a plan to handle their nuclear waste products. While a welcome development, there remains a great deal of uncertainty about just how well they’ll be able to control their nuclear waste—especially considering that Chinese tourists can waltz into a bazaar and buy hundreds of pounds of it.

Tracking nuclear waste products is just as important as tracking enriched uranium (something the international community still does poorly). While so-called “dirty bombs” are not the catastrophic weapons they’re sometimes hyped to be, even a small one can have devastating political and economic consequences for an area. Knowing that they are still fairly uncontrolled after decades of concern is not particularly encouraging, but with some luck the new organizations the Kyrgyz and Kazakh governments are creating, along with the OSCE serving as a coordinator might be able to establish better control of the Soviet Union’s nuclear legacy.

Registan.net’s previous coverage of regional nuclear issues is here.

(Photo: the Mailii-Suu plant, Kyrgyzstan, courtesy Blogtrotters. Blogtrotters’ excellent French-language blog about the environmental problems in Kyrgyzstan is here.)


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This post was written by...

– author of 1848 posts on 17_PersonNotFound.

Joshua Foust is a Fellow at the American Security Project and the author of Afghanistan Journal: Selections from Registan.net. His research focuses primarily on Central and South Asia. Joshua is a correspondent for The Atlantic and a columnist for PBS Need to Know. Joshua appears regularly on the BBC World News, Aljazeera, and international public radio. Joshua's writing has appeared in the Columbia Journalism Review, Foreign Policy’s AfPak Channel, the New York Times, Reuters, and the Christian Science Monitor. Follow him on twitter: @joshuafoust

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{ 1 comment }

John May 9, 2009 at 6:47 pm

Sorry, gotta throw the BS flag on this depleted uranium story.

They “sliced” off a hunk? With their pocket knife? Probably not.
Uranium tailings, maybe, Uraninite or pitchblende, maybe. Depleted Uranium? Not likely.

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