Abandoned Uranium Mine in Kyrgyzstan

On the shores of Lake Issyk-Kul in Kyrgyzstan, a landlocked country further away from the ocean than any other country in the world, a small village faces a highly radioactive Soviet legacy. The village of Kadji-Sai lies amidst an alien landscape of colourfully striped rock formations in what locals call the Fairy Tale Valley – but in reality is indicative of the presence of large amounts of uranium. In the 1950s a mine was built here to supply uranium ore to the enrichment plants that fuelled the Soviet nuclear arms race, which together with several other sites in Kyrgyzstan supplied 20% of the USSR’s uranium needs.

A thriving town was erected to house scientists, engineers and miners who were sent to this remote and desolate area to work. The inhabitants of Kadji-Sai were provided with all the necessary facilities – Russian-style houses, local hospitals and school busses to drive their children to school. A large metal cut-out in the shape of Lenin was placed on the surrounding mountains.

Facing harsh winters and scorching hot summers – Russian and Kyrgyz workers had a short lifespan. Although uranium ore itself has a low level of radioactivity, the nearby treatment plants produced high amounts of radioactive waste ‘tailings’ which were dumped in deep pits. A nearby cemetery still stands witness to the tragic fate of many of the inhabitants who died young or did not even survive childhood.

After Kyrgyzstan gained independence in 1991, the mine was abandoned and the 150,000 cubic metre tailings dump suffered from severe erosion. Radioactive soil started seeping into the lake while desert winds continue to blow up dangerous dust affecting the lungs of the poverty-stricken inhabitants who stayed behind. Locals have dug up the dump for metal debris and torn down fences. White mounds of uranium ore still lie on the surface unguarded – fuelling international fears that it could be stolen by those who want to create a dirty bomb. Despite attempts to clean up dozens such sites across Central Asia, children still play on the dump site today, amidst rusty playgrounds and the abandoned industrial machinery.

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