For more than 30 years during the days of the Soviet Union, miners extracted uranium from sites in and around the small city of Maili-Suu in Kyrgyzstan. Years after the mines have closed and the Soviet Union is no more, Kyrgyzystan has been left with mountains of radioactive waste.
The Maili-Suu River runs through a small canyon in Kyrgyzstan and makes its way to the Ferghana Valley. The valley is the breadbasket of Central Asia, rich with fruit trees, vegetable crops, and white with cotton plants. Children in Maili-Suu often take a dip in the river to cool off during the scorching hot summer months.
But despite the beauty of the area, Maili-Suu is perhaps best known in Kyrgyzystan for an entirely different reason - the environmental damage done by years of uranium mining.
Isabek Torguev, a scientist, is the director of the Geopribor Institute in the Kyrgyz capital of Bishkek. He has been investigating the damage done to Maili-Suu.
Standing on top of one of the radioactive waste dumps, he gestured to the mountains around him and said uranium was all over this area.
The Soviets mined uranium here from 1934 until 1968. During the mining process, radioactive rocks and dirt are also dug up. This material, called "tailings," was disposed of in and around the city. The Soviets simply dug a hole, dumped the material in it and covered it with a thin layer of dirt or clay. There are 23 of these radioactive dumps on either side of the Maili-Suu River, which runs through the center of town.
A group of scientists from Belgium is studying the dumps and will make a recommendation about what should be done. It is the first such study since independence 10 years ago.
Holger Quarch is part of the Belgian team. He says the group has already discovered that one of the dumps is half-liquid and half-solid. That means water has been seeping into the radioactive waste for years. When the water comes out, Mr. Quarch says, it is possibly contaminated and runs into the river below. "That makes everything more difficult," he said, "that makes it more difficult to remove, but it also places a more serious burden on the environment, because of seepage of contaminated water through the tailings dam.
But the scientists' biggest concern is the sturdiness of the dumps. They fear that at any second one of them could collapse, sending radioactive waste into the river.
Ashir Abdullaev is the head of civil defense in Maili-Suu. He says this would be a problem, not just for the surrounding area, but for other countries in Central Asia.
Neighboring Uzbekistan is downstream from Maili-Suu and depends on the river for drinking water, as well as for irrigating its multi-million-dollar cotton industry. Kyrgyzystan would like some financial help from Uzbekistan to deal with the problem.
Mr. Abdullaev said Kyrgyz officials have often discussed the Maili-Suu question with their Uzbek neighbors and Uzbek officials [often] come over to take a look. But in terms of practical help and money, Kyrgyzstan receives nothing from Uzbekistan.
During Soviet times, Maili-Suu was a closed city. People from neighboring towns were not allowed to enter; everyone who worked there had special clearance from the KGB.
In 1958, Kyrgyz officials say there was a flood in Maili-Suu that killed a number of people and swept away many houses. But the Soviets were so secretive about the area that Kyrgyz officials never learned what caused the flooding or if it damaged any of the radioactive waste dumps.
As for the mines, most of the work was done without any safety equipment. The miners simply picked up the rocks of uranium with their bare hands.
Almost 99-percent of the people involved in operating the mines were Russian, because Moscow rarely trusted non-Russians to work in such sensitive locations and because most of the specialists came from Russia.
A number of German prisoners of war were brought to Central Asia after World War II and many lived in Maili-Suu. Almost all returned to Germany after the end of the Soviet Union.
According to Nimatulla Mambetov, Maili-Suu's chief doctor, the waste dumps are a serious health concern. He says the cancer rate in Maili-Suu is about two to three-times higher than in other parts of the country, but he says this could also be because so many people in the town worked in the uranium mines.
For now, officials do not think it is dangerous to breathe the air in the city. In the spring, a group of scientists measured radioactive levels on top of many of the dump sites. According to Mykola Melenensky, an environmental officer for the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, some of the levels were up to seven-times higher than the acceptable norm. But in the rest of the city, the levels have been found to be within normal range.
There is no official estimate on how much it might cost to clean up the site, but environment official Isabek Torguev says it may cost about $16 million to $18 million - a huge sum for a country where the vast majority of people live below the poverty line.