April 3rd, 2015 Sections: Geography, Soviet Union
A billet of highly enriched uranium

A billet of highly enriched uranium

Uranium is a silvery-grey metallic chemical element which is generally known due to the fact that it is mildly radioactive and for is used in the nuclear industries – including for nuclear weapons.

Uranium is mined in various places throughout the world and some sites in Kyrgyzstan were mined during the soviet period, but uranium mining and processing is no longer economical, leaving much of the local population in the areas surrounding the mines without meaningful work.  There are, however, plans to develop some of the deposits to be found in the Republic, itself and several companies have granted licenses to exploit these.

Two of the places where Uranium was mined in Soviet times were:

… at Min Kush – 1000 birds – in the Central Tien Shan, in the Naryn oblast.  Although it is currently “off the beaten track”, up a cul-de-sac off the Kekemeren valley, but that is due to change with the construction of the new, alternative North-South Route which will run from Balikchy to Djalal Abad down the Western side of the Son Kul Plateau.

During the Soviet period, the Uranium was mined and a prosperous mining settlement was established in the valley, in 1953. It is often quoted, with pride, that uranium from Min Kush was used in the first space rockets … but not so often acknowledged that another first was that it was also Min Kush uranium that was used in the first Soviet atomic bomb.  The mine has now closed, many of the buildings deserted or dismantled, (sold as scrap or even as bricks), many of the residents have left looking for jobs elsewhere, according to a recent interview with one of the residents, there hasn’t been a wedding toi,(wedding reception), in the settlement since the collapse of the Soviet Union.

… at Kadjii Sai – on the Southern shores of Lake Issyk Kul.  A Uranium mine and processing ill was opened here in 1947 to provide fuel for the Soviet atom bomb … but the uranium turned out to be low grade and in the 1960s the facility was closed down.  The population was re-assigned to service the coal mines and an experimental plant producing electro-technical equipment which was considered to be of national importance, but ceased operation in 1995.  Apparently, the site is not very well secured, and it is said that when rains, (which, fortunately, does not happen often), radioactive water flows to the lake.

Kyrgyzstan is probably more important, however, as a center for processing the mineral.

The main center for this is in Kara Balta, (about 60km to the west of the capital, Bishkek), by the processing plant of the Kara-Balta Ore Mining Combine, which is the largest such plant in Central Asia. During the soviet period it processed ore from deposits in Kyrgyzstan and Kazakhstan.  With the closure of the Kyrgyz mines after independence the plant was able to continue working, processing ore from Kazakhstan, (until 2005, that is, when this activity was stopped due to the lack of raw material), gold and other ores.  It currently processes about 450 tons of ore a year, operating at about just 35% of it’s capacity.  There are plans to increase production, and in 2004, there was a controversy about a proposal for the reception of nuclear waste from the UK.  in particular in co-operation with Russia and Kazakhstan – ore from the Chui-Sarisu deposit in Kazakhstan will be shipped to the complex for processing and then transported to Russia.

In recent years, there has been a lot of attention paid to waste dump sites where it is felt that conditions in the storage of uranium during the Soviet period are deteriorating.  One particular site, at Mailuu Suu in the Djalal Abad oblast has caused particular concern due the threat of landslides and it was declared to be one of the 10 most polluted sites in the world in a study published on October 2006.  Substantial investments will be needed to secure the “tailings pits” on the tectonically unstable hillside above the town to prevent them from emptying upon the town and river below.  Several governments and international organizations have committed to assist in the USD20-25 million project to make the site “safe”.


There were a couple of incidents in 2008 which caused widespread concern worldwide when radioactive material was discovered in Kyrgyzstan – in one case as cargo on a train and another being bought, (supposedly as a souvenir), in a market.


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