An Earthquake Could Send Radiation Into The Aral Sea At Any Moment

By Anthony Sfarra on Tuesday, March 22, 2016
Radioactive barrel in the ocean - 3D render
“Nuclear know-how without nuclear infrastructure doesn’t get you very much. A race car driver without a car can’t drive.” —Benjamin Netanyahu

In A Nutshell

Mailuu-Suu, Kyrgyzstan, is a town that was left horribly polluted by uranium mining during the Cold War. Residents live and work in unsafe levels of radiation to this day. The seismically active town’s situation could be exacerbated by an earthquake or landslide releasing radioactive waste, and radiation could even be carried by rivers all the way to the Aral Sea.

The Whole Bushel

Mailuu-Suu, a Kyrgyz town of about 25,000 people, was a lot busier during the Cold War than it is today. The town’s Zapadnyi Mining and Chemical Combine mined 10,000 tons of uranium for the USSR from 1946 to 1968.

All that mining produced a lot of radioactive tailings, which were dumped at seemingly random locations. There are 36 radioactive waste dumps in the Mailuu-Suu area, 26 of which are in town.

The dumping has made Mailuu-Suu one of the most polluted places in the world. Tailings Dump No. 3, the worst dumping site, was only meant to be a temporary repository. It has 20,000 times more radiation than normal in some locations.

Mailuu-Suu’s residents live and breathe radiation. They graze livestock in radioactive areas and build houses and roads with radioactive rock. Widespread poverty motivates many locals to take irradiated equipment from the town’s abandoned facilities and sell it as scrap.

Many townspeople don’t even know about the danger.

Others know but prefer not to think about it, as they have few other options than to live and work in contaminated areas. A number of residents recommend drinking vodka to counter the radiation.

Cancer rates in Mailuu-Suu are twice Kyrgyzstan’s average. The incidence of genetic defects in babies is four times greater. Radon levels are far greater than those considered safe for humans.

Worse yet, Mailuu-Suu’s radiation dangers won’t necessarily remain confined to the town. Kyrgyzstan experiences over 3,000 earthquakes per year, with major ones every 5–10 years. Mailuu-Suu is just as seismically active as the rest of Kyrgyzstan.

The town lies along a river and frequently experiences landslides and floods due to rain and melting snow. There is a persistent danger of an earthquake or landslide damaging one of the waste dumps and releasing radioactive contaminants. Any of the dumps flooding could release radiation, too.

If the released waste were to spill into the Mailuu-Suu River, which flows very quickly, it could contaminate everything downstream, traveling straight into Uzbekistan and affecting the drinking water of two million people. It’s also possible that the waste could reach the Syr Darya River and be carried to the Aral Sea, which is already rather polluted.

The river-contamination scenario already played out in 1958, when a landslide sent 500,000 cubic meters of radioactive waste into the Mailuu-Suu River. The river carried it into the Fergana Valley. The spill was kept secret from the public, so no one knows what effect it had on the population.

There have been other, smaller leaks and close calls. In 1992, 1,000 cubic meters (35,000 ft3) of waste fell into the river after a landslide. A number of dumps were almost flooded in May 2002 when a landslide dammed the river.

On April 13, 2005, an earthquake triggered a 300,000-cubic-meter landslide dangerously close to Tailings Dump No. 3. It blocked both the Mailuu-Suu River and a road leading to a nearby village.

The dump’s close shave prompted environmental scientists and government officials to descend upon the town and check for radiation. Luckily, this time, the readings were normal (presumably by Mailuu-Suu standards). The frequency of these incidents is worrisome—Mailuu-Suu seems like a disaster just waiting to happen.

Show Me The Proof

The Nuclear Chain: Mailuu-Suu, Kyrgyzstan
NPR: Kyrgyz Town Lives with Radioactive Soviet Legacy
New Internationalist: Toxic time bomb
World Health Organization: Main hazards and health threats in Kyrgyzstan
IRIN: Mailuu-Suu closely monitored following recent landslide