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(last updated 15 Nov 2020)



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Koshkar-Ata, Aktau · Krasnogorsk · Kurday · Tselinny · Zharkent
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Scientists concerned about lack of groundwater restoration after uranium in situ leaching in Kazakhstan

[...] This in situ leach (ISL) method avoids making a mess above ground, but leaves toxic levels of heavy metals in the ground water. In the US, companies using the method have tried for years and failed to return ground water to its pre-mining state. In Kazakhstan, a country that has seen the disastrous effects of the Soviet Union's use of nuclear testing and waste disposal, officials with the state-owned uranium company, Kazatomprom, express no concern about the legacy of its rapidly expanding use of ISL mining. They argue that natural processes will clean the mine site.

Scientists studying the effects of ISL doubt how quickly mine sites can self-cleanse. This uncertainty appears to be little known to both Kazakhstan's nuclear industry and fledgling environmentalists. In the near term, the stakes do not appear high: Kazakhstan's uranium mines are mostly located in deserted areas of an already sparsely populated country. But as the US learned in its own uranium-rich Southwest, population patterns and land use can change, potentially deferring an expensive cleanup or rendering some water resources unusable. "Kazakhstan is a growing country and the pollution could persist for up to thousands of years, and you just don't know in the future if people might live in the area," says Brian Reinsch, an environmental scientist researching ISL remediation methods in Kazakhstan. It could take natural processes between tens to thousands of years depending on the conditions at each mine site, says Dr. Reinsch. Active remediation efforts can shorten the time substantially, removing the uncertainty that comes with such longtime horizons.

ISL mining in many parts of the world involves some treatment of the solution that is left behind in the ore-bearing aquifers. If untreated, the solution could contain arsenic and cadmium at levels thousands of times higher than drinking water standards, says Gavin Mudd, an environmental engineer at Monash University in Australia. Arsenic can also be absorbed by plants, leaving the water unusable for irrigating crops. Over time, the contaminated water will gradually spread laterally – often at paces as slow as a meter per year – beyond the mining site. ISL mine sites are chosen in areas where there are barriers like clay above and below the ore deposit to prevent water from seeping vertically into new aquifers with higher quality water. But the clay layer is not entirely continuous, nor is it certain the mining acid wouldn't dissolve the clay, according to Reinsch. Furthermore, the mining process treats the ore-bearing aquifer like a pincushion, drilling holes all over the area. These are plugged up. But there is uncertainty about the spread of contamination over the long haul. "Even if we were monitoring for five or 10 years, that's nowhere near enough. We need literally hundreds of years of data of watching these sites to show yes, they are stable," says Dr. Mudd.
Kazatomprom officials say they don't share this doubt. "It's the other way around," says senior manager Kalilallo Baytasov, who notes companies must set aside funds in case cleanup is needed. "We extract ... uranium from the formation and send it to atomic reactors, so we are actually purifying the subsoil from heavy metals."

In 2012, Kazakhstan accounted for 35 percent of global uranium production, garnering $1.54 billion in uranium sales for Kazatomprom. China bought more than half of it. The company claims that "it has been unambiguously proved" that southern areas of Kazakhstan have "a unique capability of self-restoration."
But Susan Hall, a geologist with the US Geological Survey, says: "When I question them about what kind of work they've done to prove this concept, I don't get a clear response." [...] (The Christian Science Monitor Aug. 28, 2013)

Past uranium mining in Kazakhstan still causing elevated uranium concentrations in river water

Uranium series radionuclides in surface waters from the Shu river (Kazakhstan) , by Burkitbayev M, Uralbekov B, Nazarkulova S, et al., in: Journal of Environmental Monitoring Vol. 14, No. 4, April 1, 2012, p. 1189-1194

No groundwater restoration required for Kazakh in-situ leach uranium mines?

"Full self-recovery of soil within 12 years after completion of mining operations: It has been unambiguously proved that the natural hydrochemical environment of uranium deposits of South Kazakhstan has a unique capability of self-restoration from man-caused impact. Due to the eventual restoration of natural oxidation-reduction conditions there is a slow but irreversible process of recultivation of subsurface waters of ore-containing water horizons."
[Olga Gorbatenko, NAC "Kazatomprom": In-situ leaching method in uranium production in Kazakhstan, IAEA Technical Meeting on "The Implementation of Sustainable Global Best Practices in Uranium Mining and Processing" in cooperation with the WNA, TM-34970, 15 - 17 October 2008]


Akmola Province

General · Krasnogorsk · Tselinny


Plant for extraction of rare earths from uranium mill tailings, Stepnogorsk (Akmola Province)

Test production of rare earths from Kazakh uranium mine residues commenced: Japan's Sumitomo Corp. has commenced test production of rare earth elements in its joint venture (JV) with Kazatomprom, the national atomic energy company of Kazakhstan. In a statement sent to IM, a spokesperson for Sumitomo in Tokyo confirmed: "Currently, we are producing a small amount of rare earth materials on a trial basis since this June, and we are now making preparations to go into commercial production." Exports to Japan had been due to start in 2013, suggesting that the project is at present behind schedule.
The two companies set up Summit Atom Rare Earth Co. LLP (SARECO) in 2010 to recover rare earth elements within residues from Kazatomprom's uranium mines. The JV company built a new factory in 2012 to work alongside one of Kazatomprom's existing facilities, and in the same year announced an annual output target of 1,500 tonnes rare earth oxides in its initial years of operations, to be scaled up to 3,000 tonnes by 2015 and 5,000-6,000 tonnes by 2017 according to a SARECO announcement. (Industrial Minerals Oct. 17, 2014)

Plant for rare earth production from uranium-ore residue opened in Kazakhstan: Kazakhstan's state nuclear company and Japanese trading house Sumitomo Corp opened a new plant on Friday (Nov. 2) to produce rare earth metals. Summit Atom Rare Earth Co, a joint venture between Kazatomprom and Sumitomo, will produce 1,500 tonnes a year of rare earth oxides at a $30 million plant in the north of the Central Asian republic. Located in Stepnogorsk, near the capital Astana, the new plant intends to double annual production capacity to 3,000 tonnes by 2015, Kazatomprom said in a statement. By 2017, it would be capable of producing between 5,000 and 6,000 tonnes per year of rare earth oxides, it said. (Reuters Nov. 2, 2012)

> See also: Rare earth recovery project for Aktau uranium mill tailings


Krasnogorsk uranium mine, Yesilsk district, Akmola region

Carbon monoxide exhalation from former Krasnogorsk uranium mine identified as cause of mysterious sleeping sickness among village residents

A closed uranium mine was pinpointed as the culprit behind the outbreaks of a mysterious sleep-inducing disease that has plagued the residents of two villages in Kazakhstan since 2013.
"The cause of the disease... has been established. It's carbon monoxide," said Deputy Prime Minister Berdybek Saparbayev. "There used to be a uranium mine in the area, which is now closed. Occasionally it released carbon monoxide and hydrocarbon [sic, presumably methane] in high concentrations... That is when these 'sleepy disease' outbreaks happened."
Villagers at Kalachi and Krasnogorsky, which stand roughly 600 meters apart, started complaining about strange onsets of sleepiness, nausea and hallucinations in March 2013. Doctors had trouble diagnosing the disease that affected about one in 10 people.
The conclusion of the Kazakh researchers was independently confirmed in Moscow and Prague, Saparbayev said. The local authorities decided to move both villages to a safer location. (RIA Novosti July 11, 2015)

Carbon monoxide exhalation from former Krasnogorsk uranium mine suspected as cause of mysterious sleeping sickness among village residents

Scholars in Kazakhstan confirmed a hypothesis on the cause of "sleep illness", which affected many residents in the Kalachi village. According to the Novosti-Kazakhstan information agency, Viktor Kryukov, the former director of a shaft at the abandoned Krasnogorsk Uranium Mine, advanced a theory. Mr Kryukov assumes that the cause of falling asleep is carbon monoxide, which started surfacing through cracks in soil.
"This is a normal chemical reaction under the ground. Water was no longer pumped out of the shaft after its closure and it filled all the empty spaces over last 20 years. And we have left wood used for propping and reinforcing [shaft walls and ceilings] down there because it was [radioactive] from using in uranium mines, so it could no longer be used elsewhere. The wood started to oxidise in water and started emitting carbon monoxide (CO)".
In April 2015, a group of scientists from the geo- and radio-ecological research department under the National Nuclear Centre (NNC) drilled 12 boreholes in Kalachi to test Mr Kyurkov's theory. Samples were then examined at the National Nuclear Centre under the Radiation Safety and Ecology Institute. The findings lent support for Mr Kryukov's theory. NNC Deputy Director General Sergey Lukashenko said, "We identified increased contents of the CO carbon monoxide and hydrocarbon in the samples [collected] in Kalachi. I would formulate the cause of the 'sleep illness' in the following way: periodical inhalation of air with decreased concentration of oxygen and increased concentration of carbon monoxide and hydrocarbon. The most interesting part is that 'sleep illness' is not caused by one factor, but a composition of three factors does". (Fergana News May 27, 2015)


Tselinny uranium mill tailings

Lack of dust control at Tselinny tailings

The irrigation of the Tselinny uranium mill tailings became insufficient, since the uranium production of the mill was reduced in 1996. Today, only one third of the 800 hectares of tailings is being irrigated, and wind erosion of tailings has become a serious problem. Since neither the present owner, Joint-Stock Company "Kaz-Subtone", nor the local governments have sufficient funds available for continued irrigation, the allocation of the necessary 50 million Tenge (US$ 330,000) is now sought in parliament from the national budget. (SEU Times No. 3 (25), April 2002)


Mangystau Province

General · Koshkar-Ata, Aktau


Ore grades too low for revival of uranium mining in Mangistau Province

In spite of the strive of Kazakhstan's west to diversify itself away from oil, uranium mining is not going to be revived in Mangistau Oblast for the time being, reports Tengrinews citing the Oblast's Akim (Mayor) Alik Aidarbayev. "According to our experts, the concentration of uranium in our ores is so low that revival of this industry is counterproductive. The uranium industry is developing rapidly in other regions of our country, such as South Kazakhstan and Kyzylorda Oblasts," said Aidarbayev at the briefing at the Center for Communication Service. (Tengrinews Nov. 17, 2013)

More than one hundred thousand tons of hazardous waste sulfur found near Aktau

More than one hundred thousand tons of hazardous waste sulfur were found near Aktau. The piles of toxic substances in the plant "KazAzot" do not even have a cover, and the wind blows the substances all over the county. And, on rainy days they form a whole puddle of sulfuric acid! And all this - in the middle of the suburbs! Environmentalists have demanded to remove the waste, or at least install a safety fence. However, the company "KazAzot" is not in a hurry to get rid of the landfill.
The waste piles comprise about one hundred thousand tons of pure sulfur and iron pyrites. This raw material was once used to produce sulfuric acid for the uranium industry. After the collapse of the Soviet Union the wastes piles were somehow forgotten. (KTK Nov. 12, 2013)


Koshkar-Ata uranium mill tailings, Aktau, Mangistau Oblast

Aerial view: Google Maps

Reclamation of Koshkar-Ata uranium mill tailings to resume in 2013

Reclamation of the tailings at Koshkar-Ata may resume in 2013 if the city administration completes the project documents in the near future. This was announced by Kazakhstan's Deputy Minister of Environmental Protection Mirlan Mukhambetov. (Gazeta.kz June 11, 2012)

Rare earth recovery project for Aktau uranium mill tailings

Kazakhstan plans to join the race to supply rare earth metals to a global market squeezed by Chinese export cuts when it launches a project with Japanese trader Sumitomo Corp to treat uranium tailings in 2012. Summit Atom Rare Earth Co, co-owned by Kazakh state uranium miner Kazatomprom, plans to start producing 1,500 tonnes a year of rare earth oxides, Kazatomprom said in a written reply to questions. Kazatomprom said the Summit Rare Earth joint venture would process tailings from a disused plant in the western Kazakh city of Aktau and export rare earths mainly to Japan and Europe. (Reuters Mar. 24, 2011)

> See also: Plant for extraction of rare earths from uranium mill tailings, Stepnogorsk (Akmola Province)

Analysis of plant samples documents contamination in the surroundings of former Aktau uranium mines

Two former uranium mines and a uranium reprocessing factory in the city of Aktau, Kazakhstan, may represent a risk of contaminating the surrounding areas by uranium and its daughter elements.
One of the possible fingerprinting tools for studying the environmental contamination is using plant samples, collected in the surroundings of this city in 2007 and 2008. The distribution pattern of environmental pollution by uranium and thorium was evaluated by determining the thorium and uranium concentrations in plant samples (Artemisia austriaca) from the city of Aktau and comparing these results with those obtained for the same species of plants from an unpolluted area (town of Kurchatov).
The determination of the uranium and thorium concentrations in different parts of A. austriaca plants collected from the analyzed areas demonstrated that the main contamination of the flora in areas surrounding the city of Aktau was due to dust transported by the wind from the uranium mines. The results obtained demonstrate that all the areas surrounding Aktau have a higher pollution level due to thorium and uranium than the control area (Kurchatov). A few "hot points" with high concentrations of uranium and thorium were found near the uranium reprocessing factory and the uranium mines.
Biomonitoring of environmental pollution by thorium and uranium in selected regions of the Republic of Kazakhstan, by Zoriy P, Ostapczuk P, Dederichs H, et al., in: Journal of Environmental Radioactivity , March 24, 2010 (ahead of print)

> See also: Strahlenbelastung der Bevölkerung in der Region Aktau, Kaspisches Meer (Geschäftsbereich Sicherheit und Strahlenschutz, Forschungszentrum Jülich)

First stage of reclamation of Koshkar-Ata uranium mill tailings completed

The first stage of reclamation of the second section of the Koshkar-Ata uranium mill tailings was completed by installing a cover layer of 0.25 - 0.75 metres of inert soil over an area of 40.3 hectares. The project cost was 394.26 million Tenge [US$ 2.65 million].
The reclamation of the particularly contaminated first section comprising 24.5 hectares had been completed in September 2008 by installing an 0.25 metre reinforced concrete cover.
The complete reclamation of the 2700 hectares of bare tailings is expected to last 4 years at cost of 2.4 billion Tenge [US$ 16.14 million]. (Kazakhstan today Aug. 17, 2009)

Reclamation to begin at Koshkar-Ata uranium mill tailings

Reclamation of two sections of the Koshkar-Ata uranium mill tailings dam is to begin on Nov. 1, 2007, and will last 20 months. On Oct. 30, 2007, 402 million Tenge (US$ 3.38 million) have been set aside from the state budget for the reclamation work.
At present, the highest gamma radiation doses at these sections are 3000 micro Roentgen per hour [18.4 micro Sievert per hour]; the applicable standard is 100 micro Roentgen per hour [0.614 micro Sievert per hour], and the reclamation goal is 29.4 micro Roentgen per hour [0.18 micro Sievert per hour]. (Kazakhstan today Oct. 31, 2007)

Low-cost reclamation of Aktau tailings to begin from 2007

124 million Tenge (US$ 1.01 million) have been set aside from the 2007 state budget for the reclamation of the Koshkar-Ata uranium mill tailings, a project that is to begin in 2007. The total reclamation cost is estimated at US$ 8.4 million. (Kazakhstan today Oct. 26, 2006)

Rising groundwater level increases hazard from Aktau tailings

The rising groundwater table in the Aktau area increases the hazard of contaminant dispersal from the Koshkar-Ata uranium mill tailings to the region and to the Caspian Sea. Scientists, therefore, call for efforts to isolate the tailings. (Kazakhstan today Aug. 18, 2005)

Reclamation of Aktau tailings to start from 2005

The reclamation of the Koshkar-Ata uranium mill tailings at Aktau is scheduled to begin in 2005 and will cost more than 10 billion Tenge (US$ 76 million), to be funded by the state budget. At present, the expenses on the tailings deposit amount to 300 million Tenge (US$ 2.3 million) annually. (Kazakhstan today June 16, 2004)

Scientific study on Aktau tailings completed

High levels of heavy metals, rare earth elements, and radionuclides were found in the tailings material and in soils. However, the researchers came to the conclusion that the dust blown from the tailings does not constitute a radioactive danger. Groundwater contamination is identified as the major environmental issue, with potential to contaminate the Caspian Sea.
The Koshkar-Ata tailings pond contains 400 million tonnes of radioactive and toxic waste, including 105 million tonnes of uranium mill tailings. It is located in a depression without exit. Currently, 55% of the tailings surface is covered with water. It is, however, estimated that the complete pond will dry out within 5-6 years.
The study was performed by the Institute of Nuclear Physics on behalf of the Mangistau Oblast Nature Management Department. (Kazakhstan today Jan. 6, 2004)

Dusting problem at Aktau uranium mill tailings remains serious still

Waste dumps near the western Kazakh town of Aktau remain a source of environmental concern for local ecology officials and scientists. Hundreds of million of tonnes of various radioactive and toxic waste, including some 100 million tonnes of uranium waste, have been discharged into the 'Koshkar-Ata' repository since 1965, impacting the adjacent area and the health of local inhabitants.
"The fine dust from the bare spots of the tailing are blown towards Aktau due to rising winds," said Sarkyt Kudaibergenov, the deputy director of the Kaztransoil science-technology centre, describing the situation as serious.
The dusting problem probably even would be worse, if the Mangistau Chemical Metallurgical Plant had not discharged phosphoric gypsum to the dump from 1994 to 1996. The phosphogypsum has formed a crust, preventing more dusting - for the time being, at least. Also, the recent wet years were favourable for dust suppression, in maintaining the water cover on parts of the tailings. However, a long-term management strategy for the tailings dump still has to be found. (IRIN Sep 26, 2003)

Kazakhstan cannot control major uranium waste dump

Kazakhstan cannot resolve a problem with control over the state of the Koshkar-Ata tailings dump, which is 5 km away from Aktau. Three competitive tenders have been held this year to choose a contractor to carry out continuous monitoring of the possible transformation of the radioactive and toxic wastes from the dump into dust. However, a contractor has not been chosen because there were not enough participants in the tenders. The Koshkar-Ata tailings dump has accumulated over 400 million tonnes of radioactive and toxic waste since 1965; the local budget has allocated some 200,000 dollars to maintain the dump in a stable state for 2001. (BBC Monitoring Service - UK, Nov 14, 2001)


Zhambyl Province


Kurday uranium mine, Pribalkhash district

Study finds elevated radiation levels at former Kurday uranium mine site, calls for action

High concentrations of uranium and associated trace metals were found in water and in fish from the pit lake of the former Kurday uranium mine. In addition...
"[...] Total gamma and Rn dose rate to man amounted to about 6 mSv/y, while the highest calculated dose rate for non-human species based on the ERICA Assessment Tool were obtained in aquatic plants, with calculated mean doses of 700 µGy/hr, mostly due to the U exposure. Overall, it is concluded that measures such as restricted access to the Pit Lake as well as dietary restrictions with respect to drinking water and intake of fish should be taken to reduce the environmental risk to man and biota."
Environmental impact assessment of radionuclides and trace elements at the Kurday U mining site, Kazakhstan, by Salbu, B, Burkitbaev, M, Stromman, G, et al. in: Journal of Environmental Radioactivity, July 10, 2012 (ahead of print)


Almaty Province


Zharkent uranium mine

Reclamation of Zharkent uranium mine to start in 2006

K. Orynbayev of the Department of Natural Resources of the Almaty region reported that a study is being conducted on the closing of the uranium mine in Zharkent. The cost for the conservation of the underground mine are estimated at 24 million Tenge (US$ 180,000). It is planned to conduct tender during March - April 2006, and the works are to begin, once a contractor is determined. (Kazakhstan today Sep. 27, 2005)


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