ASIA: SECRET ORE
Uranium has been mined in Asia since World War II. To date, most of the uranium producing countries have made very little information public.
Ming-Kush, Mailuu-Suu, Kajy Sai, Shakavtar, Sumsar, Ak-Tüz and Orlovka – before the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, most of these cities in Kyrgyzstan were unheard of. But it was in these places that uranium was mined for the Soviet nuclear weapons program. Ming-Kush in the east, and Mailuu-Suu in the south of the country, were among the most highly developed cities in Central Asia, but with one giant flaw: they were closed off from the outside world. Nobody was allowed to talk about the fact that these were the locations where uranium was extracted to manufacture nuclear weapons. Uranium mining was suspended even before the breakup of the Soviet Union. A planned resumption of operations was banned by the Kyrgyz Supreme Council in May of 2019 after massive protests.
Uranium mining in Asia started during World War II in Tabošar, the present-day Istiklol in the north of Tajikistan. According to a decree by Soviet leadership in 1942, four tonnes of uranium were supposed to be produced in just a few months, to supply the raw material for the first Soviet nuclear bomb. As in Kyrgyzstan, uranium mining and processing in Tajikistan was also treated as a state secret by the Soviet regime. When the last mine was closed in 1992, a total of 20,000 tonnes of uranium had been extracted.
Kazakhstan began exploring for uranium deposits during World War II. According to data issued by the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), a total of 30 commercially viable deposits, with a capacity of more than 1,000 tonnes, were discovered in five regions of Kazakhstan. By the mid-1950s, the Soviets began uranium mining operations, established four production centers and extracted around 70,000 tonnes of uranium before the Soviet Union dissolved. These operations were conducted under strict secrecy. Today, the country is by far the largest uranium producer in the world and in 2018 it produced three times as much as second-placed Canada.
Until 1990, uranium was almost exclusively mined in underground and open pit mines. Today, the state-owned company Kazatomprom, established in 1997, uses only the in-situ leaching (ISL) process. Two regions with sandstone formations are suitable for ISL: Chu-Syrdarya in the south, with the world’s largest uranium deposits, and Kokshetau in the north. Since ISL extraction does not leave behind radioactive tailings, the company classifies uranium mining as unproblematic. Scientists see it quite differently: “In most applications of the technique, there have been extreme occurrences of groundwater contamination. At some sites, this contamination has migrated considerable distances to impact on potable drinking water supplies”, says Gavin Mudd from the Royal Melbourne Institute of Technology.
In Russia, 93,980 tonnes of uranium were mined until the breakup of the Soviet Union. As the country began its process of nuclear disarmament, one mine after the other was closed due to economic inefficiency. Nowadays, Rosatom is in charge of the civil and military nuclear industry and thus also of uranium mining. In 2004, the state-owned company first employed the ISL process in Dalur and is still using it at the three remaining uranium mines in operation today. However, there is never any mention of uranium mining in Rosatom’s 224-page annual report, except for a few key figures and some raw production numbers. There is also no mention of any problems. Uranium expert, Paul Robinson, reports that there are homes in the vicinity of uranium mines in Krasnokamensk where radon levels have been found at up to 28,000 Bq/m³ – some 190 times the allowable indoor radon standard, a level at which radon removal or treatment would be required in the US. In Russia, however, there is no follow-up on these cases.
There is also no program for the cleanup of decommissioned mines. Any environmental organization attempting to address this issue immediately feels the heavy hand of the state. All NGOs that receive money from outside the country must register as “foreign agents”. Oleg Bodrov, a nuclear physicist, even had to resign from his post as head of the organization “Green World”, after he advocated for the shutdown of all nuclear power plants in Russia and an end to uranium mining.
Things are no better in China. In 1964, the country detonated its first atomic bomb and has been mining uranium for the generation of electricity ever since. Anyone criticizing uranium mining is considered an enemy of the state, as became obvious with NFFA-winner Sun Xiaodi: Rich uranium deposits were found in Gansu Province and one of the largest mines – Uranium Mine No. 792 – was opened there in 1967. Sun Xiaodi, who managed a warehouse in the region, began asking questions about health effects and radiation exposure. In 1994, he was fired. After he gave an interview to a French journalist in 2005, he was placed under house arrest and in 2009, according to IPPNW, was sentenced to two years in prison for incitement of the public.
So far, almost 47,000 tonnes of uranium have been extracted by the state-owned company CNNC. Since China is massively expanding its civil nuclear program, its own uranium production is no longer sufficient: the country extracts around one third of its demand from its own territory, one third from foreign mines where CNNC holds stakes, and purchases the rest on the open market.
In 1998, Pakistan tested its first atomic bomb and currently operates five nuclear reactors. To date, the country has extracted just over 1,600 tonnes of uranium. In order to secure its uranium needs, the country has negotiated long-term contracts with China.
A total of 535 tonnes of uranium, a comparatively small amount, was mined in Mongolia. Even though uranium deposits of more than 100,000 tonnes have been documented, mining was suspended before the turn of the century. Nevertheless, the Mongolian government has awarded a total of 107 exploration licenses. Along with Areva/Orano, Indian, Chinese, Japanese and Russian companies are interested in resuming mining operations in the country.
Under the terms of the Iran Nuclear Deal – known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) – Iran was put under very strict international scrutiny, including inspections, to ensure it does not enrich uranium beyond commercial grade. JCPOA was in place to prevent Iran from developing nuclear weapons but is now in jeopardy after the US withdrew. As of 2018, Iran had mined 195 tonnes of uranium.
Along with Pakistan, Israel and South Sudan, India is one of the four countries that have not signed the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty. For this reason, India has only been allowed to import uranium since 2008 by a decision of the Nuclear Suppliers Group and at the instigation of the USA. Until then, the country was unable to produce the uranium needed for its nuclear power plants. However, India is the only democratically ruled uranium mining country in Asia. Uranium mining began in Jadugoda in 1967, enabling India to develop nuclear power. Currently, India operates 22 nuclear reactors at seven power plants and therefore has a huge demand for fuel. Although the country has large uranium reserves, the state-owned Uranium Corporation of India (UCIL) had, until 2018, only extracted 13,000 tonnes of uranium. One reason is public resistance: UCIL had planned three underground mines and one open pit operation near Lambapur-Peddagattu. A massive protest movement by the local population was able to prevent these mines from operating. Similarly, plans for new uranium mines in the Meghalaya region have been put on hold.
• Jadugoda health study: ippnw.org/pdf/jadugoda-health-survey.pdf
• China: savetibet.org/chinese-activist-receives-anti-nuclear-prize-for-campaign-against-uranium-mine-in-tibet