Kyrgyzstan: Officials brush aside uranium anxieties over Kyzyl-Ompol field

Kyrgyzstan: Officials brush aside uranium anxieties over Kyzyl-Ompol field
A seemingly unanimous vote to approve development of the Kyzyl-Ompol field during a public assembly in January. / Kyrgyzstan presidential administration
By Eurasianet March 5, 2024

Plans by Kyrgyzstan’s government to develop reserves of uranium and dozens of other rare earth metals around the cherished Lake Issyk-Kul are generating discontent, although few are prepared to express this openly for fear of reprisals.

In an attempt to soothe moods, President Sadyr Japarov travelled last month to the city of Balykchy to meet community representatives from the Issyk-Kul and Naryn regions to offer reassurances about what might happen at the Kyzyl-Ompol field.

“During his speech, the president focused attention on the fact that more than 1,000 jobs will be created there,” said Kubatbek Baiterekov, a resident of the village of Kyzyl-Ompol who attended the encounter. “Japarov gave assurances that this will be a second Kumtor [flagship gold mine], and that all profits from the uranium mine will go directly to the state budget.”

Officials in Japarov’s camp have said that the development of the mine will be carried out by a state-run company, and that this should guarantee only safe methods are used. They have moreover insisted that there is little uranium at Kyzyl-Ompol. The mine will focus on extracting titanomagnetite, a different mineral, they say.

Titanomagnetite is an ore that can be used to make steel and extract titanium and has applications that range from aircraft construction to making medical devices.

Concerns around the prospect of the development of Kyzyl-Ompol have been bubbling away for at least five years. In 2019, one year before president Sooronbai Jeenbekov was toppled by Japarov, local activists mounted rallies in protest at exploration work being done by Russian company UrAsia Kyrgyzstan. In the face of that outcry, the authorities revoked the company’s licence.

But as one participant of the February 19 meeting with Japarov told, such disagreement is now robustly discouraged. Indeed, dissent across the board in Kyrgyzstan is being steadily suffocated out of existence through repressive measures, rights activists say.

At one stage of the Balykchy consultations, Japarov asked those present to vote with a show of hands to gauge support for the idea of developing the Kyzyl-Ompol field. The result was illustrated in a photo distributed by the presidential press service: everybody raised their hands.

“What could we do?” said one meeting attendee on condition of anonymity. “All of us state employees and [local government] representatives were driven from nearby villages and taken to Balykchy. Five years ago, we held a rally, and then the authorities listened to us. Now we are afraid to voice opposition, given that many critics of the government are in prison, including some members of parliament.”

While there may have been limited pushback in Balykchy, some of those present did insist on clarity. One person asked about a 2019 moratorium on geological studies aimed at finding, exploring and developing uranium and thorium deposits. 

“Japarov quickly and curtly replied that the moratorium would be lifted,” Baiterekov said. “The other officials who spoke presented data on the volume of minerals that would be mined: fully [14.8] million tonnes. What’s interesting is that titanomagnetite is mostly what is being extracted – 95 percent. Uranium is present only in small quantities – 0.17 percent.”

Mining engineer Omurbek Kasymbekov told Eurasianet that a lot of misleading information has been circulating about Kyzyl-Ompol, and that this accounts for the anxiety now. To attract foreign capital, the government has in the past – specifically, in Jeenbekov’s time – offered outside developers licences indicating that the deposits were rich in uranium, Kasymbekov said. 

And it seems the boast may not have been entirely hollow. 

“In fact, it is considered a titanomagnetite deposit, but in addition to that, there is … phosphorus, zirconium, thorium and uranium. There are not large amounts. But in quantitative terms, there are at least 25 tonnes of preliminary uranium deposits at Kyzyl-Ompol,” Kasymbekov said.

Officials are bandying around grand boasts about how much wealth they believe Kyzyl-Ompol can generate for Kyrgyzstan. Akylbek Japarov, the head of the Cabinet (no relation to the president), said in January that the field holds deposits worth $300bn.

Some in the now-meek parliament, the Jogorku Kenesh, have nevertheless gone on record to stress that they see environmental safety as more important than economic profit.

Elvira Surabaldiyeva said in parliament last month that she has always been against the idea of developing uranium deposits. 

“I was surprised that residents who opposed uranium mining in 2019 have suddenly changed their mind and now agree with the position of the current government,” she said.

She couched those remarks in a call for a technical safety evaluation, which she said was imperative to avoid a repeat of an incident like the one that occurred in 1998, where trucks on the road to the Kumtor gold mine spilled around a tonne of cyanide into the Barskoon River, which runs into Lake Issyk-Kul.

Government scientists have previously offered negative assessments regarding the wisdom of developing Kyzyl-Ompol. They have cited the precedent of Soviet-era uranium mining in the south of the country, where it is believed that tailings are still seeping into the environment and adversely affecting the health of the local population.

Kyzyl-Ompol is located at an altitude above Issyk-Kul, which means any sediment, dust and dirt produced there is liable to make its way to the lake. And it does not help that President Japarov has sent contradictory messages on this point. 

“The operation of the mine will be safe,” said Bektur Osmonaliyev, a Balykchy resident, relating the president’s pledges. “At the same time, he believes that the land cannot be cultivated there, and the water cannot be drunk either due to the fact that underground wells pass through the uranium.”

Social media is usually where one might find traces of grumbling, but even that relatively lively space has been muted in its positions on Kyzyl-Ompol.

Elnura Tashmatova, a resident of Karakol, a town to the east of Lake Issyk-Kul, said she received warnings from the State Committee for National Security, or GKNB, the successor agency to the KGB, after posting messages against uranium mining. Tashmatova says she complied with demands to delete posts out of fear of prosecution on trumped-up charges.  

Her case is not isolated. Activists and residents around Issyk-Kul have told journalists that they have been threatened with arrest if they should try to whip up opposition to the Kyzyl-Ompol project.

As ecologist Kalia Moldogaziyeva told Eurasianet that even if the field contains just small amounts of uranium, that is no assurance that contamination is not possible.

“Even if they mine titanomagnetite, the uranium there is in a fairly high concentration and during mining and transportation it will spread with dust and affect the environment and the population,” she said. 

Moldogaziyeva said that if the government is serious about its pledges to safely remove uranium from the field, it is going to have its work cut out.

“If uranium is spread across 43,000 hectares … then the amount of work to completely clear the territory of uranium is going to be enormous,” she said.

This article first appeared on Eurasianet here.