MISSION: Southwest Research and Information Center is a multi-cultural organization working to promote the health of people and communities, protect natural resources, ensure citizen participation, and secure environmental and social justice now and for future generations

Shedding Light on Uranium Operations in Siberia

Investigating the problems and risks associated with uranium mines has been a focus of my work here at Southwest Research and Information Center (SRIC) for almost 24 years. This expertise has been applied on behalf of people in uranium districts across New Mexico and other parts of the North America for many years, and recently I have expanded my efforts to include people living near uranium sites in the Former Soviet Union. In September of last year I was invited to visit a operating in situ mine in Siberia at the request of local citizens whose concerns had not been effectively addressed by the operators of the mine.

The visit to the Khiagda in situ uranium mine was the fourth in a series of international trips resulting from contacts with Russian environmental leaders. These contacts were established through environmental mining workshops for Russians initiated by two Northern California organizations which focus on environmental training and advocacy in the Former Soviet Union, the Baikal Watch Project of Earth Island Institute, and Pacific Environment. These exchanges have focused on identifying the extent of specific problems at Russian sites, and developing the capacity of Russian environmentalists to modernize mining policy and establish a working understanding of mine site reclamation.

The Khiagda uranium mine I visited is in the taiga ("forest") east of Lake Baikal in the Buryat Republic, a region of Russia just north of Mongolia. Operated with funds provided through the Russian Ministry for Atomic Energy (MINATOM), the Khiagda mine was kept off limits from local residents. They did not maintain radio or telephone links to local communities, points of significant concern for residents of Romanovka, the nearest village which straddles the mine's sole access road to the site. The maintenance of the mine as a secret, government-controlled facility only heightened the discomfort of the nearby residents who had found the mine operators unresponsive to their concerns about potential radioactive releases from the mine. They were also concerned about the management of past and future spills of hazardous materials that had been coming to and leaving the mine.

In support of the concerned citizens in Romanovka and the Buryat Regional Environmental Council, a site visit plan was developed and an invitation to tour the mine was sought from MINATOM. Following confirmation of permission to tour the mine, I made the three-day 15-time-zone trip to Romanovka. Accompanying me on the tour to observe conditions at the mine site were three Romanovka residents (two of which were teachers at the local high school), three Buryat geologists, and Pacific Environment consultant Misha Jones. I was able to develop an initial impression of the site relative to other uranium operations after the tour. This initial evaluation served as a basis for presentations in Romanovka, the Buryat capital of Ulan Ude, and with national environmental organizations in Moscow.

Some key observations were:

  • Mine staff did not wear individual dosimeters to measure their personal radiation exposures as is typical of other facilitates licensed to manage radioactive material according to international norms;
  • The use of exceeding high concentrations of sulfuric acid to leach uranium from the aquifer where it is found indicated that restoration of ground water quality following the completion of mining had not been considered, and by now had been made extremely expensive or impossible;
  • A significant and uncontrolled excursion (loss of control of leaching chemicals) was detected at the one of the monitoring sites, indicated by the rapid increase of sulfate present in the water;
  • Failure to meet its deadline to use readily available communications equipment to quickly and easily establish regular communication between Romanovka and the Khiagda site; and
  • Failure to isolate the loads of sulfuric acid traveling to the mine away from children and other residents during its passage by ferry across the Vitim River in the middle of Romanovka. This was something that was long overdue, and could have easily been accomplished by scheduling and use of orderly written procedures.

The Khiagda mine is a small operation, but it is likely to establish a modern precedent for the quality of environmental performance and public transparency for Russian uranium operations. The review conducted with the Buryat and Romanovka delegation helped establish a higher degree of local understanding of the operation itself, and can serve as a baseline for evaluation of the mine in the years to come.

Paul Robinson is SRIC's Research Director. He has made four trips to Russia assisting groups on issues related to mining impacts and policy development. His visits inside Russia have included Siberia, the Russian Far East, and Moscow.

CONTACTS

Baikal Watch Project of Earth Island Institute
306 Broadway, Suite 28
San Francisco, CA 94133-3312
415-788-3666
www.earthisland.org
e-mail: baikalwatch@earthisland.org
Attn: Gary Cook

Pacific Environment
1440 Broadway, Suite 306
Oakland, CA 94612
510-251-8800; fax: 510-251-8838
www.pacificenvironment.org
Attn: Dave Martin

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"Federal policy…has been to assure that "waste management problems shall not be deferred to other generations," and many environmental groups have shared the same view. Geological burial - at first glance anyway - looks like an ideal way to accomplish that since, after all, it "removes" the wastes from the environment and solves the problem once and for all. But in many ways entombment does just the opposite. It deliberately poisons a portion of the natural world for an endless stretch of time and in doing so it not only leaves future generations with thousands of tons of the most dangerous rubbish imaginable on their hands but makes it as difficult as the state of our technology permits for them to deal with it. We cannot promise our children - never mind those who will follow hundreds or thousands of years hence - that they will be safe from the wastes. And so long as that is so, we are not taking the problem out of their hands so much as we are taking the solution out of their hands."
Kai Erikson in
"Out of Sight, Out of Our Minds"
The New York Times Magazine
March 6, 1994.



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