Central Asians seek help to clear Cold War waste

GENEVA (Reuters) - Four Central Asian countries called on Monday for international help from governments and business in clearing toxic nuclear waste left over from the Cold War when they formed part of the Soviet Union.

The appeal from the four -- Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan -- was backed at a one-day meeting in Geneva by United Nations agencies, several Western governments, and the European Union’s executive Commission.

“We, the governments of Central Asia, have shown our readiness to work together to tackle this serious and dangerous threat not only to our region but beyond,” Kyrgyz Prime Minister Igor Chudinov told a news conference at the end of the talks.

“We look to the big powers who have experience in this area to share their knowledge with us and to private firms to invest in the projects that require modern and safe technology,” said Chudinov, whose country is especially affected by the waste.

The United Nations Development Program (UNDP), which sponsored the meeting, says the problem of what are called uranium tailings and toxic nuclear waste in Central Asia is acute and needs an urgent solution.

The tailings, it says in a document for the meeting, present serious potential danger for the people and the environment of the region through contamination of ground water and rivers from the toxic ponds and dumps where the waste is stored.

The waste accumulated because the then Central Asian republics -- prone to earthquakes and extreme weather -- were the Soviet Union’s main source of the uranium it used for manufacturing its nuclear arsenal.

The residue from wide-scale mining and processing, often near major populations centers, was only poorly protected against natural disasters and there were few precautions against seepage into water systems, the UNDP document says.

With the break-up in 1991 of the Soviet system, which provided some central control over the waste dumps, the new cash-strapped countries that emerged were left to cope separately with the waste problem.

Chudinov told the Monday news conference that the joint declaration of the four, which followed a conference in April in Bishkek, the Kyrgyz capital, showed that they were now determined to work together on the issue.

“I think this should make it easier for the international community to boost the help that many countries and agencies have already been giving us,” he said.

Among countries that have already been providing some assistance to the four countries are Germany, Norway, Finland and the Czech Republic along with the World Bank and government agencies from the United States, Russia and Japan.

The 27-nation European Union has also been supporting safe disposal programs in the four countries, and pledged on Monday to boost its efforts.

The Russian government was not represented at the meeting but a senior official of its nuclear energy agency ROSATOM told delegates it would help with the disposal programs.

Editing by Ralph Boulton