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Uranium in Kyrgyzstan

(Updated June 2015)

  • Kyrgyzstan has some uranium deposits and has supplied Russia in the past.
  • It hosts a uranium mill which treats Kazakh uranium ore on toll basis.

Having been annexed by Russia in 1876, Kyrgyzstan became a Soviet republic in 1936 and achieved independence in 1991. Electricity production in 2011 was about 15 TWh, 80% hydro, from 3.6 GWe installed capacity.

The country has a history of uranium mining, but reports no uranium resources today (its last report in the IAEA ‘Red Book’ was 2002).

The Mailuu-Suu district, in the Jalal-Abad Province in southern Kyrgyzstan was a significant uranium mining area in the Soviet era to 1989 where more than 10,000 tonnes of uranium was produced between 1946 and 1967 from carbonate ore. The Kara Balta Mining Combine was set up in the 1950s to mine and treat this ore in the north, near Bishkek. After Kyrgyz uranium mining ceased, in 1997 it became a joint stock company, Kara Baltinski Ore Mining & Processing Combine, and in 2007 the 72% state equity was purchased by the Renova Group – see below.

Meanwhile in the Soviet era, the Kyrgyzski Mining Combine was involved in mining in southern Kazakhstan.

Exploration

Azarga Uranium (formerly Powertech) based in Canada through its 80% subsidiary UrAsia has a uranium and rare earth lease at Kyzyl Ompul, 125 km east of Bishkek, containing 2900 tU inferred resources (NI 43-101) in the Kok Moinok deposit (at December 2014).

China's Hebai Mining in 2011 bought from Raisama Ltd the major interest in the Kashkasu project, west of the historic uranium mines, with uranium mineralisation spread over 2.6 km strike length.

Central Asia Mining Co in 2012 had a licence to exploit Kara Balta tailings for uranium and molybdenum.

JSC Kentor has a licence to explore for uranium and other minerals at Bashkol.

Monaro Mining NL based in Australia had eight exploration licences which are prospective for uranium. These projects include Aramsu, Utor, Naryn, Sumsar, Sogul, Djurasay, Hodjaakan, and Gavasai (the last few including base and precious metals). At the end of 2009 Monaro sold a 75% interest in its Kyrgyz Project to Gate Bridge Co Ltd based in Hong Kong and owned by a consortium of HK and Chinese investors. Monaro would retain a 25% free-carried interest until such time as Gate Bridge generates a pre-feasibility study on any of the licence areas. In 2015 the Australian company name was AusROC Metals Ltd and it appeared to be no longer involved with uranium.

A number of other companies including ARMZ's Uranium One have been actively exploring for uranium. Nimrodel has leases in the Mailuu-Suu area.

In 2012 the Kyrgyz State Agency for Geology and Mineral Resources issued 18 permits for development of uranium and rare earth metal (REM) deposits and 21 permits for exploration of uranium and REM. 

Several of the licences have CIS (Commonwealth Independent States) defined resources. However, these do not conform to JORC or NI 43-101 standards and a significant amount of further work is required before JORC-compliant resource statements can be reported.

Uranium mill

The Kara Balta mining plant (KBMP), a hydrometallurgical plant, was built in 1951 on the Chu River near Bishkek to treat uranium ore from two Kyrgyz deposits (Kadji-Sai and Kavak) to 1989 and four Kazakh deposits (including Stepnoye and Tsentral) to 2005, and at its peak contributed 20% of USSR’s uranium production. It also treated molybdenum ores and gold ores, and produced other metals and barite.

The JSC Kara Baltinski Ore Mining & Processing Combine (KMPC) now finally processes and calcines uranium product from Kazakhstan's Zarechnoye joint venture at the refurbished Kara Balta mill. The Kyrgyz government holds a 0.66% share in that JV. It accepted a tender from UralPlatina Holdings, a subsidiary of Russian resources investment group, Renova, for its 72.28% stake in the Kara Baltinski company in March 2007. The EUR 1.8 million price was less than half the earlier asking price. The company struck an agreement in October 2008 with the Kazakh-based Eurasian Development Bank (EDB) to provide $150 million to develop the mill and properly emplace 50 years of tailings accumulation at Kara Balta. At the time the tailings were thought to contain up to 11,000 tU.

Kara Balta then contracted with Russian-Kazakh Zarechnoye JV and Kazatomprom in Kazakhstan for toll milling. The mill resumed uranium production in August 2007 and has increased annual production from about 800 tonnes of uranium to 2574 tU in 2009, exceeding for the first time historic output levels. In 2013 it produced 948 tU and in 2014, 1945 tU. This production is all counted as Kazakh. About 930 tU/yr comes from Zarechnoye JV, 400 km west.

KMPC is continuing to invest in its plant, and aims for 3500 tU/yr capacity. Further plans involve re-treatment and disposal of its own tailings on site. Early in 2013 KMPC was considering embarking upon mining in Kazakhstan, possibly in joint venture with Kazatomprom, or directly purchasing feed and selling the product to Russia, rather than toll milling. The company also was considering mining the Sary-Jaz group of deposits at Berkutsky, Schastlivy and Muzbulak projects. The prospective Kamyshanovskoye and Serafimovskoye deposits were also mentioned, with priority for exploration at Kyzyl-Ompul (Azarga Uranium holds a 424 sq km lease there).

Legacy tailings

There are several tailings storage facilities in Kyrgyz Republic. Some of them, especially around Mailuu-Suu which was threatened by a landslide in 2003, are in poor conditions as no rehabilitation was done to either tailings storage facilities or uranium mining sites after Soviet mining ceased. Mailuu-Suu (or Mayli-Suu) in 2001 had 23 uranium tailings dams containing 1.9 million cubic metres of material arising from its operation to 1968. Tuyuk-Suu in the Minkush valley in the centre of the country contained 430,000 cubic metres of uranium tailings, and the clay cover had degraded. In 1996 the Ministry of Environment led a $0.5 million project to assess and monitor uranium legacy issues in the southern part of Jalal-Abad oblast.

The Industrial Association Southern Combine for Polymetals (IA Yuzhpolimetall) was established on the basis of the Kyrgyz Mining Combine founded in the 60s. The Combine mined and processed uranium ores from the Southern Kazakhstan region to 1991. Throughout the period of the Combine's activities, 55 million cubic metres of below-ore-grade material and barren rocks in 18 dumps covering 214 ha and with 600 TBq activity were accumulated. These were all some 80 km from populated areas. Four tailings dams containing a total of 35 million cubic metres of fine tailings were formed on its sites, covering 258 ha and with 3200 TBq of activity. Three of the tailings dams, up to 11 km from Minkush, were finished between 1960 and 1969, after which half a metre of loam was compacted on the surface.

High-level discussions with Russia in 2004 in connection with setting up the Zarechnoye JV in Kazakhstan addressed the issue of rehabilitation of Kyrgyz tailings storages and uranium mining areas, particularly tailings near Kadgy Sai on the shore of Lake Issyk Kul in the east, Min Kush in the Tien Shan mountains, and Mailuu-Suu. The projected cost was $8.8 million. VNIIPromtekhnologii and ARMZ had looked at investments in project related to rehabilitation of territories affected by uranium mining enterprises, including Kyrgyzstan. 

In June 2015 the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development (EBRD) set up a fund to deal with radioactive contaminated material resulting from Soviet-era uranium mining and processing in the Kyrgyz Republic, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan. It said that the Environmental Remediation Account for Central Asia "is being established at the request of the European Commission, which is providing an initial €8 million, with additional funding under consideration." The fund would be used to finance remediation of "high-priority sites." It added: "Many of the legacy sites are concentrated along the tributaries to the Syr Darya River, which runs through the densely populated Fergana Valley, the agricultural centre of the region, which is shared by the Kyrgyz Republic, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan."

Non-proliferation

Kyrgyzstan is a party to the NPT and the Comprehensive Nuclear Test Ban Treaty (CTBT), and signed an Additional Protocol agreement with the IAEA in 2007. It has also ratified the Central Asia Nuclear Weapon Free Zone treaty, with Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan.

Main References:
Alekhina, V.M. et al 2008, Quantitative assessment of the man-induced uranium in the tail disposal of the Kara Balta mining plant.
The Radiation Legacy of the Soviet Nuclear Complex: an analytical overview, Egorov, N.N., Iovikov, V.M., Popov V.K., Parker F.L., Technology & Engineering (2014).