Uranium in Kyrgyzstan
(Updated April 2017)
- Kyrgyzstan has some uranium deposits and has supplied Russia in the past.
- It hosts a uranium mill which has been treating Kazakh uranium ore on toll basis.
- It is the focus of remediation work on legacy uranium tailings in central Asia.
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), though the Kamushanovskoye deposit is proposed for development. The State Agency on Geology and Mineral Resources of the Kyrgyz Republic is the public agency that implements policy in the field of subsoil use and the development of the mining industry. The country’s Mineral Resources Act was amended in 2014.
The Mailuu-Suu district, in the Jalal-Abad Province in western Kyrgyzstan was a significant uranium mining area in the Soviet era to 1989 where more than 9000 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.
New projects and exploration
Azarga Uranium (formerly Powertech), registered in Canada, through its 70% subsidiary UrAsia has its Kyzyl Ompul project 125 km east of Bishkek, a uranium and rare earths lease. The main deposit is Kok Moinok, a hydrothermal deposit discovered in 1953 containing 2900 tU inferred resources (NI 43-101). The Tash Bulak and Backe placer deposits are part of the project, evidently with more resources.
US-based IMC Invest Inc has a number of deposits including the Kamushanovskoye deposit, with uranium adsorbed onto peat, about 70 km northeast of Kara Balta on the Kazakh border and 48 km north of Bishkek. It proposes a satellite ISL recovery there by alkaline leaching with the loaded resin processed at Kara Balta from 2019, total 2300 tonnes over ten years. Measured and indicated resources are about 2500 tU (JORC compliant). It is also exploring the Jetym black shale deposits several hundred kilometres southeast of Kara Balta, with 48,700 tU in ‘prognostic resources’ and is working towards JORC-compliant figures.
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 included Aramsu, Utor, Naryn, Sumsar, Sogul, Djurasay, Hodjaakan, and Gavasai (the last few including base and precious metals). In 2014 the company name became AusROC Metals Ltd and it appeared to be no longer involved with uranium. It was liquidated in 2016.
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.
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) has most recently been processing and calcining uranium product from Kazakhstan's Zarechnoye joint venture at the refurbished Kara Balta mill. Uranium dioxide is apparently the product. 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 €1.8 million price was less than half the earlier asking price, but it ended a four-year shutdown. The company, now apparently the Kara Balta Mining Enterprise (KGRK), 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. However, they are very heterogeneous, posing a major metallurgical challenge.
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. In July 2014 KGRK sought 2500-3000 tonnes of concentrate from Kazakhstan, but only 1500 tonnes was agreed by the Kazakh government.
KGRK was continuing to invest in its plant, and was aiming 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).
However, in October 2015 the government said that KGRK might cease production due to lack of supply of uranium feed. It was appealing to Renova to secure more work for the mill. In November 2015 the mill closed, due to lack of toll processing orders from Kazakhstan, and in February 2016 the company decided to close the plant and lay off staff. There were calls to return the enterprise to state ownership.
Apart from at Kara Balta, there are several tailings storage facilities in the Kyrgyz Republic, and more stretching 300 km to the west in Uzbekistan and Tajikistan. Some of them, especially around and above Mailuu-Suu in Jalal-Abad oblast which was threatened by a landslide in 2003, are in poor condition as no rehabilitation was done to either tailings storage facilities, waste rock dumps or uranium mining sites after Soviet mining ceased. Mailuu-Suu (or Mayli-Suu) has 23 uranium tailings dams containing 1.9 million cubic metres of material arising from the operation of Zapadnyi Mining and Chemical Combine to 1968 on the hillside above the town of 20,000 people. It is highly polluted by radionuclides and heavy metals, and high incidence of cancer is reported. It is 25 km upstream of the densely-populated Fergana Valley with the Syr Darya River. Tuyuk-Suu in the Min-Kush 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 government considers these two sites as the highest priority for remediation.
The Industrial Association Southern Combine for Polymetals (IA Yuzhpolimetall) was established on the basis of the Kyrgyz Mining Combine founded in the 1960s. 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 Min-Kush, 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. VNIPIpromtekhnologii (VNIPIPT) and ARMZ had looked at investments in projects related to rehabilitation of territories affected by uranium mining enterprises, including Kyrgyzstan.
Over 2010-12 a World Bank-funded pilot project recovered one precarious tailings dam near Mailuu-Suu and reburied it at a cost of $8.4 million. This led to an estimate of $50 million to deal with ten other high-risk tailings in the area, and the Kyrgyz government appealed to the EU for this. A total of 36 waste piles and mill tailings have now been partially remediated and cultivated, and several landslide-prone spots near tailings have been improved and re-engineered to reduce the likelihood of seismic impact. This has been with assistance from the IAEA and some international funding. However, many of these projects remain incomplete, and many mines in need of remediation are
in poor condition due to lack of funding.
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."
In August 2016 the Kyrgyzstan government announced rehabilitation works to begin in mid-2017, in collaboration with Tajikistan and Russia as well as the IAEA, and funded by the EBRD. The EBRD signed framework agreements with the Kyrgyz Republic and Tajikistan in January 2017. ARMZ’s VNIPIPT has opened an office in the capital, with a view to prioritizing work at Min-Kush, Kaji-Sai and a site near Taboshar in Tajikistan. The EU has done the environmental assessment and feasibility study for Min-Kush (Zhumgal district of Naryn region) and Shekaftar (Chatkala district, Jalal Abad oblast) near Mailuu-Suu, and contributed €16.5 million. EBRD preliminary estimates suggest that two main Kyrgyz sites will cost about €30 million. The Kyrgyz minister of emergency situations said that urgent measures were needed for environmentally unstable uranium legacy sites in Mailuu-Suu, Min-Kush and Shekaftar. Operations will be guided by a strategic master plan defining priority sites, prepared under the leadership of the IAEA.
See also the information paper on Tajikistan.
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.
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)
Blacksmith Institute report