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Kyrgyzstan’s uranium mining debate: Weighing economic benefits against environmental concerns

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Kyrgyzstan is contemplating lifting the moratorium on uranium and thorium mining, imposed in 2019 following the Kyzyl-Ompol field scandal. The Ministry of Natural Resources, backing a proposed draft law, argues for diversifying income sources through mineral extraction, particularly uranium. They promise stringent ecological regulations and ongoing environmental and public health monitoring for uranium and thorium exploration.

However, memories of environmental devastation from Soviet-era uranium mining linger. The country still contends with 92 sites of toxic and radioactive waste, with 36 in Mailuu-Suu, posing risks to groundwater and neighboring countries. Concerns about radiation and landslides threatening water sources led to protests in 2019, resulting in the uranium mining ban.

Despite this, President Sadyr Japarov proposes uranium mining as a significant economic opportunity. He compares the potential profits from the Kyzyl-Ompol fields to those of the Kumtor gold mine, emphasizing the economic benefits for both citizens and the state.

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The move coincides with Russia and Kyrgyzstan’s cooperation on a nuclear power plant, suggesting state involvement in field development. While some see this as a viable economic strategy, others advocate for cautious environmental stewardship.

Mining advocates, like Almazbek Zhakypov, emphasize the economic potential of utilizing valuable resources, arguing that modern technologies can mitigate environmental risks. Economist Marat Musuraliev agrees, asserting that adherence to safety standards can prevent harm.

However, concerns persist. Ecologists worry about the impact on UNESCO-protected biospheres like Issyk-Kul. They advocate for sustainable economic development, highlighting the importance of preserving biodiversity for future generations.

Critics question the lack of clarity regarding reclamation costs and environmental impact assessments. Without proper feasibility studies, the economic gains of field development may be overshadowed by potential losses.

As Kyrgyzstan weighs economic opportunities against environmental preservation, the debate over uranium mining underscores the delicate balance between economic growth and ecological sustainability.

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