Last Word: Uranium Tailings Tales
A hands-on lesson in the public attitudes and political behaviors of an atomic legacy
By Morgane Tréanton ’09
Last summer, I had the opportunity to accompany Amanda Wooden, a professor from the environmental studies program, across Kyrgyzstan, to conduct research in the river basins, mountains and valleys of this Central Asian nation. We traveled over hazardous roads through fantastic scenery to visit communities dealing with a range of environmental issues.
The citizens of Kyrgyzstan are handling a legacy of hazardous and toxic wastes, deciding whether to oppose a new gold mine, facing an increasingly scarce water supply, and wrangling over degraded pastureland. Our project focused on collecting information about environmental attitudes and observing patterns of political behavior in order to explain the wide variety of choices people and communities make when facing ecological hazards.
Our trip took us to Mailuu-Suu, the largest and most infamous uranium tailings (residue from the processing of uranium ore) site, in a four-wheel truck over a dusty, unpaved road, dodging animals on their way to alpine summer pastures. From 1948 to 1968, the factory in Mailuu-Suu produced and processed uranium ore for the Soviets’ first atomic bomb, resulting in two million cubic meters of radioactive waste — the equivalent of 400 Olympic-size swimming pools.
The lack of markings delineating the tailing zones and the proximity of these sites to the nearby river revealed the severity of the situation. Some tailing dumps were not marked. Others had old rusty signs saying “Stop! Radioactivity! Dangerous for your life,” and a few were surrounded by short metal fencing. None of these warnings kept livestock from grazing on these tailing sites or prevented seepage into the drinking water source a scant 10 feet away. Seismic activity in this densely populated region has also created additional public concern. I was lucky enough to attend a groundbreaking international conference about Central Asian uranium tailings in the capital, Bishkek — organized by the United Nations Development Programme — where it was estimated that $42 million are necessary to restore or minimize the hazardous waste sites in Kyrgyzstan.”
Dr. Wooden’s research focuses on public and elite attitudes about issues such as the Mailuu-Suu uranium tailing site and how these attitudes are translated into political behaviors, from letter-writing to cross-border conflicts. The project included a national public opinion survey of 1,500 people, 75 expert and elite in-depth interviews, media coverage content analysis and event case studies.
This was a rare and valuable opportunity for me. As a 2009 graduate in environmental studies with a minor in Russian, I was able to apply in the field the concepts that I learned in my courses and prior on-campus research with Dr. Wooden. Returning to the United States, I realized the tremendous value of my work and cross-cultural experiences in Kyrgyzstan. Environmental issues and field research have become more tangible to me after visiting many of the politicized environmental hotspots.
Talking with experts, activists and local officials, and analyzing how local and international media portray environmental issues gave me firsthand understanding of the links between the formation of individual concern and eventual political outcomes. I was privileged to witness when and how an international community deals with environmental hazards in a transitional country and when local governments join with communities to block potentially damaging international investment, such as at a roundtable on gold mining in remote Ala-Buka.
The most important thing I took away from this adventure is that perseverance and a positive attitude are key elements for improving hotspots like Mailuu-Suu, where progress is difficult but not impossible. And in life, it is these two elements that will aid you most in your journey.
Morgane Tréanton ’09 is sailing the high seas as a deckhand aboard a sail-training schooner.