The former Soviet republic of Tajik-istan, where Josef Stalin's empire once mined uranium to create its first nuclear bomb, is on the brink of ecological catastrophe with millions of tonnes of nuclear waste polluting its land.
Contaminated soil is "open to wind and rain" and nuclear waste "is dispersed over dozens, if not hundreds, of kilo-meters around," said Saulius Smalys, the pan-European Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe's (OSCE) environment advisor in Dushanbe.
The first Soviet nuclear bomb was tested on Aug. 29, 1949, on a field in Kazakhstan, but the uranium used to make it was extracted in northern Tajikistan.
"After the Soviet era uranium extraction in northern Tajikistan, some 50 million tonnes of radioactive waste still remain. If earthquakes, landslides or other cataclysms were to intensify, the contamination may spread," Smalys warned.
"Extraction was done manually, with sieves. The technology was so primitive that most of uranium bioxides remained in the waste dump," he said.
Stalin, who had launched an arms race with the US over the bomb's creation, ceaselessly prodded Tajiks on to speed up uranium extraction. Nuclear waste -- the rocks still containing some uranium -- were left in the field without care for ecological concerns.
Nowadays, the radiation levels now in abandoned mines exceed the norm by scores, while hundreds of Tajiks continue to live on polluted territories, with mine entrances still yawning wide open for the wind to carry contamination far away. According to the OSCE, cancer levels in the north of Tajikistan are 250 percent higher than in other regions.
"Some mines are in inundated areas, near rivers, and radioactive waste may reach the Syrdaria river with rains," Smalys said.
This would prove a catastrophe to the fertile Fergana valley along the great Syrdaria river, with its 10 million inhabitants.
The OSCE plans to aid Tajikistan in working out a technical project to decontaminate the area and is calling on sponsors such as the International Atomic Energy Agency and NATO for funds.
"First of all the mines must be covered with 3 meters of gravel and clay," Smalys said.
Tajikistan would require "hun-dreds of millions of dollars" to decontaminate about 10 abandoned mines, said Djabor Salomov, vice-director of the Tajik Academy of Sciences' nuclear security agency.
"The waste-littered places are not safe. Locals search for cables and irradiated metals in the dumps to sell or use at home," the state environment committee's councillor Djalil Buzurukov said.
"We have no funds to monitor the contaminated territories. The mines are a legacy of the past and a menace for our future," Buzurukov said.