The Kyrgyzstan parliament is considering legislation a long-term ban on uranium mining in the country, extending a short-term moratorium placed last week in response to public pressure.
While details on the legislation are unclear, Eurasianet reports that the ban will be expected to last decades, and could include other radioactive materials such as thorium. Facilities reprocessing waste from Soviet-era uranium projects, however, will continue to be allowed to operate.
While current uranium production in the country is negligible, local company Kara-Baltinski operates a uranium processing and calcining plant, which produces uranium dioxide. Additionally, a number of foreign companies, from Australia, Canada, China and the US, have explored potential uranium extraction projects in the country. Most notably these include the development of the Kyzyl Ompul uranium and rare earths project, owned by UrAsia, a local subsidiary of Canadian miner Azarga Uranium.
UrAsia’s acquisition of the project for $7.6m in 2017 sparked the protests that led to the ban. While Kyrgyzstan produced more than 9,000 tonnes of uranium between 1946 and 1967 in the Jalal-Abad province alone, the era was plagued by public health risks and economic corruption, which have turned public opinion against new uranium projects in the country.
“The company understands that the Kyrgyz Republic’s parliament has voted to ban uranium exploration and mining in the country,” said Azarga last week. “The company further understands that before this ban can be implemented into law, a strict law-making process must be followed, requiring further parliamentary readings and the president’s sign-off of the proposed law.”
Azarga remains optimistic that the government will honour its mining licence, which is valid until the end of 2020, regardless of the ban. At the time of writing, it has not received word from government officials that the permit has been cancelled. However, the government’s ban creates a legal grey area, where the firm is paradoxically entitled to mine for uranium in a country where no uranium can be mined.
The ruling has also prompted complaints from the country’s Chamber of Commerce, which considers the ban to be ultimately detrimental to the Kyrgyz economy. The Kyzyl Ompul project is estimated to have uranium resources of up to 51.33 million pounds, none of which now looks likely to be extracted and processed.