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Center for Safe Energy

Fighting nuclear waste disposal in Kazakhstan

Biologist Kaisha Atakhanova was chosen as the most influential and courageous activist in Asia this year. A long-time partner of the Center for Safe Energy, Atakhanova was recently awarded the 2005 Goldman Environmental Prize, the world’s most prestigious award for grassroots environmentalism.

Goldman Prize winner Kaisha Atakhanova with CSE co-directors Fran Macy and Enid Schreibman. Photo: David Tracy Photo: David Tracy Goldman Prize winner Kaisha Atakhanova with CSE co-directors Fran Macy and Enid Schreibman.

Atakhanova was recognized for her leadership in a two-year-long campaign against the import of nuclear waste into Kazakhstan. In June 2001, she learned that KazAtomProm, the state-owned nuclear company, had proposed legislation allowing the import of nuclear waste into Kazakhstan for disposal there. Atakhanova spurred NGO leaders into action. She explained, “We had a really strong team, and we just decided that we can absolutely NOT allow them to import waste into Kazakhstan.”

The proposed legislation would have amended a 10-year-old ban on importing nuclear waste. The Council of Ministers claimed that the considerable amount of money to be earned from accepting the waste would go toward decontaminating Kazakhstan’s radioactive stockpile from Soviet uranium mining and processing, and nuclear weapons testing. But Atakhanova and her supporters knew the situation would only worsen.

Atakhanova and 15 other NGO leaders reached out to NGOs throughout Kazakhstan, eventually forming a coalition of 60 organizations. Through public hearings, letters, and meetings with legislators, they disputed the claim that importing nuclear waste would be good for Kazakhstan. They argued that since Kazakhstan is rich in oil, gas, and other natural resources, there is no need to import radioactive waste to raise money. They also pointed out that due to widespread corruption, the earnings were unlikely to be spent in ways the government had proposed.

In the city of Aktau, site of the proposed waste dump, 500 citizens attended a public hearing lead by Atakhanova. They agreed to physically prevent disposal units from bringing in nuclear waste.

The coalition found out that Parliament would vote on the proposal in January 2003. “We knew the deputies in Parliament would go on vacation soon (for New Year’s), so we decided that we would do a ‘fax attack,'” says Atakhanova. She and her partners sent a draft letter to their sister organizations across Kazakhstan, inviting them to adapt it as they liked. Each organization faxed its legislator the letter from the community, saying that they opposed the proposed change in legislation and demanded to know how they would vote on the unpopular issue. They also explained that the legislator’s response would be published so that if they did not vote as they had promised their constituents would know about it. When the deputies had all responded, Atakhanova’s team put together a list showing how each representative planned to vote and made it public.

At a parliamentary hearing on the importation issue, a deputy told Atakhanova, “We received letters from all over Kazakhstan, each exactly the same except with a different stamp for each organization. For us that was terrifying.” Thanks to the public pressure sparked by Atakhanova and her network of NGOs, the Kazakh parliament members refused to even consider the legislation and no vote was held.

The best part of all was that Parliament had listened. “Before this, they hadn’t given the people very much attention and didn’t feel that civil society had strength and a voice,” Atakhanova explained. Awareness of Kazakhstan’s radioactive contamination issues is at an all-time high.

As a biologist, Atakhanova studied the effects of radiation on people and on the environment around the town of Semipalatinsk, where the main former Soviet nuclear weapons test site is located. In 1992, she founded her own environmental NGO, the Karaganda Ecological Center, or EcoCenter. The EcoCenter promotes environmental protection, supports other NGOs, and trains anti-nuclear activists nationwide on waste issues.

The EcoCenter has been a partner to Center for Safe Energy (CSE) since 1999, working on environmental and women’s leadership projects. “She is a symbol of what is possible, not only in Kazakhstan, but in the world,” CSE’s co-director Enid Schreibman said of Atakhanova. “What she has done is very inspiring.”


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