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President of Kyrgyzstan approves ban on uranium, thorium mining

Kyrgyz President Sooronbay Jeenbekov has signed a bill banning the mining of uranium and thorium in the Central Asian republic.

The bill passed the Kyrgyz parliament at the end of October with 110 votes in its favor and only one against, before receiving the president's blessing in mid-December. It also prohibits exploration and prospecting for the two radioactive metals, as well as the development of radioactive tailings dumps and the import of uranium- and thorium-bearing raw materials and waste, according to a statement from the president's office.

The speaker of Kyrgyzstan's parliament, Dastan Dzhumabekov, cited rallies demanding a ban on the extraction of uranium ore as the bill was passed on Oct. 31, according to Russian state news agency Interfax.

"There has been a strong public reaction in recent years to what are considered unsafe and poorly managed operations," Christopher Weafer, a founding partner of Eurasia-focused consultancy Macro-Advisory, told S&P Global Market Intelligence.

The legislation was proposed to parliament following a series of anti-uranium demonstrations in Bishkek, the country's capital, and protests by locals and activists over the development of the Kyzyl-Ompul deposit near Lake Issyk-Kul in northern Kyrgyzstan.

While the country no longer produces significant amounts of uranium, a few international companies have undertaken exploration work in recent years.

Azarga Uranium Corp., a Toronto-listed exploration and development company, sold its interest in the Kyzyl-Ompul project in November, with CEO Blake Steele citing "continued political uncertainty" for the sector in Kyrgyzstan.

The country has seen the issuance of 20 licenses to develop uranium deposits, Interfax reported Dec. 16, citing the Kyrgyz government.

In Soviet times, Moscow sourced considerable amounts of the radioactive metal from Kyrgyzstan to fuel its nuclear weapons and energy programs, with environmental and health repercussions casting a pall of disquiet over the country's uranium industry in recent times.

Even Kyrgyzstan's larger gold mining sector has not been entirely unscathed by public concerns over environmental damage. Work was halted in August at the Sultan Sary mine, which is operated by Zhong Ji Mining Co.

"The government has yielded to public pressure and shut the uranium mine operations at least partially to ease ... pressure on the gold and coal mines," Weafer said. "People may take the victory in the uranium sector and look for more bans."

The upshot is that mine operators in Kyrgyzstan will need to spend a lot more money on environmental issues and be very careful about site management, according to Weafer.