Georgia appears to be mulling a nuclear power option as it strives to cut its energy dependency on Russia. At the same time, the country's Environment Ministry is struggling to come up with a plan to contain thousands of tons of toxic waste.
On June 15, local media outlets broke the news that Georgia was exploring the feasibility of constructing a nuclear power station. The reports cited Georgian Ambassador to France Mamuka Kudava, who revealed that President Mikheil Saakashvili had held talks in Paris with representatives of the French nuclear power company Areva. While Prime Minister Zurab Noghaideli tried to downplay the meeting, Parliamentary Speaker Nino Burjanadze characterized the potential project as "very important" for Georgia.
Few details have since emerged about the idea now only being evaluated by experts, according to the ambassador. Even so, the nuclear option has already sparked security concerns. "Our country is much exposed to many risks. Why add a new one and a nuclear one, at that?" political analyst Giorgi Kukhashvili wrote in the Russian daily Izvestia on June 18.
Georgia has never had a nuclear power plant, and, according to experts, is not known to have the capacities to handle nuclear waste from a reactor. The possible costs for exporting nuclear waste elsewhere have not yet been estimated.
According to Dr. Zaza Rostomashvili, acting deputy director at the Andronikashvili Institute of Physics in Tbilisi, the only suitable storage facility for nuclear waste is located at Mtskheta, a popular tourist town some 27 kilometers from the Georgian capital. The area was the site of a nuclear research reactor that was operated by the Georgian Academy of Sciences during the Soviet era, but it is currently not operating. This year, the Georgian government, together with the United States, renovated an old storage facility on the site to serve as a temporary secure holding center for all radioactive waste in the country.
The nuclear power station debate is destined to fuel an ongoing discussion about Georgia's security against individuals trafficking in radioactive or nuclear materials. A uranium smuggling scandal earlier this year stoked considerable domestic and international concern. [For background see the Eurasia Insight archive]. In February, Georgia signed a previously planned agreement with the United States for combating trafficking in nuclear or radioactive materials.
Experts interviewed by EurasiaNet over the past three months say the relatively small amount of radioactive waste in Georgia from spent Soviet-era weapons has few or no military applications. But until the July publication of an inventory compiled by the Ministry of Environmental Protection and Natural Resources, with help from the United Nations Development Program, the government lacks precise data on toxic waste.
One of the largest stockpiles of waste is 100,000 tons of arsenic near former factories in the remote, mountainous northern regions of Svaneti and Racha. Arsenic, used as a component for chemical weapons by the Soviet military, was abandoned at two sites, one only about 500 meters from a village.
Professor Avtandil V. Dolidze, the chemical ecology laboratory chief at the Petre Melikishvili Institute of Physical and Organic Chemistry in Tbilisi, referred to the area surrounding the dumps as "dead." The fact that the waste is "laying open under the stars" means that it presents a real threat for the rest of the country, as well, he added, through ground water seepage to the river system. "This is the biggest problem," Dolidze said. "This all goes to the Black Sea."
The Ministry of Environmental Protection and Natural Resources has been working with the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe to secure funding for cleaning up these sites, although to date no agreement has been reached on a specific program, said Alverd Chankseliani, head of the ministry's department of chemical material and waste management.
According to Chankseliani, Georgia's most serious challenge is the soil and ground water pollution caused by Soviet-era pesticides that have languished in the countryside. The UNDP inventory estimates the total amount at 3,000 tons second in the Caucasus to Azerbaijan with 4,000 tons. Based largely on that inventory, the government has identified several "hot spots" that are now slotted for attention, with help from international donors. Georgia's first pesticide clean-up is slated to commence this summer in Kakheti, the heartland of the country's wine industry.
One hundred thousand lari (almost $60,000) was earmarked for the project in Georgia's 2007 budget. The final clean-up bill, though, could far surpass that sum. Khatuna Akhalaia, the local coordinator for one international organization involved in the clean-up, said that disposal costs for pesticides can range as high as 2,000 euros (roughly $2,686) per kilogram. Based on that figure, the total for the Kakheti project could top $8 million.
The country's largest toxic dumpsite is located near the southern city of Rustavi, not far from the Azerbaijani border, and holds an estimated 2,700 tons of pesticides. It is completely accessible to the local population, which reportedly digs through the waste to salvage metal barrels that were used for storage. The environment ministry's Chankseliani terms the situation "dangerous."
According to research done by the Caucasus Environmental NGO Network, much of the danger stems from the fact that pesticides are DDT-based. While DDT was officially banned in Georgia in the 1970s, farmers continue to use the chemical against insects, the organization says.
Whether or not DDT has affected local food supplies, however, remains unknown. Crop studies have not yet been performed at harvest times.
Local environmentalists maintain that the pesticide dumps and other pollutants are steadily poisoning Georgians nationwide. The environment ministry's Chankseliani concedes the likelihood, but with a catch. Given current data, he contends, for now it is "very difficult" to identify a "direct correlation." between local health problems and the pesticides.
Molly Corso is a freelance reporter and photojournalist based in Tbilisi.