I first heard of “radioactive coal” in the summer of 2012, when I was living in the small village of Koyan, one of many settlements in Eastern Kazakhstan that hosted the Soviet-era Semipalatinsk Nuclear Test Site. A scandal over the sale of radioactive coal had erupted in the fall of 2011 when local media began reporting on a train from Kazakhstan carrying more than eight thousand tons of it (in 130 wagons) to a heating plant in Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan. Upon discovering that radioactivity in the shipment was eight times higher than normal, Kyrgyz authorities had it removed from the Bishkek's central heating plant. Rather than discarding it, they put it to use elsewhere, including in the heating stoves of more than one orphanage, a kindergarten, and several rural schools. When media covered this development, public outcry forced Kyrgyz politicians to demand that the coal be returned to Kazakhstan; allegations of corruption and arrests of Kyrgyz officials ensued. Political wrangling over responsibility and refunds meant that negotiations between Kazakh and Kyrgyz authorities took more than a year to complete. Finally, Kazakhstan allowed the coal to be returned.

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