Let there be light - Areva in Niger
Its supporters describe nuclear energy as a safe, clean and green form of energy. However, generating nuclear energy requires fuel that is acquired through the destructive and deadly activity of uranium mining. Uranium mining can have catastrophic effects on nearby communities and the environment for thousands of years to come. There are few places where these harmful effects are felt more distinctly than Niger.
When uranium was discovered in impoverished Niger in the 1960s many thought the discovery would contribute to the economic and social development of the country. Unfortunately, it turned out to be a poisoned gift. Niger today is one of the poorest countries of the world, ranking third last in the Human Development Index of the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) and with 40 % of the children underweight.
Mining uranium to satisfy France's needs
The uranium mines in Niger are mainly operated by the French state-owned company Areva which, in its own words ranks first in the global nuclear power industry. Areva imports half of its uranium from Niger. France has been exploiting uranium mines in Niger for the last 40 years and is the main foreign investor in the country. More than two bulbs in three in France are lit by uranium from Niger while the local population has no access to electricity. Unfortunately consumers in Europe are generally not aware of what is behind the production of electricitywhen they switch the light on.
In April 2010 Greenpeace released a report denouncing Areva for contaminating the environment around the mining sites at Arlit and Akokan about 850 kilometers northwest of the country's capital Niamey. Both towns were originally created by Areva to house its workers.
The contamination affects some 80 000 people. The radioactivity measured in Akokan was 500 times higher than the normal. Radioactive waste had also been used for the construction of the streets. Pieces of radioactive scrap metal are sold on the local market in Arlit, with radiation doses rate reaching up to 50 times more than the normal background levels. Locals use these materials to build their homes. In Arlit, Greenpeace measured a concentration of uranium in drinking water; this was up to four times above the limit recommended by the World Health Organisation.
Overall in over 40 years of operation, a total of 270 billion litres of water have been used, contaminating the water and draining the aquifer. The water is pumped from a groundwater table - the Tarat aquifer - which is 150 metres deep. This is a fossil aquifer, meaning the water is not easily renewed: it will take millions of years for it to fill up again. The decreasing water supply also has huge social and economic impacts and particularly threatens nomadic herders. In a country where fertile land for agriculture is scarce, communities compete for farming resources. In Niger, only 11.5% of land area is arable. The emptying of aquifers increases the rate of desertification, the drastic decline of land into an arid and dry state. Desertification is caused by overgrazing, over-drafting of groundwater and diversion of water from rivers for human consumption and industrial use. The Sahara currently expands its sands at a rate of 5 kilometers every year.
As early as 2007, an investigation of the France-based independent investigative commission on radioactivity, CRIIRAD, had found high levels of radiation in the streets of Akokan. In September 2009 Areva claimed that a detailed mapping of radioactivity and a thorough programme of decontamination had been performed under the control of the local authorities, but obviously the reality is unfortunately quite different.
Exposure to radioactivity can cause respiratory problems, birth defects, leukemia and cancer, to name just a few health impacts. Local witnesses confirm the high incidence of cancer as cause of death, but Greenpeace International and Médecins du Monde have lamented that it is impossible to document causes of death among mine workers and local population statistically because of lack of access to data. In fact Areva controls the hospitals in both towns and these hospitals are suspected of intentionally misclassifying cancer as HIV or other diseases. This allows Areva to brazenly claim that there has been not a single case of cancer attributable to mining in the last 40 years. Médecins du Monde also complained that it had started a cooperation programme with Areva for the application of health and labour safety measures in the mines the company operates in Africa, but Areva did not change its practices at all.
In December 2010 Greenpeace revealed that at least 200 000 cubic liters of radioactive sludge had leaked at the Areva operated Somair uranium mine near Arlit, because the waste pools containing the nuclear waste had cracked.
With each day that passes, Nigeriens are exposed to radiation, illness and poverty without seeing any benefits - while Areva makes billions from their natural resources. Areva’s revenues for 2008 were €13.1 billion, with a profit of €589 million. Nonetheless, the company continues to invest insufficient money to guarantee basic health standards for the people near the uranium mines. The governmental agency in place to monitor or control Areva’s actions is understaffed and underfunded and lacks the means to effectively measure radioactivity in the air. Moreover, the government of Niger seemed more concerned with posing obstacles and restrictions to Greenpeace's research than with acting against Areva. Greater oversight and control is absolutely necessary given that Areva plans to open a further large mine in Imouraren in 2013 or 2014.