Paris — Recent research by Greenpeace suggests that French state-owned company Areva’s public claims of decontamination of populated areas near uranium mines in Niger are false. High radio-activity persists in towns and rural areas near the mines, affecting some 80,000 people.
When uranium was discovered in the impoverished West African state in the 1960s, many thought that the radioactive mineral – indispensable as combustible for nuclear power plants and raw material for nuclear bombs – would be the panacea for all the social and economic afflictions haunting the former French colony.
Instead, as several recent reports by environmental organisations and independent researchers show, Niger’s uranium mines constitute a deadly gift for the country, both for its public health and its politics.
Today, Niger is considered the poorest country in the world. It ranks last in the Human Development Index, and it is confronting a political crisis caused by allegations of corruption and environmental conflicts — all linked to the uranium mines (see part two of this article).
According to a report that the global environmental organisation Greenpeace released on Mar 30, high radioactivity can still be detected on the ground near the Nigerien uranium mines, especially in the mining towns of Arlit and Akokan, some 850 km northeast of the capital Niamey.
Some 80,000 people live in these towns and in the nearby region. The mines are operated by the French state-owned company Areva, which describes itself as “rank(ing) first in the global nuclear power industry”. France, which has been exploiting uranium mines in Niger for 45 years, is the main foreign investor in Niger.
In an interview with IPS, Rianne Teule, nuclear energy campaigner for Greenpeace International, explained that the group’s research team visited Niger’s uranium mines last November to investigate whether Areva complies with basic health and labour standards.
“We found dangerous levels of radiation in the streets of Akokan,” Teule told IPS. “We also found high concentration of uranium in four of five samples of drinking water from Arlit, in doses beyond the limits established by the World Health Organisation,” Teule said.
“Areva had earlier claimed that such radiation had been identified and its sources addressed,” Teule said.
In some cases, the radioactivity measured by Greenpeace researchers in Akokan was 500 times higher than the normal levels.
“A person spending less than one hour per day in those places would be exposed to more than the maximum allowable annual radiation dose for the public recommended by the International Commission on Radiological Protection and enforced by legislation in most countries,” Teule said.
Greenpeace’s findings confirm earlier reports by other French environmental groups that have denounced Areva’s lack of responsibility in the operation of the uranium mines in Niger.
In 2007, an inspection by the independent investigative commission on radioactivity CRIIRAD (after its French name) and the Nigerien environmental organisation Aghir In’Man discovered high levels of radiation in the streets of Akokan.
In the immediate neighbourhood of the Akokan hospital, CRIIRAD measured levels of radiation up to 100 times higher than normal background values. CRIIRAD also identified the source of the radiation as the radioactive waste rock from the mines that had been used for road construction.
“We gave our findings to the Areva board of directors and the Nigerien local authorities and called for a comprehensive radiological survey and clean-up of the village,” Bruno Chareyron, an engineer in nuclear physics and director of research at CRIIRAD, told IPS.
CRIIRAD also found radioactive contamination in drinking water and radio-active scrap metal in the mining towns.
The public health consequences of the exploitation of uranium are only one of the many problems raised by the extractive industry in Niger.
Alain Joseph, a French hydro-geologist working in the West African country, told IPS that the “pasture economy is about to disappear in north-eastern Niger because of the dozens of mine projects installed there which over-exploit the scarce water resources of the area”.
In 2009 alone, Niger authorised 139 uranium research projects conducted by companies from Australia, Canada and China.
Joseph said that these projects are draining water from Agadez, the region’s only water source. “The uranium exploitation is not only decimating Niger’s environment and public health. It is also about to destroy the economic foundations of Tuareg, Fula, Kounta and other pastoral, nomadic people in the north of the country,” he said.