In the heart of the Sahara lie some of the world’s largest uranium deposits. Until recently, the region had held little interest to the world’s trading partners, save France. Desert tribes, predominantly Tuareg nomads, had been mostly free to roam its vast, barren expanse; living off what little bounty it had to offer. Then a few years ago, rising fuel prices and climate change revived interest in the atom.
Countries like Britain, India and the US began reconsidering the nuclear option. In January 2008, the British Government also gave the green light to new nuclear power, arguing that it would be good for the environment and national security. Around the world, and most keenly in emerging economies, new nuclear power programmes were being launched. Uranium was making a comeback.
Niger, one of the world’s poorest countries, started to find itself at the centre of a lucrative export market. The government issued hundreds of exploration permits to prospectors from around the world. The search for uranium covered some 85,000 square kilometres along the Sahara’s mineral dense geological fissure .
Single-handedly, the French had already made Niger the world’s fourth largest uranium producer. The Paris-based nuclear giant, Areva, had been quietly mining in the region through subsidiaries Somair and Cominak since the early 1970s.
Amid a devastating drought, the company set up shop in the desert. It built housing, constructed roads and funded hospitals. Two mining towns mushroomed out of the desert, in a spot formerly marked by little more than a watering hole. In an area where camels had been the mode of transportation, and camel droppings a fuel for cooking, coal was to become the main source of power for the industry.
It was in 2003 that Bruno Chareyron, a nuclear scientist, first came into contact with a Tuareg miner turned campaigner. A director at the CRIIRAD, a research institute, Chareyron made a living from combing through old uranium mining sites in France, looking at the radioactive legacy left over from the otherwise defunct industry. Tuaregs were worried about what uranium mining was doing to their health and livelihoods, he was told by Almoustapha Alhacen, president of NGO Aghir in’Man.
Chareyron mailed over some Geiger counters (to measure radioactivity) along with a device to detect radon gas, a known, but naturally occurring, carcinogen, and visited Niger himself in 2003. There he discovered radioactive scrap metals from the processing mill that were finding their way to a local market and being recycled by locals into cooking pots and wall reinforcements.
|Greenpeace campaigners take samples to measure radiation levels in the streets of Akokan, a mining city located close to two uranium mines owned by the French company AREVA. Photo © Greenpeace / Philip Reynaers|
Beyond these discoveries, Chareyron’s first mission to the region was somewhat of a washout. Customs authorities had confiscated his equipment, allegedly acting on orders from Paris.
‘We wasted 3 or 4 days in Niamey,’ said Chareyron. ‘They [customs officials] insinuated that if our equipment had been seized, the key was to be found in France, with Areva.’
One bureaucrat was less equivocal: ‘Here, you are in France. France is blocking you,’ Chareyron says he was told.
Chareyron brought back water samples, which revealed contamination, and began ringing the alarm bell.
A soft-spoken but tenacious man, Chareyron is a thorn in the side of Areva’s polished communications teams. When Chareyron speaks of contaminated water, he knows precisely how Areva - who deny contamination - will respond. ‘Any traces of uranium in the water arises naturally from the fact that the mines cut through the aquifer,’ he says Areva will say, which it does.
What Areva says about the geology of the aquifer is true. But a recent investigation by Greenpeace confirms that there has been a gradual increase in uranium concentration in water over the last 20 years, which is likely due to mining. Water samples also revealed traces of dissolved radon gas and other chemicals, which are not monitored by Areva.
Uranium mining is a thirsty business. Somair and Cominak pump thousands of litres of water daily from the Tarat, a non-renewable reserve last replenished 3,000 years ago. Some 300 million cubic meters - the contents of Lake Windermere in England - have been siphoned over the years, in exchange for 100,000 tons of yellowcake.
A number of wells have dried up and levels have dropped by as much as 150 meters in wells close to Akokan, says Chareyron. By Areva’s estimates, nearly one-quarter of the water is gone. The two mines will run for another 15 years. The company plans to build a pipeline to another aquifer, the Teloua, ‘where the chemical quality is better,’ says Areva.
|Dead cattle on the road to Arlit. Photo © Greenpeace / Philip Reynaers|
‘Withdrawing water from an aquifer could have an immediate impact on vegetation,’ says Dr. Stefan Kröpelin of the University of Cologne, an expert on the Sahara, who is behind recent evidence of its greening. But the growth of mining villages amid the region’s fragile ecology could also have contributed to desertification.
The irony is that, in general, the Sahara is become wetter and greener. But not near the mines. ‘There is a very clear trend toward the regreening of the Sahara, but only in non-populated areas,’ says Kröpelin. ‘Once you approach the cities, you see the opposite effect. A tiny increase in rainfall, vegetation and fauna, can not make up for the exponential growth of a population.’
Areva would agree. Beyond the neatly constructed facilities destined for the mining community, is a patchwork of dusty shantytowns where nearly 60,000 people, mostly nomads, subside. The company blames desertification on locals who cut trees for firewood: in Niger barely 6 per cent of people have electricity.
Niger is hardly a picture of health. Ranked dead last on the U.N. Human Development Index, more than half of its population will face hunger this year. A mere third has access to healthcare, and statistically there are over 500 women to each maternity bed. Areva’s hospitals, which delivered basic healthcare freely, were seen as a blessing.
But the hospitals themselves became the source of controversy a few years ago, when it was discovered that radioactive rocks from the mines had been used to fill roads, most notably in front of the Akokan clinic. For critics, it was emblematic of Areva’s negligence vis-à-vis worker and public health.
‘The health care system Areva put in place was deceptive,’ says Dr. Michel Brugière of Medecins du Monde, who became embroiled in a two-year battle with Areva, alongside Sherpa, a human rights organisation. ‘They set up small clinics that delivered all the basic care, which was perhaps better than what might be found in the public system. But there was absolutely no monitoring of personnel or prevention.’
A study conducted in France, using Areva’s own dosimetric data, shows that uranium miners are more likely to die of lung and kidney cancers than the general population. Exposure to radioactivity can also lead to other conditions such as birth defects and leukaemia.
In Niger, however, all is well according to Areva. ‘Cancers are extremely rare. During 40 years of mining, not one case has been detected that was thought to have been caused by exposure to ionising radiation. Cancer is an illness found mainly in Western countries with elevated pollution levels and high consumption of rich food, tobacco and alcohol.’
But close reading by the CRIIRAD of a 2000-internal report by Cominak suggests a more nuanced reality. ‘The death rate due to respiratory infection in Arlit is 16.19 per cent, compared to 10.95 per cent in Agadez (a desert town far removed from the mining sites) and 8.54 per cent nationwide,’ the report reads. ‘Sand storms and air pollution from the mines are possible factors that aggravate respiratory conditions in the area.’
A report by Sherpa alleges that mining-related afflictions have likely been misdiagnosed in Areva’s hospitals. ‘The only confirmed cases of cancer involve people outside the mining companies,’ a former hospital employee told Sherpa. ‘When these symptoms affect company agents, one talks of malaria, AIDS…’
Both Sherpa and Greenpeace provide anecdotal evidence of people suffering from unknown conditions, possibly linked to the mines. Beyond these accounts, data is sorely lacking.
‘We don’t know what the situation is today,’ said Dr. Brugière. ‘The diagnostic must be established,’ he said of a recent agreement signed with Areva, and alluding to a batch of health records he’d just received, of some nineteen workers from Areva’s former mines in Gabon, who had all succumbed to cancer.
But for the Nigeriens, choice is severely limited. As Saoudé Idi, the wife of a former worker told Greenpeace: ‘We know there are indeed many, many diseases and risks linked with this work, but at least we have food on the table; we have something to eat.
Carolyn Lebel is a freelance journalist, in Paris.
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