Uranium Mining in Niger

Chain Reaction #119, Nov 2013, www.foe.org.au/chain-reaction/editions/119

In the latest unrest at Niger's uranium mines, one person was killed and 14 wounded in a car bomb attack at Areva's uranium mine at Arlit, northern Niger, on May 23. Two suicide bombers were also killed. On the same day, military barracks in the northern town of Agadez were attacked, resulting in the deaths of 18 soldiers and one civilian.

The Arlit attack caused sufficient damage to force a halt to mining operations, which were partially restarted on June 18.

The Movement for Oneness and Jihad in West Africa (MUJAO) claimed responsibility for the attacks, in retaliation for military involvement in neighbouring Mali. MUJAO was one of three Islamist groups that seized control of northern Mali last year before French-led troops drove them out.

Moktar Belmoktar, whose brigade calls itself 'Those Who Sign In Blood', also claimed responsibility for the Arlit attack and is believed to be responsible for an attack on a gas plant in Algeria in January which resulted in 80 deaths including 37 foreign hostages.

Areva and uranium mining in Niger

Areva has been mining uranium in Niger for more than 40 years and operates two mines in the north of the country through affiliated companies Somair (Arlit mine) and Cominak (the nearby Akokan mine). Areva is also working to start up a third uranium mine in Niger, at Imouraren.

In July 2007, rebels attacked the compound of an electricity company that powers the area's towns and the Arlit and Akokan uranium mines, but government troops fought them off. Around the same time, rebels made a series of attacks on government and mining interests, killing 15 government soldiers and abducting over 70 more.

Four French workers were kidnapped in 2008 by Tuareg-led rebels and released several days later. The rebel Niger Justice Movement (MNJ) said the French were seized to demonstrate to foreign mining companies that the Niger government could not guarantee the security of their operations.

In August 2008, gunmen killed one civilian and wounded another in an attack on a lorry used for transporting uranium from north Niger to a port in Benin.

In 2010 in Arlit, seven employees of Areva and one of its contractors were kidnapped. Four of them, all French nationals, are still being held. The group has repeatedly threatened to execute them in retaliation for the French-led intervention in Mali.

After the 2010 kidnapping, the French government sent special military forces to protect Areva's uranium mines in Niger, supplementing private security companies which mostly employ former military personnel. The use of French military forces to protect commercial interests led to renewed criticisms of French colonialism in Africa. (France ruled Nigeria as a colony for 60 years, ending in 1960.) In any case, French military forces and Nigerien counter-terrorism units failed to prevent the May 23 attack.

An Areva employee said questions were still being asked as to how the May 23 attack could have happened considering "the impressive military and security apparatus" that was in place. Agoumou Idi, a worker at the mine site, said: "We saw a car enter the factory and immediately it exploded. The terrorists, probably from MUJAO, took advantage of the fact that the entrance gate was open in order to let in a truck carrying the next shift of workers. They used that opening to enter the heart of our factory and explode their vehicle."

In addition to attacks and kidnappings, the Arlit mine has been subject to worker disputes. Workers began an open-ended strike on August 20, 2012 over labour conditions, but the strike ended the following day as negotiations resumed with management over conditions at the mine.

There have also been strikes at the nearby Akokan uranium mine. About 1,200 workers began a 72-hour strike on July 9, 2012 to demand higher wages. A 48-hour strike began on April 18, 2013 to demand the payment of a bonus on the mine's 2012 financial results. In May 2012, the social security tribunal of Melun (France) condemned Areva for the lung cancer death of a former employee of the Akokan mine. The court ordered Areva to pay 200,000 Euros plus interest in damages, and to double the widow's pension. Serge Venel died of lung cancer in July 2009 at the age of 59, after working at the Akokan mine from 1978 to 1985.

Ethnic and regional tensions

Areva's operations have exacerbated ethnic and regional tensions within Niger. Uranium production is concentrated in the northern homeland of the nomadic Tuareg minority, who have repeatedly risen in revolt, charging that whatever resources do accrue from the mining operations go primarily to the southern capital of Niamey.

According to the UN human development index, Niger is the third poorest country on the planet, with 70% of the population continuing to live on less than US$1 a day and life expectancy reaching only 45.

Khadija Sharife wrote in a 2010 Pambazuka article: "French interests on the continent were realised through France's postcolonial Africa policy, known as Françafrique, extending to the diplomatic and political echelons of the Elysée from the days of de Gaulle. The policy comprised corporate and intelligence lobbies, multinationals intimately connected to the State such as Elf and Areva, French-backed dictators, and shadow networks named in honour of its masterminds such as Jacques Foccart, de Gaulle's chief Africa advisor who was called out of retirement at age 81 by French President Jacques Chirac to resume activities. Chirac himself would declare in the early 1990s that the continent 'was not yet ready for democracy.' ... Currently, the Niger's 12,000 armed forces are guided by 15 French military advisors, with Nigerien personnel largely trained, armed and financed by France, protecting five critical defence zones – namely geostrategic routes and mines."

In 2008, international transparency campaigners meeting under the umbrella of the Extractive Industries Transparency Initiative condemned the opaqueness surrounding Nigerien mining contracts and demanded their "full publication in the official gazette and the elimination of confidentiality clauses." Nigerien environmental and civil society groups have also denounced the 'vagueness' of local authorities over numerous uranium and oil prospecting licences granted to foreign firms, including Areva. In May 2008 the Nigerien parliament rejected the creation of a commission of inquiry into mining contracts.

Environmental and health impacts

Areva was one of three companies receiving the Prix Pinocchio awards in 2012, in the category "Dirty Hands, Pockets Full" (prix-pinocchio.org). Friends of the Earth France said Areva "refuses to recognise its responsibility for the deterioration of the living conditions of people living near its uranium mines in Africa", a charge that was denied by Areva.

In 2008, Areva received a Public Eye Award as one of "the world's most irresponsible companies" for its uranium mining operations in Niger (publiceye.ch). NGOs the Berne Declaration and Pro Natura alleged: "Uranium mining in Niger: mine workers are not sufficiently informed about health risks, open-air storage of radioactive materials. Workers with cancer are deliberately given a false diagnosis at the company hospital."

Niger's uranium mines have been the subject of many environmental and health controversies including leaks; contamination of water, air and soil; the sale of radioactive scrap metal; the use of radioactive ore to build roads; and poorly managed radioactive tailings dumps.

In November 2009, Greenpeace − in collaboration with the French independent laboratory CRIIRAD (Commission for Independent Research and Information about Radioactivity − criirad.org) and the Nigerien NGO network ROTAB (Network of Organizations for Transparency and Budget Analysis − rotabniger.org) − carried out a scientific study of the areas around the Areva mining towns Arlit and Akokan. The groups found:

  • In four of the five water samples that Greenpeace collected in the Arlit region, the uranium concentration was above the WHO recommended limit for drinking water.
  • A measurement performed at the police station in Akokan showed a radon concentration in the air three to seven times higher than normal levels in the area.
  • The concentration of uranium and other radioactive materials in a soil sample collected near the underground mine was found to be about 100 times higher than normal levels in the region, and higher than the international exemption limits.
  • On the streets of Akokan, radiation dose rate levels were found to be up to almost 500 times higher than normal background levels. A person spending less than one hour a day at that location would be exposed to more than the maximum allowable annual dose.
  • Although Areva claims no contaminated material gets out of the mines anymore, Greenpeace found several pieces of radioactive scrap metal on the local market in Arlit, with radiation dose rates reaching up to 50 times more than the normal background levels. Locals use these materials to build their homes.

The pattern seems to be weak environmental and public health standards which are only addressed − partially − when local or international NGO scrutiny embarrasses Areva, or in response to local worker and citizen protests such as the 5,000-strong demonstration in May 2006.

Some 2,000 students held a protest in Niger's capital Niamey on April 5, 2013 against Areva to demand their country get a bigger slice of its uranium mining revenues. Marchers held placards saying "No to exploitation and neo-colonialism" and "No to Areva". Mahamadou Djibo Samaila, secretary general of the Union of Niamey University Students, said: "The partnership in the mining of uranium is very unbalanced to the detriment of our country."

The Niger Movement for Justice, a largely Tuareg-armed militia active since 2007, has demanded a more equitable distribution of uranium revenue, protection from ecological degradation and access to constitutional rights such as water and waste sanitation, education and electricity.

The government has dismissed the armed civil society movement as anti-democratic 'drug smugglers'. Yet the government has also complained about Areva's behaviour. In 2007, the government expelled Dominique Pin, head of Areva Niger, from the country. In February 2013, President Mahamadou Issoufou said the government intends to renegotiate its partnership with Areva for the exploitation of uranium resources.

Reprinted from WISE/NIRS Nuclear Monitor #765, 1 August 2013