In one of the poorest countries in the world, ranking last in the Human Development Index of the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP), where more than 40% of children are underweight for their age, water and access to improved water sources is scarce and almost three quarters of the population are illiterate, the French nuclear giant AREVA extracts precious -and deadly- natural resources, earning billions for its Fortune 500 corporation, and leaving little behind but centuries of environmental pollution and health risks for the citizens of Niger.
Nuclear energy giant AREVA is attempting a new nuclear revolution. The company has activities in over 100 countries throughout the world and aggressively pushes nuclear energy in new markets. Its public relations teams have been working overtime to convince governments, investors and the general public - hungry for clean energy - that nuclear energy is now a safe, clean, and ’green’ technology. The devastating effects caused by this alarming misconception are already being felt.
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, Africa.
A landlocked-Saharan country in West Africa, Niger has the lowest human development index on the planet. Arid desert, scarce arable land and intense poverty are hugely problematic - unemployment, minimal education, illiteracy, poor infrastructure and political instability are rife. However, Niger is rich in mineral resources - like uranium.
AREVA established its mining efforts in northern Niger 40 years ago, creating what should have been an economic rescue for a depressed nation. Yet, AREVA’s operations have been largely destructive. There are great clouds of dust, caused by detonations and drilling in the mines; mountains of industrial waste and sludge sit in huge piles, exposed to the open air; and the shifting of millions of tonnes of earth and rock could corrupt the groundwater source, which is quickly disappearing due to industrial overuse.
AREVA’s negligent mismanagement of the extraction process can cause radioactive substances to be released into the air, seep into the groundwater and contaminate the soil around the mining towns of Arlit and Akokan, all of which permanently damages the environmental ecosystem and can create a multitude of health problems for the local population.
Exposure to radioactivity can cause respiratory problems, birth defects, leukaemia and cancer, to name just a few health impacts. Disease and poor health abound in this region, and death rates linked to respiratory problems are twice that of the rest of the country. Yet AREVA has failed to take responsibility for any impacts. In fact, its company-controlled hospitals have been accused of misdiagnosing cases of cancer as HIV. It claims there has never been a case of cancer attributable to mining in 40 years—what it doesn’t say is that the local hospitals do not staff any occupational doctors, making it impossible for someone to be diagnosed with a work-related illness.
The governmental agency in place to monitor or control AREVA’s actions is understaffed and underfunded. For years, NGOs and international agencies have attempted to test and assess the dangerous levels of radiation that Niger is being exposed to. A comprehensive, independent assessment of the uranium mining impacts has never taken place.
However, in November 2009, Greenpeace – in collaboration with the French independent laboratory CRIIRAD and the Nigerien NGO network ROTAB - was able to do a brief scientific study of the area, measuring the radioactivity of the water, air and earth around the AREVA mining towns. While not exhaustive, the results were disturbing:
- In 40 years of operation, a total of 270 billion litres of water have been used, contaminating the water and draining the aquifer, which will take millions of years to be replaced.
- 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. Historical data indicate a gradual increase in uranium concentration over the last 20 years, which can point at the influence of the mining operation. Some of the water samples even contained dissolved radioactive gas radon.
- A radon 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.
- Fine (dust) fractions showed an increased radioactivity concentration reaching two or three times higher than the coarse fraction. Increased levels of uranium and decay products in small particles that easily spread as dust would point at increased risks of inhalation or ingestion.
- 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 rate reaching up to 50 times more than the normal background levels. Locals use these materials to build their homes.
After Greenpeace published some initial findings at the end of November 2009, AREVA had to take action. Some radioactive spots indicated by Greenpeace in one of the mining villages were cleaned up. However, this limited clean-up does not diminish the need for a comprehensive study so that all areas can be made safe for the community.
Greenpeace is calling for an independent study around the mines and towns of Arlit and Akokan, followed by a thorough clean up and decontamination. Controls must be put in place to ensure that AREVA follows international safety norms in its operations, taking into account the well-being of its workers, the surrounding populations and environment. AREVA must start to act like the responsible company that it claims to be. It must inform its workers and the local community about the risks of uranium mining; many of people in Niger have never heard of radioactivity and do not understand that uranium mining is dangerous.
The people of Arlit and Akokan continue to be surrounded by poisoned air, contaminated soil and polluted water. With each day that passes, Nigeriens are exposed to radiation, illness and poverty – while AREVA makes billions from their natural resources. The Nigerien people deserve to live in a safe, clean and healthy environment, and to share in the profits from the exploitation of their land.
AREVA, with its attempt to create a nuclear renaissance, brings to these communities the threat of losing the most basic elements necessary for life - poisoning their air, water and earth.
This report shows that nuclear power gambles with our lives, health and environment from the very beginning of the nuclear chain - mining for uranium. Dangerous and dirty nuclear power has no role in our sustainable energy future. Greenpeace calls for an energy revolution based on sustainable, cheap and safe renewable energies and energy efficiency.
Source: 'Left in the dust, AREVA’s radioactive legacy in the desert towns of Niger', Greenpeace International, May 2010. The report is available at: http://www.greenpeace.org/leftinthedust
Contact: Dr. Rianne Teule, Nuclear campaigner Greenpeace International. Ottho Heldringstraat 5, 1066 AZ Amsterdam, The Netherlands.
Tel: + 31 20 718 2229