Saturday 15 October 2011

Uranium Mining in Niger - Tuareg Activist Takes On French Nuclear Company

by Cordula Meyer

Consider that "Niger, rated the poorest country in the world, is the third-largest producer of uranium with a 9 pct global market share".

Despite producing all the uranium - with all of the health costs, Niger is rated poorest in the world?
Who profits?

For the past 40 years, the French state-owned company Areva has been mining uranium for Europe's nuclear power needs in Niger, one of the poorest countries on Earth. One local activist is taking on the company, claiming that water and dust have been contaminated and workers are dying as a result of its activities.

The man from Niger had come to speak with the CEO of Germany's biggest bank. Last May, Almoustapha Alhacen was sitting in Frankfurt's Festhalle convention center as he listened to Deutsche Bank CEO Josef Ackermann tell his audience that despite the financial crisis, his bank was doing better again. Ackermann spoke of responsibility, and he said that "the market and morality" were not contradictions, but would "harmonize with each other for the benefit of everyone."

But in the desert region where Alhacen comes from, there is no harmony between markets and morality. He wanted to tell Ackermann about it, after a group of critical shareholders had invited him to attend the Deutsche Bank shareholders' meeting. Alhacen, wearing a traditional Tuareg robe, a face veil and a turban, stood out among the other people attending the meeting. He was calm as he walked up to the lectern, his face projected onto a large screen on the wall.

"Bonjour, Monsieur Ackermann," Alhacen began, speaking French with an African accent. He had five minutes to describe to Ackermann the catastrophe he has been fighting for the past nine years. He said he was the founder of an environmental organization in the city of Arlit in northern Niger. He said that Areva, a French company, is mining uranium there. He also described the alleged dark side of Areva's operations: millions of tons of radioactive waste, contaminated water and serious illnesses. And Deutsche Bank was partially connected to this, Alhacen said, because it lends a lot of money to Areva.

Alhacen also spoke of responsibility, just as Ackermann had done in his remarks. Anyone who makes a profit by lending money to the uranium industry, he said, should help "fight the serious problems that have arisen in connection with uranium mining." Ackermann responded by saying that Deutsche Bank cares a great deal about protecting the environment. Alhacen has never heard another word from Deutsche Bank since the Frankfurt event.

Mysterious Illnesses

Alhacen founded his organization, Aghirin Man, nine years ago, when he noticed that many of his fellow workers were dying of mysterious illnesses.

Alhacen never went to school, and to this day one of his greatest pleasures in life is to ride a camel. When he is displeased about something, he pulls his veil over his face so that only his eyes remain visible. Aghirin Man's offices in Arlit consist of two rooms next to a tailor's shop. An Austrian couple, who are friends of Alhacen's, donated old computers to the organization. His desk chair is missing an armrest, and red dust coats the furniture.

These two dingy rooms are Alhacen's headquarters in his fight against Areva, a global conglomerate.

Areva, which operates uranium mines and build nuclear power plants, has its headquarters in Paris. Its total sales in 2009 were €14 billion ($19 billion). The company is owned almost entirely by the French state, which was the colonial power in Niger until 1960. The French established their first mining company eight years after Niger's independence. Uranium was deposited in sediments in the region millions of years ago, when it was a river delta. Since 1968, excavating machines have dug more than 100,000 tons of the nuclear fuel out of the ground beneath the Sahara.

France sells some of its electricity generated by nuclear power to Germany, and Areva employs 5,200 people in Germany. Every weekend, the players in a German soccer club, 1. FC Nürnberg, which plays in the country's top league, the Bundesliga, run onto the field wearing Areva jerseys. France has 58 nuclear reactors, which generate most of the country's electricity, and the fuel for those reactors comes from Niger.

Uranium from Niger has served as a fuel for Europe's energy supply for 40 years. The country is one of the world's least-developed nations. One in four children dies before the age of five.

The conditions in Niger are one of the dirty sides of supposedly clean nuclear energy. The activities there are well hidden from the outside world: The uranium mining takes place in the middle of nowhere. There are bandits in the region who kidnap white people and sell them to al-Qaida. The region was long under martial law because of a rebellion by the Tuareg. Today, Arlit is still accessible only by military convoy.

Recently, however, a Greenpeace team went to Arlit. They brought along Geiger counters, which detected levels of radioactivity that were far higher than they should have been. There are two uranium mines in the area, one near Arlit and the other near the nearby town of Akokan. One is an open pit mine and the other reaches about 250 meters (820 feet) underground -- the world's largest underground uranium mine.

Fighting for Their Share of Revenues  

A total of 80,000 people live in the two cities Areva created in the desert to service the mines. There are no paved roads, but there is plenty of reddish-brown dust, which penetrates into every crack and pore. Well water is radioactively contaminated, and precious fossil groundwater is used in the uranium ore processing plant. The region's nomads are finding fewer and fewer pastures for their cattle, and people are affected by fatal illnesses.

The mines have also contributed to the uprisings, in which the Tuareg rebels use violence in an attempt to get their share of uranium revenues. Niger is a divided country, with the Tuareg living in the north and the dominant Hausa ethnic group in the south. The capital is in the south, and the south controls the country. Uranium revenues from the north are used to buy weapons in the south, which the government then uses to keep the north in check.

Arlit was once glorified as a "second Paris." But today it is a place where the desert wind blows red sand through the streets. It is a hot, red monochromatic place, with houses made of red clay and streets paved in red dust, where sandstorms repeatedly darken the sky. A massive hill, made up of 35 millions tons of waste material from the mine, is visible from the northwestern edge of Arlit. Although the uranium has already been extracted from the material, it retains 85 percent of its radiation, stemming from substances like radium and thorium, which have half-lives measured in thousands of years. The waste material lies there, uncovered, exposed to the desert winds. Residents grow tomatoes and lettuce between the waste dump and the city.

Depending on Areva

This is the problem with a powerful corporation. Criirad, Aghirin Man and Sherpa are small organizations that survive on donations. Even Alhacen is a critic that Areva can still tolerate, because he too has arguably made a deal with the devil. He still works for Areva.

There is no other place to work in Arlit than in the plant. Arlit is Areva. And even a critic like Alhacen depends on Areva.

In northern Niger, one third of children are malnourished, and thousands die of diarrhea and pneumonia. It wouldn't take very much money to prevent a great deal of suffering in Niger. In a country like this, is it right to demand the same strict radiation protection measures as in Europe?

A few years ago, Areva defended itself with the argument that it didn't view itself primarily as a charity. Niger is also helped, Areva officials said, if people get work and the government earns revenues from uranium production.

The Cost of Europe's Energy

Alhacen loses his temper when he hears this. "Who said anything about charity?" he asks. "It's our uranium! Areva's charity is pollution, some of which will always remain with us. Areva is committing a crime here. They take the water, and trees and plants disappear as a result. There is no life. And what for? For your energy."

The uranium also aggravates the conflict between the Tuareg rebels in the north and the government in the south. The last uprising ended only a few months ago. Many of the former rebels have already switched to drug smuggling and human trafficking. And what if someone tried to smuggle uranium?

Chaos is always a dangerous thing in a country with uranium reserves. President Mamadou Tandja, who was ousted in a military coup in mid-February, had threatened to sell his yellowcake to Iran. The man is now gone, but his idea remains, triggering fears in the West.
'They Can't Go Anywhere Else'

The Tuareg, on the other hand, fear a total sellout of their country. The year 2007 marked a high point in the global nuclear renaissance, and the market price of yellowcake shot up. President Tandja awarded more than 100 exploration licenses for uranium regions. The licensed areas cover the land of the Tuareg almost completely.

"The Tuareg live from their animals," says Alhacen. "They can't go anywhere else. They live from this land, and it belongs to them." Alhacen intends to continue fighting, so that at least the Tuareg can have a chance.

Last year he paid a visit to the opponents of a potential radioactive waste disposal facility near Gorleben in northeast Germany.  Alhacen gave a speech in the nearby town of Dannenberg. "You can't just fight against nuclear power plants and waste repositories," he said. "If you want to kill the tree, kill the roots."

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