Thursday, March 17, 2011

The curse of uranium mining

Uranium mine in Niger
“The people here don’t know about radioactivity, but there are still many people who do not drink the water in Arlit...They say they are sick when they drink it,” says Almoustapha Alhacen, who lives in a town built for nuclear mine workers in northern Niger, a parched desert area.
global supply lines for uranium

This is a glimpse of life at the other end of the uranium fuel supply route (right: where uranium originates and goes) for a plant like Fukushima.

Can nuclear-power ever be sustainable? Not unless it cleans up its act. It is just as criminally irresponsible in sourcing its raw materials as the fossil fuel industry. Read on...

Hell on earth

In a harsh environment in sub-Saharan Niger, French nuclear company AREVA has created a hell on earth amongst its indigenous population.

Here you would find great clouds of dust, caused by detonations and drilling in the mines, which cloud the air at the end of the day. Mountains of radioactive industrial waste and sludge sit in huge piles, exposed to the open air.

And the shifting of millions of tonnes of earth and rock have contaminated the groundwater source, which is quickly disappearing due to industrial overuse.

AREVA's majority shareholder is the French government. In 2009 Niger produced nearly 7% of the world’s uranium and is one of the four largest suppliers of uranium to the European Union. Northern Niger holds the world’s third-largest uranium deposit.

Foreign investors from China, Australia, South Africa, America, and Canada have flocked to the landlocked Saharan state recently. At least 139 research and exploitation permits have been sold in less than a year without any transparency or prior public discourse, says a local NGO.

Evidence has emerged that the permits corruptly enriched Mr. Tandja, the ousted president, and devastated the Touareg population.

Abject poverty

A landlocked-Saharan place in West Africa, Niger is a country where 60 percent of people are facing severe food shortages; it has the lowest human development index on the planet, despite the fact that Areva makes huge profits from its mining operations.

Arid desert, scarce arable land and intense poverty are hugely problematic - unemployment, minimal education, illiteracy, poor infrastructure and political instability are rife.

Mountains of tailings left from the uranium mine
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, claims Greenpeace, whose experts visited the area at the beginning of last year together with experts from French independent laboratory CRIIRAD.

In 40 years of operation, a total of 270 billion litres of underground prehistoric water have been used, contaminating the water and draining the aquifer, which will take millions of years to be replaced. There have been consequent droughts and the death of farmers' cattle. No compensation has been provided.

Health and environmental findings

In collaboration with the French independent laboratory CRIIRAD and the Nigerien NGO network ROTAB Greenpeace have found the following:

• 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.

• 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.

• 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.

• Death rates due to respiratory infection in the town of Arlit (16.19%) are twice that of the national average (8.54%).

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.
“We worked with our bare hands! ...The mining company never informed us about the risks... we relied on what God decided.” - Salifou Adinfo, a former driller for AREVA, Arlit, Niger, November 2009.
Women wash their clothes at a tap so generously provided by Areva
“We are already radiated. We are no more useful. We can only watch.” SOMAIR laundry worker Gigo Zaki, seen here at a tap so generously provided by AREVA.

“AREVA is coming to our country and making money, but we are the ones suffering and this must be addressed,” - Fatima Daoui.

Corruption and profits while locals are in poverty

Government spokesman Mahaman Laouali Dandah says there is ample evidence that corruption is an important part of doing business in Niger Production at COMINAK, located a few kilometres from the town of Akokan, commenced in 1978.

Unlike SOMAIR, COMINAK is an underground mine.

With a depth of 250 metres and over 250 kilometres of galleries, COMINAK is the largest underground mine in the world.

On average, the mines produce over 3,000 tonnes of uranium and net €200 million in sales each year.

A third mine, Imouraren, is planned to start production in 2013 and is projected to be the largest uranium mine in Africa and the second largest in the world, with an annual production capacity of 5,000 tonnes of uranium.

AREVA’s revenues for 2008 (most recently published) were €13.1 billion, with a profit of €589 million.

SOMAIR generated €161.7 million of that revenue by producing 1,743 metric tonnes of uranium.

COMINAK earned sales of €100.6 million for its supply of 1,289 metric tonnes of uranium concentrate.

Nuclear power sustainable? Don't make me laugh.

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