Andreas Späth

Nuclear colonialism

2010-04-07 07:48

Fans of nuclear energy love France. They habitually depict the country which produces more than three quarters of its electricity using atomic power as the way forward to clean, cheap and low-carbon energy for all. In their enthusiasm they tend to ignore the less than glamorous aspects of the French nuclear industry.

Some of these issues were thrown into sharp relief on February 18 this year, when a coup d’état in Niger, an otherwise entirely overlooked African nation, seemed to threaten the security of 40 to 45% of the uranium ore that fuels French nuclear reactors. Niger, a former French colony, has the singular distinction of being Africa’s biggest uranium producer. Other than that it’s a basket case and has been since independence in 1960.

Perpetually under-developed, the country has the world’s highest infant mortality rate, 71% adult illiteracy, a life expectancy of 43 years and is regularly devastated by droughts and famines. With between 60 and 70% of the population surviving on less than a dollar a day Niger has long been among the poorest countries on earth.

Since the early 1970s the French have extracted some 100 000 tons of Nigerien uranium ore and through subsidiaries of the state-owned company Areva, they continue to control the mining of the metal through a de facto monopoly, although in recent years exploration licences have also been sold to Canadian, Chinese, American, Australian, South Korean and South African companies.

Ordinary citizens of Niger have seen precious little of their supposed uranium wealth. What money has been spent on development has gone primarily towards infrastructure for the uranium industry and the rest has tended to end up in the pockets of government officials.

While their uranium delivers hundreds of millions in profits to Areva every year, lights the exclusive boutiques on the Champs-Élysées and baths the Eiffel Tower in a romantic glow, more than 70% of Nigeriens themselves remain without access to electricity.

Not only have there been scant economic rewards, but the uranium mining areas have been left with substantial environmental and health problems:

- Uranium mining and processing is water-intensive, depriving an already arid area of a vital resource by draining underground aquifers and leaving behind contaminated evaporation ponds.

- In 2005 French nuclear watchdog CRIIRAD found contaminated drinking water wells with radiation levels 10 to 110 times above World Health Organisation limits.

- Water contamination has also been caused by a coal power plant that was build to provide electricity for the uranium mines.

- In 2005, French NGO Sherpa found that mine workers were uninformed about the health risks associated with their jobs, received little in the way of protective equipment and often went untreated for cancers commonly associated with long-term exposure to uranium and its carcinogenic daughter product, radon gas.

- Local health workers have reported cases of premature deaths and previously unobserved illnesses among poorly paid uranium miners.

- Some 20 million tons of uncovered radioactive mine tailings shed toxic windblown dust across the area.

- Contaminated scrap metal, pipes and plastics from the mines and their surroundings have been turned into radioactive kitchen utensils, irrigation pipes and building materials by the impoverished locals.

- Since 2003, local and international NGOs have reported dangerous levels of radioactive contamination in the streets of Niger’s uranium mining towns on several occasions. At the end of last year, just weeks after Areva had announced the problem fixed, Greenpeace found radioactivity as much as 500 times above normal background levels in the streets of the mining town of Akokan.

Colonialism is dead. Long live neo-colonialism. Coup d’état or not, the power relations have remained largely intact: local elites enrich themselves as their country’s natural resources are shipped off for the benefit of First World citizens, while the poor in the global south bear the environmental burden of their supposedly clean, green lifestyles. The international nuclear industry is an integral part of this dirty scheme in France, Niger and elsewhere. It’s time to stop it in its tracks and get it to clean up the toxic mess it’s created.

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