An unrelenting campaign for justice for Niger’s uranium miners and their families
By Linda Pentz Gunter
When Almoustapha Alhacen (pictured above right), a Touareg from Niger, Africa, left his nomadic life in 1978 to become a uranium miner in Arlit, he was unaware of the dangers of the “yellow dust” about which indigenous peoples — in ancient tales going back generations — had sounded a single and universal warning: Leave it in the ground.
In Niger, the yellow dust in question — uranium — has been far from left in the ground. From Arlit to Agadez, a distance of 250 kms, and all around the region, uranium mining has transformed the landscape and the environment.
The Arlit population of just several thousand was lured by promises of a future that would turn it into the “Paris of the Sahara”. Instead, despite decades of uranium mining, people exist in poverty, without running water and electricity, many living in shacks. The herding life of the nomadic Touareg has been destroyed in the region. Instead, uranium mining has caused water shortages in an area already suffering from climate change-induced desertification. The uranium mining and milling operations have poisoned the land with radioactive dust, and lured the Touareg off the land and into the mines.
In addition to the broken promises of affluence, Alhacen and many other miners soon noticed that something else was very wrong. There were unexplained deaths among mine workers. And wildlife and vegetation was changing, even disappearing.
Alhacen began to realize that information was the key. It is a mantra he still preaches. An informed populace can become an active one. Knowledge is indeed power. In 2000 Alhacen and others created a non-governmental agency, Aghirin’man — which means “protection of the soul” — to inform and train the population about what might be happening. They agitated for a transparent process and a participatory role in decision-making. And they wanted an explanation for the mysterious maladies that were sickening and killing uranium workers.
The Arlit mines are owned by two subsidiaries of the French nuclear giant, Areva, and provide the uranium for the French nuclear power sector, among others (all of the more than 200 uranium mines in France are now closed, leaving their own deadly and largely unregulated radioactive legacy.) The Niger mines are either open pit or underground and have resulted in a tailings legacy of a staggering 40-50 million tons. Yet mine workers were not told about the health risks related to their working conditions.
It was once Alhacen and Aghirin’man connected with two French NGOs, Sherpa and the Commission for Independent Research and Information about Radiation (CRIIRAD), that they began to learn just exactly what those risks entailed.
Sherpa is a Paris-based association set up in 2001 to protect and defend victims of economic crimes. CRIIRAD is a non-governmental and non-profit organization and independent laboratory, and works to improve information and protection of the public against ionizing radiation/radioactivity. Known as the “French independent nuclear watchdog group,” CRIIRAD was set up after the 1986 Chernobyl nuclear accident in the Ukraine when the French government tried to claim, falsely, that the radioactive plume would not reach France.
In 2003, CRIIRAD sent a team to Niger to begin monitoring radioactivity levels in the region — an activity that continues today.
The findings were alarming, but answered some of the questions surrounding the unnaturally high rates of deaths from cancers and other ailments not historically found in the Arlit population.
In addition to severe depletion of water — already a scarcity in the Sahel and getting worse under climate change — the water was found to be contaminated not only with radioactive isotopes but heavy metals, a facet of nuclear operations that is often overlooked. These were also present in the enormous tailings mountains which are dispersed in the desert winds. Radioactive scrap metals and other materials, discarded by the mining company, were being used by locals in their everyday lives.
Rocks found outside the hospital and tested by CRIIRAD were 100 times more radioactive than background. The hospital, owned by Areva, has consistently denied that any deaths of patients there are related to mine activities.
The partnership between CRIIRAD and Aghirin’man has resourced and empowered a population previously at the mercy of the neglect, disinformation and cover-ups of Areva, its affiliates and colluding government officials. Corruption remains rife. For example, in 2012 French activist, Stéphane Lhomme, revealed that Areva had offered 35 million Euros to the Niger government ostensibly for uranium rights of which 15 million Euros were siphoned off to purchase Niger president, Mahamadou Issoufu, an airplane. Areva fought back by taking Lhomme to court but the nuclear corruption cat was effectively out of the bag.
The CRIIRAD scientists —applying the “teach a person to fish” method — have provided radiation measuring equipment and instruction to Alhacen and his colleagues. This means that citizens can now monitor radiation themselves, educate the local populations, and counter the disinformation put out by the nuclear industry.
Armed with empirical scientific evidence, locals can force the companies and/or governments controlling the uranium mining operations to implement decontamination schemes and improve health protections for those exposed to the ionizing radiation released into the air, water, soil and waste materials by the mines, mills, and vast tailings piles.
In 2015, Alhacen lost his job. But he continues his activism. In September 2017, he received the prestigious Nuclear-Free Future Award in the category of “resistance,” during ceremonies in Basel, Switzerland.
Now Aghirin’man has a new and important challenge. The uranium mine area is vast, and populations remain ill- or uninformed and underprotected. Aghirin’man is in urgent need of a vehicle that can travel long distances across rough terrain to bring education and support to these communities.
The French partner of Aghirin’man — Friends of Aghirin’man — has set up a crowdfunding site to raise the necessary $30,000 needed to purchase and maintain this vehicle. Please consider making a donation to this cause — however small. Click on “Faire un don” to make a contribution.
For additional information do not hesitate to write to Bruno Chareyron at firstname.lastname@example.org