Uranium Mining in Niger: Tuareg Activist Takes on French Nuclear Company

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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. In Alhacen's Tuareg language, Aghirin Man means "Protection of the Soul."

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.

The Saudi Arabia of the Nuclear Industry

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. As one of the world's largest uranium suppliers, Niger is to the nuclear industry what Saudi Arabia is to the oil industry.

Uranium from Niger has served as a fuel for Europe's energy supply for 40 years. But unlike Saudi Arabia, Niger has arguably reaped little but misery in return. The country in Africa's Sahel zone 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.

Citizens' organizations critical of Areva claim that the little money the company pays to the Niger state remains in the capital or simply ends up in the pockets of family members of the longstanding president. When Alhacen is asked what the mine has done for people, he says: "Nothing -- except radiation, which will be here for thousands of years."

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.

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Graphic: Uranium mining and processing in Niger Zoom
DER SPIEGEL

Graphic: Uranium mining and processing in Niger

Map: Location of uranium exploration area in Niger Zoom
DER SPIEGEL

Map: Location of uranium exploration area in Niger



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