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Areva workers in trouble, in Niger

Nuclear Monitor Issue: 
WISE Amsterdam

An al Qaeda claim of responsibility for the kidnapping of five French nationals in Niger has surfaced on Islamist websites. Five French nuclear experts who work for Areva, are kidnapped by ‘Al Qaeda in Mahgreb’, the al Qaeda terror movement's affiliate in North Africa.

"Despite the high military preparations in the area and the security belt around it, those lions of Islam were able to break in and kidnap five nuclear experts who work for Areva," the message said. “…we claim our responsibility to this blessed operation and we tell the French government that our fighters will deliver their lawful demands to them." The message noted that the Niger region "is one of the world's most important uranium producing areas" and that France has stolen the "strategic resource for decades." "We want to remind our Muslim brothers and public opinion that the uranium thieves caused the killing of thousands of poor Muslims in the area and abusing them in those mines and exposing them to dangerous radiation from radon gas while denying them any protection or health care," the message said. "The crusaders' companies who steal our resources and abuse our sons should know that the fighters' goals are lawful and they must leave”.

Its the first time that a kidnapping has been claimed by ‘Al Qaeda in Mahgreb’. In past events (see NM # 663, November 29, 2007: “China's emerging antinuclear movement" and NM 658, July 13 2007: "Nomadic rebels in Niger attacked uranium mining firms") kidnaps were always claimed by rebel nomadic Touareg groups, demanding more financial revenues from the uranium mining industry.

Although we think kidnapping people is not the best solution it is at least very understandable that there is much anger about the activities of Areva and uranium mining in Niger in general.

An interview with a local leader in Arlit, Niger, in a report for Greenpeace International, perfectly illustrates why its not very surprising that staff members of French uranium company Areva have been targeted in Niger. In one of the poorest countries in the world, ranking last in the Human Development Index of the United Nations Development Program (UNDP), where more than 40% of children are underweight for their age, water and access to improved water sources is scarce and almost three quarters of the population are illiterate1, the French nuclear giant Areva extracts precious -and deadly- natural resources, earning billions for its Fortune 500 corporation, and leaving little behind but centuries of environmental pollution and health risks for the citizens of Niger.

Local leaders like Alhacen feel that the problems caused by Areva only compound the existing ills in Niger. Although Areva claims the production of uranium fights the 'curse of poverty', Alhacen says the opposite is true. "What we are seeing for 40 years is that this problem has only increased! In the belt around Arlit, people are very poor: neither water nor electricity...  The risk is that the same could happen at Imouraren (the new to be opened uranium mine in Niger). It is therefore necessary that the public be more vigilant so that there is less pollution and more benefits from the uranium.”

One of the ironies of Areva's rush for uranium in order to provide electricity to the world is that many Nigeriens don’t even have electricity. He makes the argument that instead of driving out poverty, they have inherited enduring pollution.

“I must tell you that in Arlit, they use oil lamps in the suburbs! In Arlit, some have no water...The little Nigerien lights a kerosene lamp to read his lessons... Many homes are without electricity. We regret it! We are neither pro-nuclear or anti-nuclear. 90% of Nigeriens do not even know that we produce uranium today in Niger. 100% of Nigeriens do not know what radioactivity is! 100% of Nigeriens do not know that uranium is used to make electricity! The problem of Niger is the following: uranium must contribute in the reduction of poverty. It is evident that if it does not contribute, so it is not worth it."

Fears about AREVA expansion and the creation of the third mine, Imouraren, are many. Alhacen says the effects from the mining will affect the ecosystem, as well as the Touareg and other nomadic populations. “They will first run out of places for pasture, which will be altered. Areva needs 40 km of radius for operation. Then come all the impacts that we know: the detonations and the light will disturb the entire ecosystem. Animals do not like the light at night. The noise of the engines… They will also burn a lot of wood. All this of course before the radioactivity and the draining of the groundwater.”

According to research by the NGO ‘FUSAD’  the country has hardly benefited from the uranium mining: “After 40 years of operation and Areva's presence in Niger, us Nigeriens, we feel we have not had our fair share. We evaluate this in terms of what benefits the state of Niger has received -a little more than 10% -since more than 2500 billion CFA francs (1 CFA franc is about 0,0015 euro) went to Areva, of which an estimated 292 billion have returned to the state of Niger.”

Source: “Left in the dust, Areva’s radioactive legacy in the desert towns of Niger”, Greenpeace International, April 2010, CNN website, September 23, 2010