Tuareg Activist Takes on French Nuclear Company

Friday, November 12, 2010

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.

Arlit was once glorified as a "second Paris." But today it is a place where the desert wind blows red sand through the streets. It is a hot, red monochromatic place, with houses made of red clay and streets paved in red dust, where sandstorms repeatedly darken the sky.

A massive hill, made up of 35 millions tons of waste material from the mine, is visible from the northwestern edge of Arlit. Although the uranium has already been extracted from the material, it retains 85 percent of its radiation, stemming from substances like radium and thorium, which have half-lives measured in thousands of years. The waste material lies there, uncovered, exposed to the desert winds. Residents grow tomatoes and lettuce between the waste dump and the city.

In Arlit, a gas station consists of men sell gasoline in old Pastis bottles with the labels still attached. A restaurant in Arlit consists of a woman with three tomatoes, 10 potatoes and half a jar of mayonnaise. The people have built houses out of refuse. Alhacen points to walls made of the lids and bases of barrels, and roofs made of plastic tarps. "From the factory," he says.

Some 2,200 people work there. In the plant, workers break apart large pieces of rock, grind them into dust and then leach out the uranium using large amounts of water and acid. The end product is a yellow material known as yellowcake. The yellowcake is filled into barrels and then transported in convoys to Benin, 2,500 kilometers (1,560 miles) away. From there, the yellowcake is loaded onto ships bound for Marseilles.

Radioactive Dust

Alhacen is a member of the Agir tribe in the Aïr Mountains. His father led camel caravans carrying salt and dates. Alhacen accompanied his father for the first time when he was 11. He began working in the mine about 10 years later, in 1978. His job was to repair the machines that crush the rock. Every evening, he would go home to his family and play with his children, still wearing his dusty work overalls. His wife washed his clothes, which were full of radioactive dust.

The first time Alhacen heard about radiation was in 1986, after the Chernobyl reactor accident. From then on, he was given a paper respiratory mask to wear. Eight years later, a lung ailment forced him to stop working. He was transferred to a new department that handled radiation protection. He is still officially employed there today, but the company has relieved him of his duties. "His suspensions were justified by his inappropriate conduct (unjustified absence etc…)," Areva told SPIEGEL in a statement. Alhacen is worried about his job, because he needs the income for his 13 children. But being furloughed also means that he has more time for his fight, and for the victims.

He now has time, for example, to visit the widow Fatima Taoka in her mud-walled house. Her husband Mamadou worked in the mine, where he drilled the rock into smaller pieces, until he fell ill. "He was always strong, but then he had nothing but pain and became as thin as a stick," says Fatima. It was something in the lungs and kidneys, she says, but the people at the hospital did not tell her what exactly it was.

"It was because of the dust," she says. "There was something evil in the dust." Fatima doesn't know what radioactivity is. Her husband died in 1999, the same year several of Alhacen's coworkers died. Most of them had jobs that involved working around dust.

'The Doctors Don't Tell the Truth'

"They died of diseases that we didn't understand," says Alhacen. He says that when he asked hospital staff what had killed his coworkers, he didn't receive an answer. Sometimes, he says, the doctors said it was AIDS, but this made Alhacen suspicious, because Niger had a low incidence of AIDS. The fact that the hospital belongs to Areva also made him suspicious. It was when Mamadou died that Alhacen decided to set up Aghirin Man.

That was 10 years ago. Since then, he has repeatedly heard accounts of ailments that resemble what happened to Mamadou. While making his rounds, he also visits Amalhe Algabit. The former assistant surveyor still has his I.D. card, coated in plastic, with the number 1328. His chest hurts, and he hides his emaciated body in a white robe and his collapsed face behind a pair of large sunglasses. He often feels as if he were suffocating. He doesn't know why this is happening to him, but is afraid that he doesn't have much time left. "I'm already so thin," he says.

Rakia Agouma is a widow whose husband died on Sept. 23, 2009. For 31 years, he had driven trucks containing rocks in the mine. Three years before his death, he had severe pain in his chest and back, but tried to remain in good spirits. It was what Rakia had always liked about him. When he died at Areva's hospital, she was apparently told it was malaria. "The doctors don't tell the truth," she says. "They're liars."

Areva says that everyone in Arlit and Akokan receives free medical treatment, even former workers. The company also claims that not a single worker has died of occupational cancer.

A Daughter's Fight

Serge Venel, a French citizen, died at the age of 59. His case could be important, because French doctors documented his account of suffering. He was a foreman in Akokan for seven years. His daughter Peggy, 37, lives south of Paris.

Venel first started coughing around Christmas 2008. Then he lost 13 kilograms (29 pounds). He went to see a lung specialist in March. The doctor asked him whether he was a smoker.

"I haven't smoked in 25 years," he reportedly said.

"And what is your work?"

Venel told him.

The doctor apparently didn't ask any more questions.

Venel died of lung cancer four months later, on July 31, 2009.

Venel's daughter wants her father's cancer to be recognized as an occupational illness. She wants her mother to receive a pension. "When you fight for something," she says, "you have to see it through to the end."

'They Killed People'

She has established a small association. Like Alhacen, Peggy Venel also keeps a list of former Areva employees. The names of the dead are marked in orange, and those who have cancer in red. Venel has also placed a questionnaire for former Areva employees online. The responses are similar.

What did you wear to work?

"A shirt and shorts."

Did you have a dosimeter? (Editor's note: A dosimeter is an instrument that measures an individual's exposure to radiation.)


Were there protective gloves?


Peggy says that she still cannot understand how Areva "could have done this and is now washing its hands of it. They killed people." Venel's attorney says: "This could be the first case from Niger in which lung cancer is recognized as an occupational illness."

It would also be a milestone for Alhacen, because he is trying hard to gather evidence. In 2003, he asked Bruno Chareyron, a nuclear physicist from Valence in the Rhône Valley, to come to Arlit. Chareyron had once worked as an engineer in a nuclear power plant. For more than 25 years, he had been working in the laboratory at Criirad, an independent radiation protection organization. He measured radiation levels near the plant, on the scrap metal market in Arlit and in the streets. He also took water samples.

And then there was Sherpa, a lawyers' organization from Paris that fights for the rights of workers. When a Sherpa attorney interviewed more than 80 mine workers, she heard the same stories again and again: There was allegedly no safety equipment until the mid-1980s, not even dust masks.

One family claimed that doctors had sent a coughing mine worker home from the Areva hospital in Arlit after diagnosing him with diabetes. When the man went to see a doctor in a larger city, Agadez, he was diagnosed with lung cancer in an advanced stage.

The Sherpa attorney confronted the chief physician at the hospital. He reportedly defended himself by saying that doctors never tell patients that they have lung cancer. Another hospital employee allegedly admitted that when cancer diagnoses were given, if at all, it was only to patients who didn't work in the mine. "When workers exhibit these symptoms, we talk about malaria or AIDS," he allegedly said. Areva says that the company doctors are "independent" and calls the charges "practically slanderous." The company also insists that the doctors have "all equipment required to carry out their work."

Unusual Radiation Levels

The Greenpeace activists showed up last November and stayed for nine days. They found elevated levels of radiation everywhere. A sand sample taken near the mine in Akokan contained 100 times more radioactive material than normal sand. In the streets of Akokan, the Greenpeace team apparently even measured radiation levels that were 500 times normal levels. In the past, the radioactive waste from the mine was used as construction material for roads and buildings. Of five water samples the Greenpeace team took, four exceeded guidelines for uranium set by the World Health Organization (WHO). According to Areva, however, the amount of radiation to which residents are exposed each year is about that of a chest X-ray.

For years, Alhacen has been combing the scrap market in Arlit for radiation sources. People used to make tools out of the scrap metal, sometimes even pots which they ate out of every day. The company has since cleaned up and collected much of the radioactive scrap material.

Areva insists that it has satisfied the highest international standards for maximum radiation doses since 2002. Joseph Brehan, a Paris attorney, says: "The improvements aren't that significant." He recently traveled to Arlit to meet with his client, Almoustapha Alhacen. Last year, Areva signed an agreement that authorizes Sherpa to examine the working conditions in the mines. In return, Sherpa must coordinate its activities with Areva. Together they intend to introduce a comprehensive health monitoring system.

Physicist Bruno Chareyron and Alhacen believe that Sherpa has made a deal with the devil.

Depending on Areva

This is the problem with a powerful corporation. Criirad, Aghirin Man and Sherpa are small organizations that survive on donations. Even Alhacen is a critic that Areva can still tolerate, because he too has arguably made a deal with the devil. He still works for Areva. The company has furloughed him, but he still lives rent-free in a house owned by Areva and known as RA4, No. 6. The house has four rooms, and there are four goats in a shed in the inner courtyard. By Arlit standards, Alhacen is a prosperous man. "If I lose the job, I have to get out of the house -- right away."

There is no other place to work in Arlit than in the plant. Arlit is Areva. And even a critic like Alhacen depends on Areva.

In northern Niger, one third of children are malnourished, and thousands die of diarrhea and pneumonia. It wouldn't take very much money to prevent a great deal of suffering in Niger. In a country like this, is it right to demand the same strict radiation protection measures as in Europe?

Areva intends to spend €6 million ($8.1 million) a year on development projects over the next five years. A few years ago, Areva defended itself with the argument that it didn't view itself primarily as a charity. Niger is also helped, Areva officials said, if people get work and the government earns revenues from uranium production.

The Cost of Europe's Energy

Alhacen loses his temper when he hears this. "Who said anything about charity?" he asks. "It's our uranium! Areva's charity is pollution, some of which will always remain with us. Areva is committing a crime here. They take the water, and trees and plants disappear as a result. There is no life. And what for? For your energy."

The uranium also aggravates the conflict between the Tuareg rebels in the north and the government in the south. The last uprising ended only a few months ago. In the 1990s, when a civil war was raging between the north and the south, Mohammed Anacko was one of the leaders of the rebellion. He now heads a reconciliation commission. He became a rebel in the past because the north was not receiving any of the uranium revenues.

Today he is worried that Niger could break apart. Each month, Anacko travels to visit the rebels in the Aïr Mountains, east of the uranium mines. He talks to the fighters, because he is concerned about al-Qaida's growing influence. Many of the former rebels have already switched to drug smuggling and human trafficking. And what if someone tried to smuggle uranium?

Chaos is always a dangerous thing in a country with uranium reserves. President Mamadou Tandja, who was ousted in a military coup in mid-February, had threatened to sell his yellowcake to Iran. The man is now gone, but his idea remains, triggering fears in the West.

'They Can't Go Anywhere Else'

The Tuareg, on the other hand, fear a total sellout of their country. The year 2007 marked a high point in the global nuclear renaissance, and the market price of yellowcake shot up. President Tandja awarded more than 100 exploration licenses for uranium regions. The licensed areas cover the land of the Tuareg almost completely.

"The Tuareg live from their animals," says Alhacen. "They can't go anywhere else. They live from this land, and it belongs to them." Alhacen intends to continue fighting, so that at least the Tuareg can have a chance.

Last year he paid a visit to the opponents of a potential radioactive waste disposal facility near Gorleben in northeast Germany. "It was wonderful, because it's my lifestyle," says Alhacen. "There was a lot of open land and a lot of milk."

Alhacen gave a speech in the nearby town of Dannenberg. "You can't just fight against nuclear power plants and waste repositories," he said. "If you want to kill the tree, kill the roots."

He was referring to the uranium mines.

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