This article was initially published in French in March, 2013. Translation : Mathilde Balland.
Is uranium mining in Niger one of the safest activities in the world? Since the beginning of the 1970s , Areva has been operating two mines in Niger. Today, 2,600 people are employed there. And, in almost half a century, the Social Security of Niger has only approved seven cases of occupational diseases for workers in the Arlit and Akokan uranium mines (Northern Niger) . Out of these seven victims, five are French expatriates, points out Ousmane Zakary, of the Social Security Center in Niamey, the capital city. Only two miners from Niger are concerned, whereas 98% of Areva employees on the mines are nationals. An amazing performance in terms of occupational health!
So is uranium mining no more dangerous for the workers’ health than cultivating onions or millet? Given that a large proportion of French electricity ultimately comes from Nigerien ores, which account for a third of the fuel for their 58 nuclear reactors, shouldn’t the French people be satisfied that Areva pays such careful attention to the well-being of its employees? However, in fact, “uranium miners are exposed to external and internal ionizing radiations. They are exposed in uranium quarries, in underground mines, in uranium extraction plants as well as at home and in the city”, says Bruno Chareyron, Director of CRIIRAD, an independent laboratory and advocacy group dedicated to nuclear radioactivity. CRIIRAD has carried out extensive tests and detected radioactive gas in the water, food and air in Arlit. 35 millions of tons of radioactive waste have piled up in the open air since the mines began operating. Depending on the wind, radon gas and its derivatives leak into the environment. These substances are “classified as cancerous for humans by the IARC [International Agency for Research on Cancer] since 1988”, adds the nuclear physics engineer.
No medical follow-up for former miners
Why aren’t there more occupational diseases declared? Either Areva is indeed exemplary, or these occupational diseases are hidden and ignored in the various studies and statistics. At the Social Security Center in Niamey, Ousmane Zakary has an explanation to offer. If an occupational disease is discovered among Areva employees, the doctors in the subsidiaries in charge of uranium mining (Somaïr and Cominak) are supposed to signal it to Social Security. Then, an occupational doctor conducts a second assessment. However, “many workers complain that the Cominak doctor makes it very difficult to declare an occupational disease. Their health situation is being concealed from them”.
And it gets worse! Only active miners are entitled to proper health care provided by the State of Niger. “There is no medical follow-up for former miners, even though radiation-related diseases usually break out years later”, says Ousmane. “Four years ago, Areva’s Deputy Director in Niger and HR Director came to learn more about the situation of the former miners”. This visit did not change anything: the former uranium miners of Niger still aren’t getting health coverage, neither from the company nor from the State.
“They’re all dead!”
Nevertheless, there are countless testimonies of sick people or families of diseased miners. “My husband was one of the first employees of Somaïr. All his colleagues are dead of cancer, or of kidney and liver problems… Among those who are still here, many are sick or paralyzed, but we can’t say these problems are directly linked to radiation without any studies!”, regrets Hamsatou Adamou, a midwife who was in charge of the maternity of the Arlit Medical Center, then of Cominak.
She participates in the weekly meeting convened by Association des anciens travailleurs du secteur minier et leur famille (ATMSF), an organization created in 2009 by Boureima Hamidou, which gathers former workers of the mining industry and their families. Boureima Hamidou was formerly a sampler at Cominak. Victim of what he considers an unfair dismissal five years before his retirement, he decided to take action in favor of the miners. In the cramped premises of the organisation, several sexagenarians are waiting. They are all paralyzed, suffer from renal insufficiencies or pulmonary disorders. They are survivors. Most of the miners of Arlit and Akokan who were working there in the 1970s and 1980s for Areva are no longer here to testify. “Those who retired at the beginning of the 1990s didn’t last two years. They are all dead! It was like an epidemic!”, says Cissé Amadou who worked 20 years as an executive for Somaïr in Arlit.
Handfuls of uranium
A former Cominak worker, Mamane Sani is among the lucky ones who survived; but at what cost? It’s prayer time. The frail man in his boubou is incapable of washing his left foot as is done in the Muslim ritual of ablutions. Since 1992, his left side is paralyzed because of a disease that manifested itself “too late” to be acknowledged. Cominak didn’t cover any single health expense, even though he had worked 25 years for the company. At work, Mamane was in direct contact with the “yellowcake”, a uranium concentrate which is then enriched to produce nuclear fuel.
Several miners point out the absence of any protection: “I handled uranium directly. At the beginning, we didn’t even know what it was. There were no masks either. All that came later”, recalls Islam Mounkaïla, President of ATMSF and manufacturing-operator in the Cominak transformation factory for 20 years. One could not be more remote from the statements made by Areva, the first private employer in the country, which claims to have “made safety a key component of its activities and has applied a prevention policy since it began working in Niger.”
Areva: convicted for “gross negligence”
Areva did create a committee for occupational health and safety … in 1999, 45 years after the opening of its first mine. Today, wearing gloves and protection masks is mandatory for all miners, says Boureima Hamidou who still denounces the lack of training for employees. A sign of progress, but which has been late coming. “For one occupational disease acknowledged for a French employee of Areva in Niger, how many deceased or sick among the workers of Niger and among those living near the mines and uranium factories because of radioactivity – made invisible by the choices of labor organization?”, asks Philippe Billard from Santé sous-traitance Nucléaire-Chimie, an organization dedicated to occupational health and safety in the nuclear and chemical industries. He was reacting to Areva’s conviction by the “Tribunal des Affaires Sociales” (French court for social issues) in Melun, following the death of Serge Venel, an executive at Cominak from 1978 to 1985 who later died of cancer. Areva was found guilty of “gross negligence” by the French justice system. The company appealed.
Towards a large-scale legal action?
ATMSF President Islam Mounkaïla clearly remembers Serge Venel: “He was my Chief Operating Officer. We were much more exposed than he was. As an engineer, he only stepped in in case of a breakdown or an incident, whereas we were constantly in contact with the ore”, he explains between two coughing fits. If former miners in Niger suffered from the same pathologies as the one that killed Serge Venel, a large-scale legal action to seek redress from the company would seem possible. “If they compensate Serge Venel’s widow, there are thousands of us in Niger sharing the same fate, or worse”, says Boureima. He was waiting impatiently for the results of the appeal proceedings, to be held on July 4th 2013 at the French appeal court in Paris[The judgement against Areva was eventually overruled. The case is now moving to a third court, Ed.]].
Could this judgement help the workers of Niger? “The jurisprudence of the French court for social security matters could very well be transposed (…). In that case, the competent jurisdiction would be the French Labor Relations Board (“Conseil de Prud’hommes”), which would have to consider Areva as their co-employer, as did the Court in Melun. This request could be put forward by the workers themselves or by their families if they are dead”, explains Jean-Paul Teissonnière, a lawyer specialized in occupational health.
Still no trace of uranium-related diseases
In 2010, Areva tried to defuse this potential time bomb by creating OSRA, a Public Health Observatory for the Agadez region (Observatoire de santé de la region d’Agadez), in response to the growing pressure of local civil society and of French organizations such as Médecins du Monde and Sherpa (an organization dedicated to assisting victims of corporate abuse through judicial means). NGOs had been denouncing since at least 2003 the damage brought by Areva’s operations on the local environment and the health of the miners in Gabon and Niger. The objective of OSRA is to offer “post-occupational monitoring for former employees exposed to uranium”, explains Areva on its website. The medical follow-up consists of a physical examination, a chest x-ray for those who were exposed to the ore and a blood test every two years. OSRA is also supposed to monitor the health of the population in the mining region by analyzing available independent and scientific data - such as medical accounts of observed diseases, hospital reports and case studies. It is also supposed to conduct “a study on miner mortality from 1968 to 2005 in order to ensure total transparency regarding the health impact of past and present mining activities”.
Transparency… but after a year of medical examinations, there was still no official recognition of any uranium-related disease! “We have found four problematic cases, two of which presented anomalies. After careful analysis, OSRA’s medical comity concluded that there was no link with uranium exposure, but we still decided to take care of them. We are shifting to a public healthcare agenda, because we offer medical care even for those who don’t suffer from an occupational disease”, says the medical director of Areva, Alain Acker, apparently quite pleased with himself.
Sand, more dangerous than uranium?
Nevertheless, Greenpeace highlighted in a report  the extensive radioactive pollution of the air, water and groundwater in Arlit, as well as the population’s lack of awareness. In Arlit, “the mortality rate due to respiratory diseases (16%) is two times higher than the national average (8.5%)”. Areva answered by publishing its own report: “Areva and Niger, a sustainable partnership”. It states that “Greenpeace’s communication relies mainly on public fears and disinformation” and that the allergic ailments are due to “the aggressive effects of sand on the eyes and lungs, not, as Greenpeace implies, to the mining operations”!
When the journalist Dominique Hennequin came back from Niger and Gabon with a scathing documentary “Uranium, l’héritage empoisonné” (Uranium, a poisoned heritage), which was broadcasted on the French TV channel Public Sénat, he was challenged by an Areva spokesperson for having dared to say that the reception organized by the mining company reminded him of North Korea… But how can one talk of transparency when Areva covers 100% of the budget of OSRA? “Less than a third of former miners were listed: 472 in Arlit and 39 in Agadez. Only around 100 of them received a medical examination”, says Cissé Amadou, a former executive at Somaïr.
A communication operation
“The worst is that the visits were supervised by Dr. Barazé, who has been the doctor at Cominak for many years. How could a doctor who has never acknowledged a single radiation-related pathology among miners renege on his own diagnosis today?”, continues Cissé Amadou. After a two-year partnership with OSRA, Sherpa decided to withdraw on December 18th 2012. According to the NGO, the new management at Areva has “reduced the agreement to a communication operation, if not a pure marketing stunt”. The future of this “unprecedented and exemplary dialogue between national authorities, NGOs and a responsible industrial partner”, in the words of Areva medical director Alain Acker, seems compromised.
According to Bruno Chareyron of Criirad, the post-occupational follow-up practiced by OSRA is biased. He adds that Areva only takes into account “an expired and incomplete list” of radioactivity-related occupational diseases. “According to current knowledge, chronic exposure to low doses of radiation show has been shown to lead to health issues comprising many types of cancers and affecting all vital functions. This includes cardiovascular damage, renal diseases or neurological disorders, not just bronchogenic carcinoma, bone sarcoma or leukemia.” A lot of words to describe the pains of Islam, who suffers from “heaviness in his cheek, hand and right knee”, or of Mamane, who is half-paralyzed, or those of Aboubacar Ilitimine, a driller at Somaïr since 1976 who suffers from renal insufficiency, and of many other former miners in Niger.
In order to obtain damages, these former workers could also claim a “prejudice of anxiety”, a notion which was recognized by French judges for all workers exposed to asbestos dust. “If the causal relationship [between radiation and disease] is too hard to establish, we could consider claiming a prejudice of anxiety related to an unsafe exposure to radioactivity in dangerous conditions that the employer, here Areva, could not ignore”, says Jean-Paul Teissonnière. The lawyer has just won between 5,000 and 30,000 euros of damages for non sick Eternit workers exposed to asbestos. Whether it is judicial or political, a solution to obtaining medical care for the miners of Niger must be found as soon as possible.