This article was originally published in French. Translation by Rebecca Ballard.
“Enter the uranium adventure!” Grinning from ear to ear, a miner takes the outstretched hand of a spellbound child, under the equally awestruck gaze of his family. In the background, another miner, muscular and full of concentration, drills into a vein of uranium. Is what we’re seeing here propaganda, glorifying the nuclear ambitions of North Korea and Iran? Absolutely not. We’re in the Limousin region of France at Urêka, the “interactive mining museum” which has been open since summer 2013 in Bessines. It’s at the heart of a former mining zone which was run by Cogema, Areva’s ancestor, the French champion of nuclear fuel. “The French uranium epic began in the Limousin region in 1948. Today, the adventure continues…”, read the leaflets. The region’s last uranium mine closed in 2001. The site at Bessines now serves as storage for the tens of thousands of tonnes of “very low level activity” radioactive waste generated by uranium extraction.
Areva has covered 8.5 million euros of the museum’s 10 million euro budget, with the rest brought by local authorities. The new venue’s designers and managers claim they are reviving the “human” and technological dimension of uranium mining. “This interpretation centre answers the public’s questions about radioactivity, radiation, and their risks by contextualising them in the historical and technical section of the museum” said the company in a press release. An “educational experience” which rids itself of all political interrogation about the consequences for the health and well-being of the population, in France and elsewhere.
What you won’t be seeing in the 3D films
What the leaflets and museum exhibitions don’t tell you about is the impact uranium mining has on the environment and on people’s health, which continues to be felt throughout the region. Nor will you hear what will become of the enriched uranium and plutonium being produced by nuclear power plants. The zone around Bessines where Urêka was set up (between Limoges, Guéret and Chateauroux), is the storage place for more than 200,000 tonnes of “depleted” uranium, as well as other types of nuclear waste. Despite Areva drawing up a "plan of action" in 2009, radioactive pollution is still rife, especially in rivers, groundwater and wetlands. Ten years ago, the Criirad (Commission for Independent Research and Information on Radioactivity) highlighted “serious irregularities” in the storage of nuclear waste, saying it was being stored in “conditions that wouldn’t be considered acceptable even for household waste”.
The museum’s 3D films won’t explain either that medical and epidemiological observation for workers and the region’s inhabitants remain practically nonexistent. What is more, an official scientific study has reported that the incidence of lung and kidney cancer in former miners is above average, because of overexposure to radon. The spellbound children at the museum won’t know that the beaming miner reaching for their hand is more likely to die of cancer than their parents. New epidemiological studies have finally just been launched.
After Limousin came Niger
“Explore modern day uranium mining” suggests Urêka. Mining now happens mostly elsewhere; the last uranium mines in the Limousin region were closed after the discovery of more important, profitable veins in Africa. Niger now makes up for 30% of Areva’s uranium supply, and the company is the country’s leading private-sector employer. For several months, the Niger government has made no secret of its desire to renegotiate its “very unbalanced” partnership with the French company; authorities estimate that more than a billion dollars have been drained out of Niger in the last forty years. Areva, on the other hand, asserts that 70% of profits from uranium extraction go either “directly or indirectly” back to Niger whilst boasting its “sustainable partnership” with the country. At the beginning of October, an official audit of Areva’s miners’ contracts was launched, the results of which will be published shortly.
This standoff between the Nigerien state and the French nuclear enterprise is also connected to the recent liberation of four French hostages, who were employed by both Areva and a local subsidiary of Vinci . The French group had previously threatened to close off one of its mines and to reduce its investments in the country .
Radioactivity and cancer
No matter what comes out of the negotiations around uranium revenue distribution, when it comes to the mines’ impact on health and the environment, denial always seems to win. Civil society members organised a protest on the 12th October in Arlit, a mining town in northern Niger, condemning the environmental damage and health problems brought about by Areva’s activities. Equally under scrutiny is the excessive exploitation of groundwater bodies, which is necessary to treat the minerals, in a region where water resources are sorely lacking. The importance of this protest was immediately underplayed by Areva, who completely refuted the allegations made by the civil society about the rates of radiation recorded in the town and the reuse of contaminated materials produced by the mines for buildings and roads (read here).
In 2007, experts from Sherpa (a French NGO), the Criirad and Doctors of the World were on the scene, and published a damning report on the level of radioactivity recorded in the region and the health risks posed to workers and the population. Unlike Criirad, Sherpa chose the “constructive” partnership route with the French nuclear group, rather than taking legal proceedings. This ended in deadlock, particularly after Luc Oursel took the place of Anne Lauvergeon as CEO of Areva. Sherpa publicly withdrew from the partnership at the end of 2012, revoking what they described as a sheer publicity stunt.
Meanwhile, legal battles rage on. On October 25th, a French appeal court invalidated a previous judgement, which had found the group guilty of having committed an “inexcusable wrong” towards Serge Venel, who died of lung cancer aged 59 after having worked for six years in a mine in Niger. The Paris court of appeals decided that Areva could not be blamed as a parent company, and that only Cominak, a local subsidiary of which Areva owns 34%, was legally responsible. This decision illustrates the larger-scale problem of parent company’s impunity for human rights violations and environmental damage caused by their subsidiaries. The case must still be brought before a higher court. In the mean time, other former French employees of Areva have also initiated legal action.
As for the Gabonese and Nigerien workers and their families, they will almost certainly have to wait even longer . Even though Areva’s mines have been in operation since the 1970s, to this day only seven cases of occupational disease, five of which concerned French expatriates, have been accepted by the Niger social security system. The Health Observatories set up by Areva only processed cases filed by French workers, despite the fact that there were far more Niger workers and that they were much more exposed. Areva has agreed to compensate the families of two former expatriates, but only acknowledged a “suspected” uranium contamination. When will there be a museum glorifying the pioneers of African uranium?
After the Africans, Canadian Inuits
If Areva continues to take an interest in Niger, where it intends to open a new mine in Imouraren with Chinese partners, it also needs to find more diverse sources of supply. The group plans to open another giant uranium mine in Trekkopje, Namibia. But the opening date keeps being postponed, officially because of the fall in the price of uranium since the Fukushima accident.
At the end of October 2013, whilst in the middle of negotiations with Niger, Areva also signed a contract with the Mongolian government, with a view to extracting uranium in the Gobi desert. This contract is also strongly challenged by the local environmental movement. They claim Areva’s pilot projects in the country have already caused radioactive pollution (read here).
But it is Areva’s ambitions in the Canadian Great North that have attracted the most attention from antinuclear activists. The French nuclear corporation plans to open a new uranium mine in the Nunavut province. In light of other countries’ experiences and the fragility of local ecosystems, the project could spell disaster for the environment and the Inuits’ traditional way of life. On top of land and sea pollution, a project of this size won’t fail to produce severe disruption in the traditional social fabric.
Areva - “greener than green”?
Local NGOs also denounce an opaque decision making process, tarnished with irregularities, since the public vote on uranium mining proposals required by law in Nunavut never took place. The “Sortir du nucléaire” (“Phase out the nuclear age”) network circulated a petition against Areva’s proposals for Nunavut: “After Africa, Areva goes for the Inuits: I say no!” (Après l’Afrique, Areva s’en prend aux Inuit : je dis non !). Already signed by 30,000 people, the petition will be presented to French ministerial cabinets. As Areva’s majority shareholder, the French government has both the power and the responsibility to force the group to come clean on the social and environmental impact of its operations.
Of course, the Urêka museum doesn’t talk about any of that. It’s for that reason that Areva has been nominated for - and eventually was granted - a «Pinocchio Award» this year. This award is organised by Friends of the Earth France, CRID (Center of Research and Information for Development) and Peuples Solidaires (Peoples with Solidarity), in partnership with Radio Mundo Real, Basta! and the Multinationals Observatory.