There are many uncertainties surrounding nuclear power – how much will it cost, what to do with its deadly waste and when will the next accident happen? These are just three uncertainties, but certainly three of the most glaring issues.
And as we’re seeing again in Niger, there is one thing we can be sure of: the nuclear industry never learns from the past.
Three years ago, in May 2010, a team of Greenpeace radiation specialists visited villages close to uranium mines in Niger operated by French nuclear giant AREVA, where they found contamination levels in the air, water and soil above internationally accepted limits.
Before our trip, reacting to earlier discoveries, Areva had supposedly implemented measures to avoid these problems from happening (again).
But among many other disturbing problems, we also found several pieces of radioactive scrap metal on the local market in Arlit, with the radiation dose rate reaching up to 50 times more than the normal background levels. Locals use these materials to build their homes.
“It’s everywhere. Beams have been sold across the country ... They are found in houses. We buy them in the market. There is no way of knowing [where all the scrap
is],” former AREVA employee Tanko Anafi told us.
This was despite assurances from AREVA that no contaminated material got out of the mines.
AREVA then took measures in response to problems revealed by Greenpeace.
Fast forward three years and what do we find?
French nuclear energy conglomerate Areva said on Thursday it had beefed up safety procedures at two uranium mines in Niger after green activists said contaminated scrap metal from the facilities had been discovered at a local junkyard. A nuclear watchdog association, CRIIRAD, and a group in Niger called Aghir In'Man said 1,600 tonnes of metal used in uranium extraction had been hauled out of the mine complexes at Arlit and were now in the public domain.
About 1,000 tonnes was found at a scrap metal dealer's and the radiation levels were "more than nine times greater than normal."
“There remains doubt about the fate of the other 600 tonnes,” say CRIIRAD and Aghir In'Man, echoing Tanko Anafi’s word of three years ago.
Just what is going on here? AREVA got the warnings and made assurances but have seemingly done nothing effective to stop the spread of contaminated materials into the environment where the people of Niger must live.
Is this incompetence or a cavalier disregard for the safety of the country’s people? Either way, it is a disgrace and someone should be held fully accountable.
Niger supplies 40% of the uranium needed to fuel France’s fleet of nuclear reactors. And yet Niger sits at the bottom of the United Nation’s Human Development Index which measures life expectancy, educational attainment and incomes.
AREVA are generating their nuclear power by exploiting the powerless.
(Radiation measurement tool photograph © Greenpeace/Philip Reynaers)