The mineral mining industry in Africa is a sector that has in the previous decades been rapidly privatized.This has allowed for the resource-endowed countries to benefit more than the underdeveloped countries housing the depositories. The growth and development of the uranium mining sector is led by foreign direct investment and transnational companies despite the native countries being characterized by dysfunctional internal processes, infrastructure, and governing bodies.
Niger’s modern mineral policy reforms are due to the changing nature of the global mineral industry as well as the liberalization of African economies through the development programs of international organizations such as the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund (IMF). In the context of the latter economic environment, Niger uranium mining has been monopolized by the French AREVA company. This is due in part to the special privileges that France receives from being the former colonial power. France’s large appetite for nuclear fuel is due to the fact that the country is dependent on nuclear energy as their source of electricity. The country currently has 58 nuclear reactors generating almost 75 percent of its electricity. It is the second in the world for nuclear power generation and is one of the major energy exporter in Europe.
The increase in uranium mining has seen a wave of privatization in Africa and also changes in the global minerals industry. The new development programs are aimed at establishing stabilization and adjustment policies in African countries, have been promoted by international organizations and also a global movement within the mineral mining industry that advocates the abolition of state controlled mines to those run by the private sector in order to increased minerals exploration, activity, exploitation, and the lack of regulation.
These privatization policies have been justified under the false pretense that the mineral mining industry can help African countries, such as Niger, to develop. Yet if the sector is monopolized by foreign companies, the profits go to specifically allocated hands and not directly to the native country.
The individuals who are paying a high price for Niger’s lucrative uranium mining are not global companies but rather the people who work in the mines or who simply live in the mine’s proximity. The AREVA majority-owned mine called COMINAK (Mining Company of Akouta) is based in the north of Niger in the France constructed and developed town of Arlit. The Paris-based Commission of Research and Independent Information on Radioactivity (CRIIRAD) has written of “serious safety lapses” in and near AREVA mining sites in Niger.
In 2007 CRIIRAD produced a report that described how locals in the Arlit region sell contaminated scrap metal from the mining sites. These materials are then eventually used in housing construction, kitchen utensils and tools. In 2003, CRIIRAD reported on similar events and recommended that AREVA identify and dispose of contaminated metals. However, AREVA has yet to establish an efficient clean up policy of such disposed material.
This radioactive waste may be the cause for the abnormally high levels of radiation. According to CRIIRAD’s 2007 report, researchers discovered that in front of the AREVA founded hospital, which is located in the vicinity of the COMINAK mine, there existed radiation levels that were 100 times above average.
This higher than average radioactive levels are likely to be responsible for the mysterious health conditions that many of the mine workers and their families housed in the region suffer from. The AREVA mine of COMINAK commissioned an environmental study of its operations in Arlit in 2006, which reported that the number of deaths linked to respiratory infections was twice as high in the mining town (16 percent) as in the rest of the country.
It is also important to note that the regions that are affected from the uranium mining depositories are not isolated solely to the area surrounding the site. An article entitled “Niger: Desert residents pay high price for lucrative uranium mining” by IRIN: Humanitarian News and Analysis, describes the latter phenomenon by stating the results found in the COMINAK’s environmental study that, “the wind carries dust contaminated with the long-lasting radium [time required for it to lose toxicity is more than 1,600 years] and lead…Samples taken from 5km within site…Sandstorms [and] atmospheric waste from mines could be aggravating factors for pulmonary [illnesses] in the region,”.
The increase in demand for uranium nuclear fuel, whether it is for nuclear energy programs, medical isotopes programs or nuclear weapon programs has lead to the Niger’s government’s policy of privatization of mineral mining in the region. Niger’s new development strategy intended to guide international development cooperation has alternatively produced health problems, environmental contamination, and has not provided lucrative profits for the native population.
It was reported that the President of Iran Mahmoud Ahmadinejad visited Niger in the weekend of April 13, 2013 to strengthen bilateral ties between the two nations and it is speculated that Iran wanted to cultivate ties in order to purchase uranium for its controversial nuclear program. It is unclear whether these talks between Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and Nigerien President Mahamadou Issoufou cultivated a progress towards a Nigerien-Iranian uranium relationship. Yet one thing that is for certain is that more oversight in the privatization of Niger is indispensable for not just the Nigerians but also for the world at large.