By Nick Meynen, for the EnvJustice project
Thousands of people in Niger’s Arlit are exposed to radiation coming from the uranium mines around the city. AREVA, 80% owned by France, has operated these mines for almost half a century. The rising number of deaths and illnesses traced to pollution coming from the mines point to an ongoing ecocide.
Now the situation in Niger is finally being put under the spotlight as activists highlight their plight in Brussels.
Long before the last of 230 uranium mines in France closed in 2001, the French state shifted uranium extraction to what people in the World Bank call the “under-polluted countries”. France did that for the very precise reason why the chief economist of the World Bank and key advisor of US presidents used that term: polluting Niger is cheaper than polluting France.
Hidden in a remote corner of the Sahara desert, the uranium extraction started back in 1968. AREVA promised to build a ‘Little Paris’ next to it, but instead came Arlit. Even a company study on 120 houses revealed that 16% of them are polluted with radioactive radiation far above the health norms, but Arlit is home to over 200.000 people. The dust related death rates are twice as much as in the rest of the country and radioactive rocks are everywhere in town. This is where about a third of all uranium for France’s reactors comes from.
Can the European Commission do something?
Michèle Rivasi, a French MEP from the Green fraction, invited a prominent French nuclear engineer and an activist from Niger to explain the situation in Arlit to people from the European Commission. Rivasi organised the meeting in the European Parliament to put the EC under pressure to react. She asked if there was a budget to address the most urgent needs of the victims in Niger and urged them to consider a fact finding field mission.
French nuclear engineer Bruno Chareyron from the independent French labo CRIIRAD said:
“AREVA is essentially lying to the people. They say they measured the water and found no problems but our own measurements of the very same water showed dangerous levels of contamination.”
Greenpeace, Sherpa and Médecins du Monde all made field trips over the years, but local award-winning activist Almoustapha Alhacen from Aghirin’man warned for smokescreen solutions:
“At one point AREVA concede to set up a health observatory post but AREVA ran it and in the end it was dysfunctional so they closed it. Besides, this does nothing to stop the pollution and nothing to stop new people from becoming ill.”
Some hard questions on nuclear energy
With over half of all electricity in France and Belgium coming from nuclear energy but all of that depending on uranium imports from places like Arlit, some questions need to be asked. Who needs to pay for the full costs associated with uranium extracted in Niger to fuel nuclear power plants in France and Belgium: people in Niger or the shareholders of AREVA? And who is most likely to bring an end to this situation of environmental injustice? Niger, a country which ranks 187 out of 188 countries on the Human Development Index and has a yearly budget smaller than AREVA? Or can an EU intervention do something?
Reasons for hope in France
French lawmakers might have the key to addressing this ecocide. In March 2017, France adopted a new law on duty of care of parent and subcontracting companies. Applauded as an “historic step to make globalisation work for all”, the core of this law is to prevent serious human rights and environmental abuses in supply chains thanks to the application of mandatory due diligence by corporations. On paper, France wants to address global environmental injustice using its national juridical system. We will have to wait till 2018 to see how it will be implemented and if it will also apply to the case of AREVA in Niger.
Meanwhile, something promising is also cooking at the UN: a binding UN treaty on business and human rights. Proposed in 2014 by Ecuador, the EU was first reluctant to engage but pressure is building up on the European Commission, from civil society and from the European Parliament and signs are there that the commission is warming up to this treaty. At the end of October, the United National Human Rights Council will discuss the first draft, which was made public at the end of September.
The bigger picture
This environmental problem is just one of over 2200 that are mapped in the Atlas of Environmental Justice. Millions have used this database as a way to get attention for their issue, to do research or to find details of a certain struggle. Researchers working on the Atlas write peer reviewed articles about the patterns they detect. Prominent academics talk about an emerging global environmental justice movement linked to what they call “the changing metabolism of the economy in terms of growing flows of energy and materials”. The case or AREVA in Arlit is just one symptom of a much deeper problem. In the EU we often hear claims that we have already solved our key environmental problems but in many cases, these problems have merely been exported to the “under-polluted” countries.