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NIGER: Lack of Data on Causes of Death Buffers French Company

Julio Godoy

PARIS, Apr 22 2010 (IPS) - French state-owned company Areva continues to deny any wrongdoing after findings that populated areas in Niger remain contaminated with high levels of radio-activity. The company seems to be escaping censure partly because of lack of data on cancer-related causes of death among Nigeriens working at or living near the uranium mines.

Schoolchildren walk past Greenpeace campaigner Rianne Teule measuring radiation levels in Akokan, a mining town near two of Areva's mines. Credit:  Phillip Reynaers/Greenpeace

Schoolchildren walk past Greenpeace campaigner Rianne Teule measuring radiation levels in Akokan, a mining town near two of Areva's mines. Credit: Phillip Reynaers/Greenpeace

Environmental organisation Greenpeace International’s recently released research shows that high radioactivity can be still be detected on the ground near Nigerien uranium mines, especially in the mining towns of Arlit and Akokan, some 850 km northeast of the poor West African state’s capital of Niamey.

This confirms that nothing has changed since 2007 when an inspection by the independent investigative commission on radioactivity CRIIRAD (after its French name) and the Nigerien environmental organisation Aghir In’Man discovered high levels of radiation in the streets of Akokan.

Last September, following CRIIRAD’s report, Areva publicly claimed that a detailed mapping of radioactivity and a thorough programme of decontamination had been performed in Akokan under control of the local Nigerien authorities.

In a communiqué released after Greenpeace’s recent research was made public, AREVA said that its mining activities in Niger “are carried out in strict compliance with international health, safety and environmental standards”.

As proof, Areva referred to “many international inspections and audits … (which have) been carried out on several occasions over the last few years.”

For Peggy Venel, daughter of a former Areva worker at the uranium mines of Arlit, “it is not a surprise to learn that Areva continues lying when it comes to explaining the open air radioactivity in Niger.” Venel’s father, Serge, died in 2009 of lung cancer. He was 59.

“My father worked seven years at the uranium mines of Arlit — between 1978 and 1985,” Venel told IPS. “He was diagnosed with lung cancer in 2008. When he told his physician that he had worked in a uranium mine, the doctor said: ‘That’s it. Uranium is killing you’,” Venel recalled.

Her father worked in the uranium mines “wearing t-shirts and using neither masks nor gloves. He and his colleagues were all in daily direct contact with radioactive material.”

Venel told IPS that she has been collecting information on the whereabouts and health conditions of the 350 French citizens who worked in the uranium mines Areva operated in Niger at the same time as her father.

“I could trace 110 people,” Venel said. “Of these people, 70 died — all victims of cancer, particularly of the respiratory system. I know nothing about the other 240, or about their families.”

Asked whether she knew of similar disease cases among Nigerien workers at the mines, she said: “Hundreds of Nigerien people have died of all types of cancer, but their cases are extremely difficult to document.”

Venel said that whenever consulted by the ill uranium mine workers, Areva doctors would always diagnose AIDS-related causes or other diseases but never cancer. “Until today, Areva doctors deny any causal link between the working conditions in the mines, the radioactivity, and the numerous cases of cancer among the workers.”

Rianne Teule, nuclear energy campaigner for Greenpeace International, and Laure Antoine, spokesperson for the French health organisation Medecins du Monde, confirmed that it is practically impossible to document causes of death among Nigerien mine workers because of lack of access to data.

“There is no doubt that many people in Niger have died as victims of the radioactivity in water and ground and the streets of the mining towns,” Antoine told IPS. “But we have no data to support this claim.”

Since 2007, Medecins du Monde has cooperated with Areva and a French lawyers’ association to supervise the application of health and labour safety measures in the uranium mines that the state-owned company operates in Niger, Gabon and other African countries.

“We are very dissatisfied with Areva’s behaviour,” Antoine said. “When we started the cooperation with the company, we thought that we could change things but Areva does not move at all.”

Against this background, the major political crisis Niger has confronted since 2009 comes as no surprise. On Feb 18, a coup d’etat deposed president Mamadou Tandja who in May 2009 had dissolved the parliament in an effort to change the constitution and to obtain a third mandate as head of state.

Many observers said at the time that Tandja’s political manoeuvring was motivated by corruption.

The financial windfall that Niger receives from foreign investments in the uranium, gold and oil fields has not improved the lives of the Nigerien rank and file. Tandja and his relatives and aides have been accused of amassing fortunes on the backs of their own people.

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