Dakar — As the global demand for nuclear energy rises, analysts say the large amount of uranium in Niger is not a benefit to the country's people but adds to the serious problems facing the region.
Niger, an impoverished country on the southern fringe of the Sahara desert, has one of the world's largest reserves of uranium, the main source of nuclear fuel - but virtually nothing to show for it.
Instead, say local and international organisations, uranium mining by foreign-dominated companies has caused environmental damage and health problems in the far north of the country.
The mining operations are also causing domestic political tensions: one of the main demands of an armed militia that has been fighting Niger's army since February, the Niger Movement for Justice (MNJ), is a more equitable distribution of the revenues from uranium mining.
"The fact that [the uranium] is there is more negative than positive at the moment," said Jeremy Keenan, fellow at the University of Bristol in the UK, and a recognised authority on the Sahara. "It's a curse on the region and the people of the region... It is potentially a very volatile situation."
Civil society organisations in Niger and academics in the USA and UK agree that the people of Niger have not benefited from the 100,000 tonnes of uranium extracted over the past 36 years.
Niger is the world's third to fifth-ranking producer of uranium, producing over 3,000 tonnes of uranium a year. However, the UN Development Programme's 2006 Human Development Index considers Niger the poorest country in the world, where life expectancy is 45 years old, 71 percent of adults cannot read, and 60 percent of the population lives on less than $1 a day.
"The Nigerien people aren't benefiting from the revenues," said Ali Idrissa, coordinator of the Niger branch of Publish What You Pay, a worldwide coalition of non-governmental organisations (NGOs) calling on oil, gas and mining companies to disclose their payments to governments for the extraction of natural resources.
The government of Niger's share of the uranium revenue is small: foreign companies have a majority stake in the two uranium production companies, SOMAIR and COMINAK, which are operated and mostly owned by Areva, a French multinational company and global mining giant.
In July, the government renegotiated the price of its uranium, increasing the per kilogramme royalty to 40,000 CFA francs (US$86) for 2007. Still, under the terms of a decades-old agreement, the two production companies are only required to pay 5.5 percent of revenues to the government. In 2006, that totalled just 10 billion CFA francs (US$22 million), according to the Ministry of Mining and Energy.
Robert Charlick, professor at Cleveland State University and author on Niger, said uranium revenue nonetheless means the government does not need to depend as heavily on taxes, and thus needs less public support, especially from the vast majority of the country's isolated, rural population.
"It destroyed the prospect of a political system that would be more attentive to rural interests," Charlick told IRIN.
The mining industry has led to some development, he said, but in ways that benefit uranium production and not the average Nigerien. A road was built through the mining town of Tahoua to Arlit for the transport of uranium, and coal mining was developed to run the uranium facilities. "Those areas have electricity but few other rural areas in the country do," he said.
Health, environmental concerns
Resentment is also growing among the thousands of mine workers and people living near the mining sites in the northern region of Agadez, who complain about unsafe working conditions and exposure to radioactive poisoning in the community.
In August a movement of civil society organisations reportedly demanded that the Areva pay 300 billion CFA francs (US$647 million) in damages for years of exploration in "unfair and iniquitous conditions".
A 2005 investigation by Sherpa, an international network of lawyers who promote corporate social responsibility, found that workers in Niger's uranium mines were not informed of health risks; were not given the most basic protection measures; and were not always treated if they developed lung cancer. Long-term inhalation exposure to radon, a gas formed by the breakdown of uranium, has been linked to the onset of lung cancer.
Another French NGO, CRIIRAD, found that water, soil and metal scrap from the area where Niger's two mines are exploited were contaminated with dangerously high radioactivity levels.
According to Mamane Sani Adamou of the civil society organisation Alternative Espaces Citoyens, uranium extraction has significantly damaged the environment, reducing forests and pastures.
Further investigation to scientifically validate claims of contamination and ill-health has been blocked by the multinational company, the University of Bristol's Keenan said.
Areva has consistently denied the allegations, and has attributed the high number of illnesses to the harsh desert climate. In a written statement sent in reply to IRIN questions, Areva said it regularly conducts external audits dealing with health, environment and safety, including an audit by the French Institute for Nuclear Safety and Radiation Hygiene (IRSN) which found the company to be operating within international standards. Areva has also said it will open a health centre around its sites.
"The accusations of negligence and lack of transparency brought against [Areva] are in total contradiction with the real facts," the document said.
Potential source of conflict
As the general competition over resources in Africa increases - independent Washington-based researcher Daniel Volman calls it a "global competition between the US and China for access to energy supplies" - some analysts fear that uranium in Niger could also become a source of tension.
According to the International Atomic Energy Agency, the overall world demand for energy will increase by at least 50 percent in the next 25 years and will have to be met mostly by non-fossil fuels, particularly nuclear energy.
"The US and everyone else with a developing or industrialised economy is going to be looking to Africa as a source of uranium," said Volman, who has been studying US policy towards Africa and its energy supplies. "That's already beginning to happen and it's only going to expand and increase."
Niger is home to Africa's biggest uranium reserves, which had been dominated by Areva for years. The government is now trying to diversify its partners and has distributed more than 100 exploration permits to Canadian, US, Chinese, Indian and other companies in the last year alone.
"You've got this sort of desperation going on from many countries around the world to get their hands on uranium," said University of Bristol's Keenan, adding: "The world is looking at progressively more and more resource-based conflicts."
Historically, instability in the Sahel region has been due to factors other than resource exploitation. But in Niger, uranium is part of a potentially volatile mixture of factors, including the US war on terror, the rebellion in the north and the government's policy of non-negotiation with the rebels.
Independent researcher Volman warned that the presence of natural resources leads foreign governments to provide military and financial support to resource-rich countries in order to ensure maintained access to those resources. The US is already providing military training to Nigerien officers, he said, and Niger has participated in other military equipment programs offered by the US in the past.
Volman said increased militarization leads governments to become more aggressive towards their own citizens and their neighbours. "It encourages internal repression. It also encourages countries to invade their neighbours," he said. "It encourages those countries to resort to force both to solve their problems and to take advantage of opportunities - one of those being to invade neighbouring countries and loot them."
"It's hard to point to an example in Africa where [the existence of resources] hasn't been a complete curse," Volman added. "I would expect [Niger] to reproduce the same kind of cycle we've seen in other places, because it's already following the same trajectory."
Since February, the MNJ rebel group has been attacking military outposts and some foreign mining companies, killing at least 45 soldiers and kidnapping one Chinese uranium worker before releasing him unharmed. In July the MNJ advised all foreign nationals working in the mining of natural resources to leave conflict zones "for their own safety".
Still, some say projections of violent conflict over uranium are exaggerated. "I really don't expect us to see uranium wars," said Cleveland State University's Charlick. "It will be an increasing economic issue... [but] I don't expect that that will come to a battle."
When asked if the existence of uranium could lead to a regional war, Publish What You Pay's Idrissa said: "With the interest in uranium that certain powers have, everything is to be feared."
[ This report does not necessarily reflect the views of the United Nations ]