Welcome to Arlit, the impoverished uranium capital of Africa.
From Niamey, the capital of the landlocked West African nation of Niger, we call ahead to a desert town in the remote north of the country.
"Journalists? On their way here? It's been a while", we hear down the phone from our contact. "We welcome you with open arms, but only on the pretence that you're visiting to interview migrants on their way to Algeria. If they find out you're poking your nose in their business, it's a lost cause."
That same evening, the public bus jolts as it sets off. Destination: the gates of the Sahara.
The stuffy subtropical heat gradually fades into scorching drought and plains of seemingly endless ochre sands. About two days later, we pass through a gateway with "Arlit" written on it in rusty letters.
The town of about 120,000 inhabitants is located in one of the Sahel's most remote regions, not far from the Algerian border. The surrounding area is known to be the operating territory of numerous bandits and armed groups, including Islamist militants. It is like an island in the middle of the desert, an artificial oasis with only one raison d'être: uranium.
Areva in Arlit
For Arlit, 2 February 1968 was a crucial date. Eight years earlier, Niger had gained its independence from France, but now, the former colonial power was deepening its role in the country once again. After years of research, the French government had decided to open its first uranium mine in the area.
Starting production was relatively straightforward. "In the West you need a bookshelf full of permissions and certificates. In Niger, you give someone a spade and two dollars a day, and you're mining uranium", wrote journalist Danny Forston when he visited the town.
And so it went. The first shovel in the northern sand was accompanied by handshakes and the promise of an honest collaboration between one of the world's least developed countries and its former coloniser. The French swore that Arlit would soon be known as Le Petit Paris.
Since then, approximately 150,000 tonnes of uranium have been extracted by the majority state-owned French company Areva, which is now one of the largest uranium producers in the world. The two mines around Arlit - Somaïr and Cominak - account for around a third of the multi-billion-dollar company's total global production.
France uses this uranium to generate nuclear power, some of which is sold on to other European countries. According to Oxfam, over one-third of all lamps in France light up thanks to uranium from Niger.
However, in contrast to France, Niger has failed to see similar benefits. The West African country has become the world's fourth largest producer of uranium, which contributes tens of millions to the nation's budget each year. Yet it has remained one of the world's poorest and least developed countries, with almost half its 20 million population living below the poverty line. Its annual budget has typically been a fraction of Areva's yearly revenue.
The main reason for this is the deal struck between Areva and Niger. The details have not been made public, but some journalists and activists such as Ali Idrissa, who campaigns for more transparency in the industry, have seen the agreement. Amongst other things, the documents suggest that the original deal generously exempted Areva from customs, export, fuel, materials and revenue taxes.
In 2014, Niger attempted to re-negotiate. As the agreement came up for renewal, the government called for the tax breaks to be removed and for the low royalty rate to be raised from 5.5% to 12-15%. Areva insisted this would make its activities unprofitable and suspended operations for two weeks during negotiations, officially for maintenance reasons.
Eventually a new deal was agreed, but the power dynamic between Areva and Niger had been made clear in the drawn out negotiations.
Apart from criticising the Nigerien government for not spending its uranium revenue where it is most needed - such as in health care, education and agriculture - Idrissa emphasises the bigger geopolitical picture: "Don't forget that Niger isn't just negotiating with a regular company, but with the French state. Their development aid, military and political support means that we cannot ignore our former coloniser. Our dependency from France goes hand in hand with crooked business deals."
Forgotten in the desert
Exhausted from the long journey to Arlit, we're received in the dingy office of Mouvement Unique des Organisations de la Société Civile d'Arlit (MUOSCA), a local umbrella group for environmental and humanitarian NGOs.
In the corner sits an old ventilator covered in cobwebs. It seems needless to ask if it still works. Either way, there's no power today.
"If either Areva or the government were to find out you're poking your nose in their business, they'll go to any length to make your work very difficult", says MUOSCA's director Dan Ballan Mahaman Sani as he wipes the sweat from his brow. "Besides that, Westerners are attractive targets in this region."
Indeed, there is a history of Islamist militant attacks and kidnappings in the area, including some directly targeting Areva. In 2010, seven of the company's employees were abducted, including five French nationals. In 2013, an attack on the Somaïr mine left one dead and 16 injured.
While the world held its breath as armed groups stepped up operations in the region, Areva, managed to extract over 4,000 tons of uranium, up from two years before, without too much trouble.
Dan Ballan says this illustrates how far the Nigerien uranium industry stands apart from the country's social environment and how isolated Arlit has become especially amidst regional insecurity.
"International NGOs or UN agencies don't exist here, and Areva has nothing to fear from the Nigerien government," he says. "We're literally a forgotten community, completely left to the mercy of the multinational."
According to Dan Ballan and others, the uranium mining industry has taken a huge toll on Arlit and the region. While Areva has a multi-billion-dollar turnover, the majority of people here live in a patchwork of corrugated iron shelters on sandstone foundations. Poverty is rife. Power outages lasting two or more days are regarded as normal.
Moreover, while the uranium mines consume millions of litres each day, only a small proportion of Arlit's Nigerien population enjoy running water. A 2010 Greenpeace study estimated that 270 billion litres of water had been used by the mines over decades of operations, draining a fossil aquifer more than 150 metres deep. The depletion of these ancient water reserves has contributed to desertification and the drying up of vegetation.
"There's not much fauna and flora left here. Local herdsmen left years ago," says a water seller by the side of the road. Each day, he fills 25-litre containers with water from wells outside of town, and pushes a cart loaded with them into the city centre.
An elderly customer buys his daily portion of water, while the seller casually wipes off a layer of red dust from the can. "Look at this," says the man. "All this while, a few kilometres away, Areva consumes millions of litres a day."
The water in Arlit, however, is not only scarce. Researchers over the years also suggest that, along with the soil and air, it contains alarming levels of radiotoxins.
Bruno Chareyon, director of the French Commission for Independent Research and Information on Radiation (CRIIAD), has been measuring radioactivity in and around Arlit for over a decade. His studies from 2003 and 2004 suggested that the drinking water contains levels of uranium at ten to hundred times the World Health Organisation's recommended safety standards.
"Despite these findings, Areva has stated continuously that they haven't measured any excess radioactivity during their biannual examinations," he says.
In 2009, Greenpeace conducted their own tests and found that five of six examined wells - all used to get drinking water - contained excess radioactivity as well as traces of toxins such as sulphates and nitrates.
When asked about this, Moussa Soley, Areva's spokesperson in Niger, answered that this was simply the result of "natural contamination".
At the bustling local market in Arlit, down some meandering alleyways, there are the normal wares, but among them one finds some more peculiar items: large industrial cogs; parts of metal cranes; digging equipment; and even a dump truck.
"All of these are cast-downs from the mines," says Dan Ballan. "Useless material finds its way to local merchants, who recuperate it and sell it on. Most of them have no idea of the risks."
CRIIRAD readings of goods at the market from 2003 and 2004 showed radioactivity levels at up to 25 times the maximum standards. "People buy radioactive material to cook with, build their homes with, or raise their children with," says Dan Ballan.
Back in 2004, Areva admitted that mining equipment finds its way to markets, but said that it was doing its best to counter these activities with local authorities. The scrap metal found at the market suggests Areva's campaign has not been fully effective.
As well as old discarded equipment, the mining industry also produces enormous amounts of toxic waste - around 5,000 tons per ton of extracted uranium. Over the years, hills of this debris have built up, containing radioactive substances such as radium, polonium, arsenic and poisonous radon gasses.
Areva's spokesperson Solley insists that this does not pose any risk to the environment. "The open air makes sure the particles are spread around the adjacent areas," he says. "The decay starts after just a couple of days and values are so low that there is no possibility of poisoning."
Greenpeace and CRIIRAD confirm that radioactive dust spreads far and wide, sometimes to hundreds of kilometres away. But contrary to claims of a "superfast decay", they say that while some products have half-lives of just days, others have half-lives of tens of years.
Furthermore, researchers say that radioactive waste is not simply dispersed. "The same radioactive rubble was used in Arlit on more than one occasion for landfills or building roads and homes", alleges Chareyron. In 2007, CRIIRAD found that some road surfaces had radioactive values over a hundred times standard values.
After these findings, Areva claimed to have solved the problem, but Greenpeace came across similar findings in 2009. One measurement found levels over five hundred times higher than international safety standards. "This means that a person spending less than one hour a day at that location would be exposed to more than the maximum allowable annual dose," explained one of the researchers.
Following Greenpeace's study, Areva published its own report, denying all the environmental NGO's allegations and highlighting its role in the Nigerien economy and for development. Areva argued that Greenpeace's "anti-nuclear and Manichean discourse is based on public fears and disinformation, which only advocates for confrontation between local populations and the multinational."
African Arguments' own repeated requests for comments from Areva's headquarters regarding various allegations were all declined.
Living with uranium
It is not difficult to come across Arlit residents suffering from serious health problems. In Akokan, a nearby community predominantly inhabited by Areva employees, we meet Hammett, 47, under a rusty shed.
"I had to quit because of unbearable pains in my joints, but I can consider myself lucky," says the former worker. "The cases of heart attacks, strange skin conditions or permanent migraines in this place cannot be counted."
Our conversation is interrupted by a deep thudding bang. "They're digging in the Somaïr mine", he explains. "The heavier the explosions, the faster they can get to work. And the more radioactive dust whirls down over Akokan."
Elsewhere in town, Cissé, who was a technician at Areva for 25 years, limps along the road. Through the years, his right leg slowly became paralysed. "I got fired when I couldn't perform anymore," he says. With that, Cissé lost the right to Areva health care. "I don't have the means to get my leg looked at elsewhere. I can only hope that one day it will get better."
Fatima, a local inhabitant of about 50 years old, also claims to have had major health complications. "I've had four miscarriages and at the moment I'm suffering of an unknown skin condition on my legs," she says. She lifts up her garments up to her knees, revealing a peculiar rash.
When asked about safety precaution for employees, Adamou Maraye, who is responsible for radiation protection at Cominak, reveals that miners are exposed to radiation up to 300 times the natural value. "That's why we make them wear mouth masks and gloves. That should suffice as precautionary measure against radiotoxic substances", he says, somewhat alarmingly.
The only hospitals in Arlit are run by Areva, with all the medical staff on the company payroll. The government provides no healthcare here. At the Cominak facility, Dr Alassane Seydou claims to have never diagnosed someone with a disease that could be linked to radiation or toxins. He says that in more than 40 years, not a single case of cancer has been discovered. "All employees are systematically examined, but we haven't encountered any strange diseases," he claims.
In 2005, the French law association Sherpa launched an investigation into Areva's activities in Arlit. Speaking to them, one former employee at Somaïr hospital alleged that patients with cancer had been knowingly miscategorised as having HIV or malaria. The surgeon-in-chief at the hospital denied those claims.
There have been no official, large-scale health studies conducted in Arlit, but some smaller-scale studies give an indication of the prevalence of illness among residents and former Areva employees.
In 2013, the Nigerien organisation Réseau Nationale Dette et Développement interviewed 688 former Areva workers. Almost one quarter of them had suffered severe medical issues, ranging from cancer and respiratory problems to pains in their joints and bones. At least 125 had stopped work because of these health issues.
A similar survey was carried out on French former employees around the same time. In 2012, Areva was found culpable in the death of Serge Venel, an engineer in Arlit from 1978-1985. A few months before his passing, doctors had found that his cancer was caused by the "breathing of uranium particles". The case went to court, with the judge ordering Areva to pay compensation for its "inexcusable fault". Before the court of appeals, only the Cominak mine was found responsible.
Following the verdict, Venel's daughter, Peggy Catrin-Venel, founded an organisation to protect the rights of former Areva employees. As part of this project, she managed to trace around 130 of about 350 French workers who had lived in Arlit at the same time as her father. 60% of those she was able to find information on had already died, most of them from the same cancer as her father.
Catrin-Venel continues to fight against Areva, but she is not alone. As shown in the documentary Uranium, L'héritage Empoisonné, Jacqueline Gaudet is also standing up to the company.
She founded the organisation Mounana after she lost her father, mother and husband all to cancer in the space of just a few years. Her husband and father had worked at an Areva uranium mine in Gabon, while her mother lived there in a house built from mining rubble. Their cancers were reportedly caused by excessive exposure to radon, which is released during uranium extraction. In collaboration with lawyers from Sherpa and Doctors of the World, Gaudet's organisation works to collect testimonies from former employees in order to build cases.
For Michel Brugière, former director of Doctors of the World, it's still unthinkable that so many employees of the French state-owned company could fall ill like this. Speaking in the documentary, he commented: "How can one allow one's staff to live and work in such a polluted environment? This is unbelievable. It's reminiscent of long gone abuses."
In the same vein, Greenpeace describes Arlit as a forgotten battlefield of the nuclear industry. "There are few places where the catastrophic effects of uranium mining on nearby communities and the environment are felt more distinctly than in Niger", said researcher Andrea Dixon.
Back in Arlit, the stories of French former employees standing up to Areva are well-known. But the struggle for Nigerien workers to get recognised is even steeper than in Europe. "Both the legal system and the financial means to stand up for our rights are lacking", says Dan Ballan. "In a couple of years, the uranium reserves will be depleted and Areva will leave, however the pollution and underdevelopment will stay behind."
He may be right, but Areva will not be going far. About 80km away, a third and enormous new Nigerien uranium mine called Imouraren is being developed. "Lacking any perspective of another job, the workers will eventually move wherever the mine is", says the local activist.
In our last hours in Arlit we drive around in town. It's the afternoon, the sky is dark red, and a harsh wind is blowing. A new sandstorm is gathering. We try not to think of the particles it carries from the radioactive hills.
The stormy twilight reveals bright yellow grains by the side of the road. "Sulphur," our driver says. "It's used in the mines, but it's everywhere." Between the yellow dust, a boy draws figures in the sand.
Along the so-called uranium route, which connects Arlit with Agadez and the Nigerien capital, we finally leave the mining area. It's the same road Areva uses to transport the uranium to the West African ports. From there, much of it is shipped on to one of 58 French nuclear plants where it's used to power light bulbs, computers and technologies - all thousands of miles away from dusty Nigerien desert and Arlit, the little town that pays the ultimate price to keep the lights on in France.
This story was realised with the support of Free Press Unlimited and the Lira Starting Grant for Young Journalists of the Fonds voor Bijzondere Journalistieke Projecten.