Millions of tons of waste coming out of a uranium mine in Niger is scary

Huge hills break the flatness of the desert in the north of Niger: far from being natural, they are ominous, as they are made partly of radioactive waste accumulated for more than 40 years by the uranium mine of Akouta, millions of tons.

After producing 75,000 tonnes of uranium, the Akota Mining Company (Cominac), operated since 1978 near Arlit, was closed in 2021 by the French group Areva, now Orano, due to depletion of its reserves.

Its redevelopment is in progress at a cost of 150 million euros and should last ten years, followed by at least five years of environmental monitoring.

Cominak intends to restore “a safe, healthy and non-polluting site in compliance with national standards and international recommendations” at the end of the redevelopment work, Cominak’s director general Mahaman Sani Abdoulaye told French journalists, first in Areva in 2010. Arlit return to the site after the abduction of seven employees of the U.S., including five Frenchmen.

The largest project is to protect the mountains from approximately 20 million tons of rock waste and ore tailings that have been exposed to uranium. They cover 120 hectares, and reach up to 35 meters high in places.

– “Natural Supplements” –

Their presence raises fears of serious consequences for the health of former employees and the rest of the local population.

These “radioactive residues stored in the open air next to the old mine” are “the biggest negative legacy left to us by the exploitation of uranium”, concludes Rahmar Eltoufegh, head of Aghir Inman (Shield Human, in Tuareg language). In 2000 an NGO was formed in Arlit to defend human rights and protect the environment.

A specialized French association, the Commission for Independent Research and Information on Radioactivity (Criirad), believes that the waste constitutes a “sword of Damocles for the supply of drinking water”.

In contrast, Cominak and the Orano group want to be reassured.

“The natural dose (of radiation) we have here is lower than what we can find in France and other areas of the world”, confirms Helen Sciorella Jibo, the company responsible for the redevelopment of the site, assuring that it is not ” Man-made artificial radioactivity”, the most dangerous.

According to Orano, the maximum level of radioactivity in humans recorded at the mine site in 2022 was 8.6 mSv/year, well below the regulatory limit of 20 mSv/year for miners in Niger.

“The dosage is low by the standards of Nigerian and international law”, concluded Gilles Recoche, geologist and director of responsibility, commitment and communications for the group.

Orano states that the “hills” will be remodeled and covered with two meters of guaranteed waterproof material (argillite and sandstone) at the end of the work, and that these are accompanied by control measures in Arlit and its surrounding town. , where some 200,000 people live.

“A comprehensive sweep has been set up across the city to monitor radioactivity in the air and water”, Mr Rekoche underlines.

– “Disbelief and Fear” –

But the worry remains. Basirou Babale, divisional director of Arlit Mines, recalls that the tailings “are radioactive” and that it is necessary to “flood the town to avoid cracks and radon (a gas produced from the natural disintegration of uranium)”. have been

“There is mistrust, doubt and fear about radioactivity in our city, it is normal, but measures are being taken to deal with it”, replied Abdurrahmane Mouly, the mayor of Arlit.

According to Mr Recoche, there is “no proven case of illness linked to radioactivity” in the Arlit area.

But for Hasan Sole, a former Cominac worker he met in Arlit, “people are 7 km from the mines” and some “are sick”. He is not angry: according to him, “everybody is worried” because “Orano is there at the root of all these problems and doesn’t even want to listen to us”.

Created in 2012, the Health Observatory of the Agadez Region (Osra) has since carried out medical surveillance of retirees and licensees of Cominak and Aïr (Somaïr), the second mine in the region operated by the mining company Orano, which is still in operation.

When asked by AFP, Ayouba Dogonyaro, a medical provider in Osara, said that “out of 2,000 consultations, we detected about ten cases of occupational diseases caused by radiation, blood and lung cancer, silicosis, six of which was recognized by the Osra Medical Committee. composed of three doctors representing the mines, civil society and the state”.

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