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Orphans of the Sahara

Uranium mining in Niger: AREVA responds

The French nuclear giant responds to allegations in Al Jazeera's documentary, Orphans of the Sahara.

Last updated: 23 Jan 2014 20:16
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Areva, a French state-owned corporation, runs major uranium mines in Niger [EPA]

AREVA is a French state-owned corporation that runs two uranium mines in Niger: Somair and Cominak. A third mine, Imouraren, is due to open in the near future.

In Orphans of the Sahara: Exile, a number of allegations were made by local people and environmental groups in relation to the environmental and health impact of AREVA's mining activities in Niger. The following is the company’s detailed response to these allegations.

 

On claims that AREVA is polluting the local environment around its uranium mines and causing harm to the health of local people and animals – by exposing radioactive waste to the open air, with the result that radioactive dust gets dispersed by the desert winds.

AREVA response:

Contrary to allegations made by certain NGOs or activist groups, AREVA does everything possible to limit the impact of its activities on the environment. The mining companies Somair and Cominak, located at Arlit, in northern Niger, are certified to ISO 14001, the international standard for environmental management systems. Continual monitoring of water, air and soil show that there is no pollution of the environment around the mining sites at Arlit.

First and foremost, it is important to clarify that we are speaking about ore-processing tailings and not radioactive waste. Since the beginning of mining and as part of their industrial activities, Somair and Cominak have stored ore-processing tailings (very fine wet sands left after the ore is ground and the uranium extracted) on-site in impoundments. These impoundments have an impermeable liner laid on a sandstone formation at their base, and are surrounded by dikes and/or berms.

Core drilling activities have demonstrated the effectiveness of such facilities in protecting the subsoil. A thick, hard layer forms on the surface of the tailings when they dry, preventing the dispersion of dust by the wind.

In addition, AREVA has installed a surveillance network to check for airborne radioactive dust using sedimentation plates and dosimeters. A surveillance network is installed at each of the mining sites of Somair and Cominak (three measurement stations at the surface facilities of the two mines), and another in the area around the mining sites (three measurement stations in the cities of Arlit and Akokan, located 6 km away, and six measurement stations on the roads used by the population about 3km from the sites). This surveillance network has shown that there is no impact.

On claims that the Imouraren mine will generate hundreds of millions of tons of radioactive waste over the 35 years of its future operation.

AREVA response:

The Imouraren mine will ultimately produce 5,000 tons of uranium per year. Identified uranium potential at the site is sufficient for 35 years of production at the nominal production rate.

In a mining project of this size, regulations require that an impact study be done to determine the positive and negative impacts of the project and the means for mitigating the negative impacts. The impact study includes:

  • Description of the project
  • Presentation of alternatives
  • Baseline description: physical, biological, socio-economic, cultural and radiological environment
  • Identification and evaluation of the negative and positive impacts of the project
  • Mitigation, compensation and prevention measures
  • Environmental surveillance plan
  • Reclamation plan

The study was submitted in May 2008 to the Office of Environmental Assessments and Impact Studies (BEEEI), in the Nigerien Ministry of the Environment and the Fight Against Desertification. Once the entire regulatory process (public hearing, etc.) had been completed, the Nigerien Ministry of the Environment issued a Certificate of Environmental Compliance in August 2008 along with the terms of reference for the mine’s operation and surveillance.

Since receiving this authorization, AREVA has submitted regular reports on its environmental monitoring to the BEEEI (results of the monitoring of the air, water, soil, food chain and vegetation as well as the management of industrial waste). Nigerien authorities also carry out regular inspections concerning these matters.

On claims that AREVA's mining activities in Niger would exhaust the non-renewable water resources in aquifers in northern Niger over the 35 year life of the Imouraren project:

AREVA response

Over the 40 years of operation, the Somair and Cominak mines used, through the end of 2012, almost 320 million m3 of water, equivalent to about 25 percent of the reserves in the Tarat aquifer, estimated at 1.3 billion m3.

Somair and Cominak set up Water Committees in Niger. Their mission has been to regularly assess water consumption and water quality and to initiate and lead effective actions to improve them. In the space of 15 years, annual consumption has been reduced by 35 percent, while uranium production has increased by more than 33 percent.

As for the Imouraren project, extensive studies have revealed the presence of large aquifers. Their reserves on the site are estimated to be nearly 8 billion m3. Operating Imouraren for 35 years will require about 500 million m3 of water, or less than 7 percent of local reserves. Last, eco-design approaches have been used, particularly in the Imouraren project, to find ways to reduce industrial water consumption, to promote recycling, and to make users aware of the need to consume less. The technical solutions chosen will decrease water consumption by 40 percent.

On no comprehensive, independent epidemiological or radiological survey has been carried out into the impact of 40 years of AREVA's mining activities on local people and their environment.

AREVA response:

Somair and Cominak have built hospitals in, respectively, Arlit and Akokan. Since 1970 and 1975, these hospitals have provided free medical care to workers, families, and the local population. These two hospitals are under the responsibility of the Public Health Ministry in Niamey, and it is not up to AREVA to use these data for epidemiological studies.

Statistical data from both hospitals are regularly sent to the Health Department of Arlit as well as to the National Health System Information Department at the Nigerien Ministry of Health.

The analysis of the results does not show any diseases or statistics that diverge from those of the other departments of the region.

AREVA would also like to add that the impact of the mining activities on the local populations is very closely monitored and checked. The added dose limit of 1 mSv a year set by Nigerien regulations (Nigerien law 003/MME/DM Jan. 8, 2001) is respected around AREVA's mines, guaranteeing there is no impact on health. The international scientific community considers that below an annual exposure of 100 mSv, no measurable health effect is observed.

Regarding opinions expressed by a herder and his wife AREVA wanted to point out:

  1. That mining activities are carried out with the approval of the government, in full compliance with international standards, and in line with a responsible environmental and social policy.
  2. That Somair and Cominak have around their industrial sites and in the urban areas a surveillance network composed of several stations to monitor the impact of their activities on air, soil, the food chain, and water. The results show there is no risk to the local population or animals.
  3. That AREVA set up a Health Observatory program in Niger in 2011. The purpose of this program, which is unique in the world, is to monitor the health of former mine employees and people living near the mining sites operated by AREVA, doing so with full transparency.

In addition, AREVA wanted to provide the following information:

Protection and sustainable management of the environment
In Niger, as elsewhere, AREVA does its utmost to limit as far as reasonably possible the impact its activities have on the environment (ALARA principle: As Low As Reasonably Achievable). To this end, the mines currently in operation respect international standard ISO 14001, which promotes an environmentally responsible management system. Furthermore, AREVA performs radiological monitoring of the environment and local residents at all its mining sites by analysing the quality of the air, water, soil and food chain. The results are systematically passed on to the competent authorities in each country in which the group has a presence.

Occupational health and safety: a priority
In all the countries in which AREVA operates, the health and safety of employees has always been a priority. In Africa, AREVA has therefore contributed to ensuring that employees and local populations have free access to the healthcare system, as well as fostering a strong safety culture to reduce the accident frequency rate as much as possible. The mines in operation in Niger also respect standard OHSAS 18001, which is associated with the rigorous and effective management of health and safety in the workplace.

Radiation protection: a major area for prevention
At all AREVA mining sites, employee exposure to ionizing radiation is subject to the highest level of attention and continuous monitoring. In terms of radiation protection, recommendation 103 of the International Commission on Radiological Protection (ICRP) and Euratom directive 96/29 set the maximum exposure (maximum additional annual dose) of an employee at 20 mSv per year on average over 5 years, without exceeding 50 mSv during the course of the previous year. In all the countries where we work, the results of our radiological monitoring are checked by the competent authorities. In 2011, no miner exceeded 18 mSv. In 2012, AREVA set itself the target of an exposure of less than 16 mSv per year.

The impact of mining activities on local populations is also monitored and checked. As in Europe, the annual limit in Africa is set at 1 mSv above natural background radiation. This limit is respected in the areas around the Arlit mines in Niger and the former mine in Mounana in Gabon.

Finally, aware of the questions that may be posed concerning the potential impact of operating uranium mines, in 2007 AREVA worked with Non-Governmental Organisations to produce a pioneering agreement to set up "Health Observatories" around the mining sites operated by the group. This multi-party structure (AREVA, NGOs, states and civil society) aims to guarantee the post-employment monitoring of AREVA's former mining employees in full transparency. The Observatories were launched in Gabon in 2010 and in Niger at the end of 2011, and several hundreds of consultations have already taken place.

Contribution to local development
The African countries in which AREVA works benefit from the operation of the uranium mines. As well as creating jobs, training local populations with specific industrial skills and contributing to countries’ tax revenue, AREVA also participates in projects to help the population in terms of healthcare, education and local development. As an example, on average AREVA gives 6 million euros per year to such development actions in aid of the Nigerien population.

Dialogue and transparency
AREVA is genuinely committed to greater economic and financial transparency in relation to the populations and stakeholders in the countries where it has operations.

An indication of this commitment, AREVA became a Supporting Company of the Extractive Industries Transparency Initiative (EITI) in June 2003, one of the very first multinational companies to do so.

Since 2008, Somair and Cominak have officially affirmed their commitments to the Extractive Industries Transparency Initiative (EITI), which is a process whereby government revenues generated by extractive industries, such as taxes, mineral rights, tax on benefits and royalties, are published in independently audited reports.

The mining companies regularly present their activities and their environmental results at public hearings and Local Information Commission meetings attended by representatives of local authorities, civil society, populations and NGOs. These commissions are intended to promote dialogue and transparency. The last one was held in June, 2013, for Somair and Cominak. The one for Imouraren will be held by the end of the year.

For more on this issue, watch Orphans of the Sahara, Al Jazeera's three-part series on the Tuareg people of the Sahara desert:

Orphans of the Sahara

2000

Source:
Al Jazeera
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