Subversive Element

Agriman 1

Courtesy: Aghirin'man

Uranium Mining in Niger

Power for Some — Poverty for Others

Uranium is a subversive element.

The mining, milling, processing and enrichment of uranium-235 for use in nuclear bombs, the experimental testing of those bombs, their actual or threatened use against people, the use of uranium in power reactors and the extraction of weapons-grade plutonium from those reactors, have undermined relations between states, poisoned environments, stunted indigenous societies, sickened and killed countless millions, and alienated humans from the rest of the living world.

Since life on Earth began, 3.8 billion years ago, living things have obtained energy or heat in one way, and one way only: by stripping electrons off reduced (electron-rich) inorganic molecules (oxidizing them), or by burning (oxidizing) carbon-based food, firewood, coal, oil or gas.

Gazing past those electrons, in December 1938, Otto Hahn and Fritz Strassmann stumbled on an immensely greater energy source. Uranium nuclei, they and their colleagues discovered, could be split by bombarding them with neutrons, triggering a self-amplifying, energy-yielding chain reaction.

Talk about light bulbs turning on. Awesome amounts of energy could be tapped through nuclear fission, other physicists immediately realized, and unbelievably powerful bombs could be built.

Julius Robert Oppenheimer located the blinding brilliance of the moment in Hindu scripture:

“If the radiance of a thousand suns were to burst at once into the sky, that would be like the splendor of the mighty one … Now I am become Death, the destroyer of worlds,” the Bhagavad Gita says.

Others turned to ancient Greece.

Modern Prometheans have raided Mount Olympus again and have brought back for man the very thunderbolts of Zeus,” the Scientific Monthly opined in September 1945, in the blinding wake of Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

In the eighty years since then, far below Olympian heights where flesh-and-blood Prometheans destroy worlds, impoverished women and men have laboured in the fields of the bomb and its allied power industry, keeping fissile fuel flowing.

Little Niger comes to mind.

Now in the throes of political turmoil, the Sahelian nation is an important source of uranium for the world’s five franchised nuclear weapons powers (the US, Russia, China, France and UK) and four others outside the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (India, Pakistan, North Korea and Israel), and for 32 countries with operating nuclear power plants.

Massive volumes of uranium ore have been extracted over the past decades from an open pit mine operated by the state-owned French company, Orano, in the northern Nigerien town of Arlit, and from a conventional underground mine in nearby Agadez, now closed.

Niger is the seventh largest producer of uranium in the world (after Kazakhstan, Namibia, Canada, Australia, Uzbekistan and Russia). France – with 300 nuclear warheads and 56 operable power reactors, generating 70% of its electricity – sources about ten percent of its uranium supply from Niger.

Niger’s minority stake in Orano’s operations likely provides the country’s military and business elite with a healthy income – certainly with a quantum of power when dealing with the French, who they claim to hate, and have reportedly expelled.

Ordinary Nigeriens get contaminated mine tailings, polluted air and water, radioactive building materials, and a government and military subverted by nuclearism.

Niger ranks 189 on the Human Development Index, third from the bottom, above Chad and South Sudan.

I spoke about uranium mining in Niger with Bruno Chareyron, a researcher with the French NGO CRIIRAD (Commission de Recherche et d’Information Indépendentes Sur la Radioactivité).

CRIIRAD partners with a Nigerien NGO called Aghirin’man (Organization for the Protection of Environment and Well-Being).

Listen to my conversation with Bruno Chareyron here:

Bruno Chareyron inspects radioactive materials in Niger (courtesy CRIIAD)