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France destroys North Niger. Will the EU or UN act?

By Nick Meynen. Tens of thousands of people in Niger’s Arlit are exposed to often deadly radiation coming from the uranium mines around the city. AREVA, owned by the French State for over 80% and the main company on this environmental crime scene, has misinformed and lied to a population that is now waking up to the devastating consequences of this ecocide. AREVA’s lies were recently explained to a team from the European Commission, at a closed door meeting in Brussels. 

Long before the last of 230 uranium mines in France closed in 2001, the French state started fuelling its many reactors with material dug up in what Larry Summers infamously called the “under-polluted countries”. They do that for the very precise reason why the chief economist of the World Bank and key advisor of US presidents used that term: polluting Niger is a lot cheaper for AREVA than polluting France. Niger’s deaths are also easier to deal with for AREVA than deaths from radiation on the French home turf.

Hidden in a remote corner of the Sahara desert, careless digging and dumping started back in 1968. But rather than building the promised ‘Little Paris’ next to it, there’s now a city called Arlit.

A recent study from AREVA on only 120 houses showed that 16% of them are polluted with radioactive radiation far above the health norms. But Arlit is now home to over 200.000 people. People living in the area are exposed to radioactivity and death rates twice as much as in the rest of the country. This is where about a third of all uranium for France’s reactors comes from.

What can the European Commission do?

That and much more detailed information was recently given to people from the EU’s Energy and Development Cooperation departments in a backroom of the European Parliament. Two recent winners of the global Nuclear-Free Future Award, Bruno Chareyron from CRIIRAD[1] and Almoustapha Alhacen from Aghirin’man[2], brought the harsh reality in this desert corner to the attention of policymakers in France and Brussels. They did this on the invitation of Michèle Rivasi, a French member of the European Parliament from the Green fraction.

Rivasi pushed the commission folks to do something for the exposed people, proposing a field mission with people from the parliament and the commission. The idea is that at least some clean-up will be undertaken if such a mission – with journalists in their wake – arrives at the environmental crime scene.

Chareyron, a French engineer and nuclear physicist who was invited by a local NGO to do independent measurements in and around Arlit testified that the city water was too contaminated to drink. Chareyron: ‘AREVA has lied about this for years – telling people they measured the water and found no problems. But our independent measurements of the same water clearly showed the dangerous levels of contamination. We also found scrap metal and fabric with radioactivity levels 10 to 100 times above normal that are simply sold on the market and that are often used as kitchen stoves or to build houses.’

Making measurements was a challenge for Chareyron. While travelling to Arlit, most of his equipment was confiscated by the police – except for a few small measuring machines that he managed to hide.

Greenpeace, Sherpa (an NGO of French lawyers) and Médecins du Monde all made some field trips over the years, doing what they can to support the locals in their struggle for justice. But Almoustapha Alhacen, who used to work for AREVA and now helps to protect the people from radiation, warned for the dangers of smokescreen solutions. ‘Sherpa came and managed to get AREVA to set up a health observatory post. But AREVA runs it, uses outdated data and in the end it was so dysfunctional that they closed it. Besides, this does nothing to stop the pollution and nothing to stop new people from becoming ill.’

His local NGO Aghirin’man [3] demands access to water, electricity and medical care, renewable energy, restoration of the mining sites and management of radioactive waste. They simply ask for respecting basic human rights and a clean up all the contaminated places, including replacing all houses in Arlit that are too contaminated to live in. AREVA had started with demolishing and rebuilding a few houses but when the full scale became clear, it stopped with this.

The true cost of the pollution created by AREVA is unclear, but it certainly counts by the billions. The number of deaths caused by all this pollution is even less clear. No comprehensive study has ever been undertaken yet. After all: who would fund that? The European Commission?

With over half of all electricity in France coming from nuclear energy but all of that depending on uranium imports, some questions need to be asked. Who needs to pay for the massive costs associated with uranium extracted in Niger to fuel the state owned nuclear power plants in France: people in Niger or the shareholders of AREVA (indirectly that mostly means French taxpayers)? At present, billions of costs associated with nuclear energy in France are in practice shifted to Niger.

This environmental conflict is just one of over 2200 that are mapped in the Atlas of Environmental Justice. Millions of people have used this database as a way to get attention for their issue, to do research or to find details of a certain struggle – testimony of a growing global environmental justice movement.

The conflict in Arlit is just one of 26 uranium extraction conflicts but it also illustrates a deeper problem. If the EU is not going to act on this injustice any time soon – what would it then take to prevent or address business malpractices like this? Out of 188 countries, Niger ranks on place 187 of the Human Development Index. It doesn’t have a government that can stand up to AREVA. It’s rather unrealistic to expect a government that is way smaller in monetary terms than AREVA to bring about the needed change.

Can France sue France or will the UN do something?

Can the French state stand up to AREVA, even if it owns the vast majority of its shares? Odd as that might seem, we might actually find that out pretty soon. In March 2017 France adopted a new law on duty of care of parent and subcontracting companies. Applauded as an “historic step to make globalisation work for all”, the core of this law is to prevent serious human rights and environmental abuses in supply chains thanks to the application of mandatory due diligence by corporations.

Although the text was published in the official journal in March and is now in force, the full compliance with this law is required only by the next fiscal year. On paper it sounds as if France wants to address global environmental injustice issues using its national juridical system. Nevertheless, we will have to wait till 2018 to see how much of it will be implemented and if it will also apply to companies that are close to being state companies.

But it’s not only France where things are moving on the legal side. A binding UN treaty on business and human rights could be a reality pretty soon. Proposed in 2014 by Ecuador, the EU was first reluctant to engage with this effort. But pressure is building up on the European Commission, from civil society and from the European Parliament and signs are there that the commission is warming up to this treaty.

At the end of October, the United National Human Rights Council will discuss the first draft, which was made public at the end of September. Will a binding UN treaty on business and human rights ever prevent companies like AREVA from abusing Nigeriens to keep producing nuclear power in France far below the real costs? Only time will tell.

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