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Goodwill tour tries to iron out uranium tensions

Article published on the 2009-03-27 Latest update 2009-03-27 13:47 TU

Areva's operational uranium mine at Arlit in Niger.(Photo: AFP)

Areva's operational uranium mine at Arlit in Niger.
(Photo: AFP)

French President Nicolas Sarkozy landed in Niger on Friday to meet with his counterpart Mamadou Tandja, but the primary purpose of his trip was revealed by the person who accompanied him - Anne Lauvergeon, the president of French nuclear giant Areva.

Areva, the world’s largest nuclear power company, has been mining uranium in Niger for over 40 years and is the largest private employer in the country. In January, Areva signed a deal to open a new mine in Imouraren, which will double its yearly extraction in the former French colony.

While the deal promises significant investment to improve living conditions in Niger, Sarkozy’s visit was still met with protests and outcry in the local media, fuelled by the impression that little of the wealth generated reaches the population.

Sarkozy, in an interview with local media before his visit, sought to calm these tensions, saying that the new investments would be transparent, so that everyone can see the benefit of uranium mining in Niger, one of the planet’s poorest countries.

“Everyone must know what Areva’s activities in Niger bring to their national budget, so that they can confirm that Niger receives fair compensation for its resources,” he said.

The Panos Institute West Africa (IPAO), a local NGO, has conducted research in Niger that it says proves that a legacy of mining has caused health problems, water contamination and unmonitored radioactive dumping.

Tensions around the mines came to a head in July 2007, when Niger told Areva’s local manager, Dominique Pin, to leave the country. They accused him of providing aid to the Tuareg rebel group, the Nigerian Movement for Justice (MNJ), which operates in the north of the country where the uranium mines are found.  

RFI's correspondent in Niger, Moussa Kaka, was accused of helping Tuareg rebels and jailed for more than a year.

Under pressure to bring development to this isolated region, Areva agreed in January 2008 to nearly double the purchase price it would pay for uranium.

This agreement paved the way for the Imouraren mine deal, which will bring 1.2 billion euros in investment, and includes a provision for six million euros in aid to develop health, education and transport as well as access to water and energy for the local population.

Sarkozy also denounced the MNJ, saying that Niger “is a lively democracy, where there are numerous ways to have your perspective heard without having to plant landmines”.

“It’s not acceptable for individuals or groups to defend their ideas with force when they could do so with ballots”, he said.

New European nuclear reactors planned in Britain and France, not to mention those to be built in India and China, have spurred worldwide demand for uranium, and Niger, along with Canada and Australia, has much of the world’s known deposits.