Undermining Africa – Africa’s role in the global uranium economy | by David Fig

by Feb 14, 2012Magazine

Africa is a major supplier of uranium to the world nuclear industry. And yet, apart from South Africa, the continent has little or no stake in going nuclear itself. Should Africa be saying no to the global development of this technology, or should it continue to provide the industry with its raw material?

In the wake of the serious accident at Fukushima in Japan, we need to question the continent’s role in assisting this controversial industry to survive. Most of the financial benefits of uranium mining in Africa are not retained by governments, but instead flow out to the coffers of the transnational mining corporations. Therefore the advantages to African communities are negative. Instead of a development dividend, communities get saddled with problems of the grabbing and contamination of land and water resources, and diseases arising from radioactivity.
Because of Africa’s plentiful uranium, the continent has always been linked to the nuclear industry. From the Shinkolobwe mine in the Belgian Congo (now DRC) came the uranium for the first nuclear weapons dropped by the USA on Hiroshima and Nagasaki in August 1945. South Africa’s own gold mines contained uranium as a by-product. When the US and UK tried to source uranium for their Cold War nuclear bomb programmes in the 1950s and 1960s, they signed secret agreements with Witwatersrand gold mines to extract their uranium. The independent French weapons programme obtained uranium from Niger and tested its weapons in the Algerian desert.

As civilian nuclear power took off from the mid-1960s, much of the uranium came from various parts of Africa. The biggest suppliers were Namibia, Niger and South Africa. The largest open-cast uranium mine on the continent was in the Namib desert at a site called Rössing, about 100 km from the town of Swakopmund, Namibia. When Rössing was built in the 1970s, Namibia was still under illegal South African control. The mine was run by an Australian/UK mining multinational called Rio Tinto, and was co-owned by the South African and Iranian governments, who still own shares in the mine. Contracts were made with the French and Japanese nuclear industries to import the uranium produced at Rössing, effectively breaking economic sanctions against South Africa.

In landlocked Niger, a country with the lowest human development index in the world, French government–owned company Areva has had longstanding interests in mines near the villages of Arlit and Akokan. It also wants to expand by opening a third mine in Niger. For the last 40 years, extraction of uranium has left a legacy of contamination of air, soil and groundwater. Local Touareg people are paying a high price for the pollution: their health statistics indicated that they are twice as vulnerable as other citizens to respiratory diseases, birth defects, leukaemia and cancer. Last year a Greenpeace report indicated the extent of the problems and challenged Areva to clean up its act.

At the People’s Dialogue sessions, entitled ‘Africa in Crisis, Africa Resists’, held during the World Social Forum in Dakar in February 2011, a voice from Niger explained the problem. Almoustapha Alhacen, who heads Arlit’s environmental and human rights campaign Aghir in’Man, told the audience: ‘With each passing day, the contamination of our villages intensifies, while Areva continues to make hundreds of millions by extracting our resources. Radioactivity from the mines ruins our livelihoods and increases our poverty.’

South Africa has seen over 60 years of uranium extraction. From the 1950s, most of the Witwatersrand gold mines also produced uranium. Today the gold is mostly mined out, but there are a few uranium mines that continue to be viable. Although South Africa claims to have a sophisticated nuclear industry, the National Nuclear Regulator (NNR) is underfunded and underskilled, and cannot oversee in detail the questions of worker health, public health or environmental contamination. In February 2011, a contaminated community on the West Rand, at Tudor Shaft, had to be relocated by the local municipality. The NNR had recently declared that people were not at risk, but subsequent inspections conducted for the NGO Federation for a Sustainable Environment proved the opposite.

In countries like Namibia and Malawi, where new mines have recently been opened, there is even less state regulation of levels and impacts of radioactivity. Both countries have endorsed investment by the Australian company Paladin Resources, which had little prior record of involvement in the industry. In Namibia, Paladin was given permission to open a mine inside the very fragile Namib-Naukluft National Park, while in Malawi it set up a mine at Kayelekera in the extreme north of the country. Paladin has been extremely reticent about making information about its operations public, and it’s taking advantage of the low level of regulation to avoid high standards of worker protection.

These investments were stimulated by the sudden rise in uranium prices in the mid-2000s. After many years, the spot price rose from around US$20 per pound to over US$130 per pound. This unleashed a uranium rush, which saw new prospecting in places like Tanzania, Zambia, Zimbabwe, the Central African Republic and the Democratic Republic of Congo (whose uranium mines in Katanga were recently revived). Even though the price has since clawed back to around US$60 per pound, the invasion of Africa, often by fly-by-night companies, coupled with states that facilitate the uranium mining operations at all costs, has meant that environmental and worker protection are at a minimum. Countries like Namibia have refused to join the Extractive Industries Transparency Initiative, which tries to ensure that mining companies uphold some ethical standards. 
In 2009, at a meeting in Tanzania, environment, labour and human rights organisations from around the continent formed the Africa Uranium Alliance to cement ties and call for environmental and social justice relating to the question of uranium mining. AUA hopes to have a presence at the Durban climate conference, and invites like-minded organisations to attend its sessions. From its wide experience, the AUA knows the considerable damage caused to African communities by the largely transnational uranium mining operations. It is raising its voice to challenge the legacy of pollution and disease and to challenge governments to seek development paths that are less destructive locally and globally.

Dr. David Fig is s a South African environmental sociologist, political economist, and activist.

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