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‘A CITY LOST IN THE DESERT’: A visit to the Sahara’s uranium capital via Business Insider

Niger’s uranium industry is ‘an island’

For decades, the uranium industry has been an island within one of the world’s poorest and most vulnerable countries, a place which ranks nearly last on the Human Development Index and which will see its population of 17 million explode to over 50 million by mid-century.

The benefits of one of Niger’s few existing heavy industries are largely sequestered away from a population that is badly in need of them.

“Today, 80% of Nigeriens don’t even know Niger has uranium, and 99% never get any benefits from it,” Almoustapha Alhacen, the founder of the Arlit-based uranium industry watchdog group Aghir In’Man, speculated to Business Insider during an interview in Agadez.

The uranium industry constitutes over one-third of Niger’s exports. In France “one out of every three light bulbs is lit thanks to Nigerien uranium,” according to a 2013 Oxfam publication. Niger has the world’s fifth-largest recoverable uranium reserves, some 7% of the global total. Niger’s two major uranium mines are the country’s second-largest employer, aside from the government.

But the uranium industry inhabits a seemingly different world from the vast majority of Niger’s citizens — even in Arlit, the city at the center of the industry.

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Ghamar Il’ontoufigh, Aghir In’Man’s secretary general, estimates that the city’s population has grown from around 10,000 at the start of uranium exploitation in the early 1970s to approximately 115,000 today.

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Industrial miscellany litters the town and forms the backdrop to the city’s daily life. On a typical street, children play in a busted truck chassis and men repair an earth-mover’s scoop with a soldering iron. There are frequent piles of tires, some of them very thick and wide, as if they were once attached to heavy machinery.

In one gaping, walled-off lot, dozens of truck hoppers painted in identical green — once used to haul uranium from the mines, now irradiated scrap metal, with the name of a defunct mining subcontractor emblazoned on their sides — rust in the desert sun.

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Alhacen, who has emerged as one of the company’s most high-profile Nigerien critics, worked in the uranium industry for two decades and acknowledges its payoff for the people closest to it. Nigerien laborers make around 400,000 Central African francs ($688) a month, and engineers or logistics officers earn 1.2 million francs ($2,065) a month in a country with a per capita gross national income of just over $400 a year. They get to live in workers’ villages that are among the most desirable communities in the country.

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In the 1980s, the Nigerien government attempted to free itself from its dependence on French uranium purchases by selling to internationally isolated countries, including Libya, Iraq, and Pakistan. According to University of Michigan professor Gabrielle Hecht’s book, “Being Nuclear: Africans and the Global Uranium Trade,” one of the nuclear weapons Pakistan tested in 1998 contained Nigerien uranium.

But France had a level of demand and investment in Niger that no other potential buyer could match. “State officials had trouble finding and sustaining a customer base that did not involve French expertise and infrastructures,” Hecht writes.

The relationship has become somewhat more equitable over time. Niger’s share of the uranium revenue increased slightly as the result of the last contract negotiations between Areva and the Nigerien government, in 2014.

But Alhacen doesn’t think the industry has had much of a general benefit for people who aren’t directly tied to it.

“We cannot understand why there’s no power or electricity in parts of Arlit,” says Alhacen. “The money from the uranium is not in Niger.”

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Moreover, he claimed that Areva was operating at lower margins than it might appear. Martinez said that between 80% and 90% of Areva’s uranium revenues were spent inside Niger, in the form of taxes — which Martinez said comprised 6% of the Nigerien government’s budget: wages, service contracts, and other overhead.

But Niger and Areva’s relationship — historically wracked by questions of equitable revenue splits, and the heavy environmental and social impact of uranium mining regardless of how the revenue is distributed — is now further complicated by the company’s downturn in fortunes, a partial result of low uranium prices.

In July 2015, Areva announced its plans to sell a controlling stake in its nuclear-reactor business, just months after announcing that it intended to lay off 5,000 to 6,000 of its employees out of a global total of 42,000. In Niger, a third Areva uranium-mining project in Imouraren, near Arlit, was suspended before the mine went into operation. Imouraren will likely only begin production once the uranium price rebounds, something that industry experts don’t expect to occur until late this decade.

Read more at ‘A CITY LOST IN THE DESERT’: A visit to the Sahara’s uranium capital

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