The little known nuclear wasteland in the Sahara
In the Sahara, a Little-Known Nuclear Wasteland, “There’s nothing nuclear in what I do. It’s just rocks we dilute into powder.”, Catapult, Hannah Rae Armstrong Apr 12, 2017 Activist Azara Jalawi lives with her mother, a nomad; her daughter Amina, who watches Mexican soap operas and dates a local human trafficker; her son Doudou, nicknamed “Slim Shady,” and a lean girl, probably a slave, in the town of Arlit, Niger, a mining hub of about forty thousand set deep within the Tuareg Sahara, a slow-baking proto-Chernobyl, a little-known nuclear wasteland.
Around Arlit, prehistoric volcanoes and petrified forests rise from the sand. Beneath it lie the skulls of giant crocodiles who preyed on dinosaurs a hundred million years ago. Within the rocky plateaus are havens like the oasis at Timia, where orange, grapefruit, and pomegranate groves ripen and flower in the desert. For forty years, the French nuclear-energy giant Areva has mined uranium here, and milled it into yellowcake, the solid concentrate that is the first step towards enriching uranium for nuclear fuel or weapons. Three miles outside the town, fifty million tons of radioactive tailings—a waste byproduct containing heavy metals and radon—sit in heaps that resemble unremarkable hills. In strong winds and sandstorms, radioactive particles scatter across the desert. “Radon daughters,” odorless radioactive dust, blanket the town. Public health and the environment exhibit strange symptoms of decay—mysterious illnesses are multiplying; grasses and animals are stunted. The people of Arlit are told that desertification and AIDS are to blame. ………..
Living atop an open-pit uranium mine has made the people ill, in ways they do not understand. Breathing radioactive dust, drinking contaminated well water, and sleeping between walls stitched from radioactive scrap metal and mud, the people tell stories to fill the gaps in their knowledge. ………
At her brother Doudou’s high school, funded by the mining company, students are told not to do drugs or set things on fire. Teachers tell Doudou nothing about the contaminated well water he consumes daily. At lunch on my first day in Arlit, I ask nervously about the source of the water in a chilled glass bottle on the table. “Don’t worry, it’s the well water,” they assure me. “We drink it all the time.” I learn later that well water readings reveal contamination one hundred times beyond the World Health Organization’s threshold for potable water.
………. a dim awareness of the contamination risks was just beginning. Almoustapha Alhacen, a yellowcake miller and environmental activist, recognizes himself on the cover of a 2012 book I’ve brought with me: “Being Nuclear: Africans and the Global Uranium Trade.” He is the man wearing a gas mask and gloves. “The problem with Areva is it never informed people that radioactivity exists and that it is dangerous,” he says. An NGO called the Commission for Independent Research and Information on Radioactivity (CRIIRAD), created by a French EU deputy after the 1986 Chernobyl catastrophe, equipped him with a device and trained him to take readings. Once, he recalls, he saw a pregnant woman eating mud next to the road that leads from the mine to the town. This road is often tamped down with clay from the mines, and the tires that cross it regularly give it a fresh, invisible wash of radon. Almoustapha took a reading there and found radioactivity twenty-four times higher than the safe level. At markets selling scrap metal used for building houses, and at the community taps where people draw water, he took readings that were off the charts.
“Arlit was built around uranium. And humanity needs uranium,” Almoustapha says, speaking quickly and with rage. “But what happens next for us, when the uranium runs out, Areva leaves, and we are left with 50 million tons of radioactive waste?” As an activist, he ponders the future and the environment with seriousness. But these become abstract concerns before the fact of his job, which he needs right now. In a white turban and sunglasses, with sequined leather jewelry adorning his chest, he protests: “There’s nothing nuclear in what I do. It’s just rocks we dilute into powder, powder we dilute into liquid. It’s just mechanics, like for any car.” …….
If any state benefits from the distraction counter-terrorism provides from these underlying issues, it is France. Insecurity shields the mines from environmental scrutiny. Threats justify deepening militarization, an ongoing erosion of Nigerien sovereignty and independence. And the French mines still face no real obstacle to radiating the radiant desert. In fact, they’re expanding. A new mine—Africa’s largest—is being built near Arlit, at a site called Imouraren. There, a “security belt” encircles 100,000 acres, marking the land off limits to nomads.
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