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The French Nuclear Industry Is Bad Enough in France; Let's Not Expand It to the U.S.

Areva, France's nuclear industry, has a solid reputation, but a trail of radioactive waste and deaths in Africa follow its wake.

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The Niger government, meanwhile, has declared open season on northern Niger, awarding close to 140 prospecting licenses to uranium-mining companies from China, India, Canada, the United States and elsewhere in its efforts to become the world's top exporter of uranium -- it currently ranks fifth.

Faced with large swathes of the country virtually cordoned off for new mines, some in Niger are fighting back, predominantly the Tuareg, the poorest and most deprived of Niger's northern population.

A largely nomadic people, the Tuareg have seen little of the benefits of uranium mining (they make up 3 percent of the workforce), and their traditional lifestyle has been the hardest hit. They view the government's new mining plans as a "pillaging" of the land, with the Tuareg sacrificed for corporate profit.

Some have taken up arms. Others, including exiled leaders in France, are leading advocacy efforts to draw international attention to the plight of their people. Growing desertification in the Sahara has been compounded by the dual effects of climate change and mineral extraction. The Tuareg are dependent on clean water for grazing their animals and growing crops and want to see no more uranium mining until the environmental devastation is cleaned up. They point out that none of the profits from current mining efforts has been injected back into their struggling communities.

The Niger government has responded by attempting to eliminate the Tuareg. Amnesty International has identified numerous human rights abuses, including disappearances, torture and summary executions. The Tuareg, fearing an attempted genocide, point to slaughter of their livestock by the Niger military in a further effort to eliminate their way of life. Some observers fear a smaller-scale Dafur in the making.

Areva has actively encouraged the Niger government to deal with the Tuareg problem, and late last year, an Areva vice president told a French government committee that the Tuareg were simply a romantic "illusion," urging his government to aid Niger in crushing them.

Niger is not without U.S. help as well. According to a March 2009 article published by In These Times, Congress authorized $500 million in 2005 for a six-year period to counter "terrorism" in the region, despite little evidence of Islamic extremism.

With its human rights track record largely a well-kept secret, Areva has been welcomed into the United States, where the company has quietly established 42 offices with 5,300 employees. Its U.S. tentacles extend to virtually every phase of the nuclear fuel chain, from uranium enrichment to radioactive-waste management. With the smoke and mirrors resurgence of nuclear power gaining political and public traction, Areva -- read the French government -- smells huge profits, and the U.S. is prime prey.

Areva is behind the push to revive nuclear-waste reprocessing in the U.S. The separated plutonium would then be blended into MOX fuel and used in U.S. reactors, none of which is adapted to handle the hotter plutonium fuel.

Until recently, Areva, in partnership with the U.S. Shaw Group, was running MOX fuel test assemblies at Duke Energy's Catawba nuclear plant in South Carolina before the operation was shut down prematurely for safety reasons. The U.S. MOX fuel was made at the French MOX fuel-fabrication plant at Cadarache, a facility that had been closed due to the danger of earthquakes in the area. The plant was reopened solely to accommodate the U.S. fuel, a move that was challenged as illegal by French anti-nuclear advocates.

Areva recently won a contract to build and operate a new uranium-enrichment facility in Idaho. It operates more than 50 percent of this country's dry cask storage operations, where all of the U.S. spent reactor fuel still sits at the 65 reactor sites (there are 104 operating reactors in the U.S.) At least 30 percent of U.S. reactors use Areva-supplied fuel.

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