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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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This deception spawned the formation of an investigative laboratory -- CRIIRAD or Commission for Independent Research and Information -- as well as a burgeoning network of close to 815 French anti-nuclear organizations.

In an annual fall poll, up to 60 percent of the French public consistently calls for a phase-out of nuclear energy. On March 17, 2007, 62,000 French citizens demonstrated across France against a proposed new reactor in Normandy. On the same day, a national anti-war demonstration in Washington, D.C., turned out one-third that amount.

Areva's radioactive footprint also reaches beyond the borders of France. Nowhere is this more evident than in Niger and Gabon, where Areva, under its former incarnation, Cogema, and now under various subsidiaries, has mined uranium, the raw ingredient needed for reactor fuel (and for nuclear weapons) for more than 40 years.

The Gabon site is now closed, but joint investigations in Gabon and Niger by an organization of French lawyers -- SHERPA -- along with CRIIRAD -- found significant levels of radioactive contamination and serious health issues in both countries.

In Niger, ranked as one of the poorest countries on the planet and, like Gabon, a former French colony, a humanitarian crisis is unfolding that places Areva directly at the center, along with the Niger government, of what may yet flare into civil war.

After four decades of uranium mining by Areva subsidiaries in the poorer northern region of the country -- at Arlit and Akokan in the Sahara Desert -- the country faces an environmental catastrophe that is destroying the lives and livelihoods of the surrounding communities.

Radioactive dust is everywhere. Water sources -- already scarce in this desert region -- have been depleted and contaminated. Radioactive metals resulting from uranium processing, have been discarded as scrap or sold in the local markets and used by villagers in household items.

Areva, via its Niger subsidiaries SOMAIR and COMINAK, constructed two hospitals at Arlit and Akokan, which are only open to mine workers, and it supplies and pays the doctors who work there. The doctors publicly insist they have never seen uranium-mining-related illnesses caused by radiation exposure, a conclusion CRIIRAD and SHERPA strongly dispute based on the evidence they uncovered in their 2004-2005 investigations in Niger.

SHERPA subsequently found a company doctor who admitted that pulmonary and respiratory illnesses or cancers were never officially diagnosed, because this could harm the company's reputation. One anonymous source told SHERPA that patients with these diseases were told they suffered from malaria and AIDS. Patients who sought a second opinion at the public hospital at Agadez were met with incredulousness by doctors there, who could not understand how their illnesses could have been "missed."

SHERPA found one case of a mine worker with advanced leukemia who was refused health evacuation by SOMAIR and who died on the job at the age of 41 leaving behind five children.

Around Arlit and Akokan, CRIIRAD found unacceptably high levels of radioactivity -- particularly difficult-to-detect alpha emitters -- in the water, sand and in discarded metals. Water was found to be 10 times more radioactively contaminated than the World Health Organization's "acceptable" level for safe drinking water. Yet Areva's press materials state there is no contamination of drinking water at the two sites.

In 2007, CRIIRAD found radioactive rocks outside Areva's Akokan hospital that were 100 times more radioactive than background levels. A letter from CRIIRAD to Areva CEO Lauvergeon pointing out the problem went ignored. Areva eventually cleaned up the site.

Areva's uranium-mining monopoly in Niger ended in 2007 but existing contracts with the Niger government were renewed, and the company was recently awarded the contract for the huge new Imouraren uranium mine, the largest in Africa and due to open in 2012.

 
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