SUPPLIER TO THE WEALTHY NORTH
From the beginning, the framework of colonialism defined uranium mining in Africa. For many decades, South Africa was the main uranium supplier on the African continent. Today, Namibia and Niger have taken its place.
In Africa, uranium mining started in the 1930s in the Congo – then under Belgian colonial rule – at the Shinkolobwe mine, where people worked under horrific conditions. The miners supplied the raw material for the construction of the nuclear bomb, working only with their hands and using the simplest of tools. The Belgian mining company, Union Minière, had absolute control over all of the country’s natural resources. Radiation protection and health protection were completely neglected. Anyone who opposed this colonial plundering of the country’s resources suffered draconian punishments.
Until 1950, one third of the uranium mined worldwide came from this mine and was mainly exported to the USA. In 1960, Belgian colonial rule formally ended. However, that did not mean that the country was no longer exploited. The mining operations financed the civil war there, and up to 20 billion US dollars of Congolese assets ended up in accounts abroad according to the Financial Times. Golden Misabiko, president of ASADHO Katanga, opposed this government despotism and, in 2009, he revealed the secret agreement between then President Joseph Kabila (DR of Congo) and President Nicolas Sarkozy (France), which gave Areva, a French state company, exclusive access to the uranium resources of the country. Consequently, Misabiko was arrested and tortured before he could flee into exile.
With the development of nuclear energy, the focus shifted to a growing number of other countries in Africa. Although Niger became independent in 1960, the French government and the nuclear company Areva continued their colonial exploitation. Uranium mining began operation in 1971 in Arlit at the southern edge of the Sahara and was expanded to Akokan three years later. In 2018, Niger was the fifth largest uranium producer worldwide. However, the uranium wealth brought no benefits to the people of Niger, even though, in the meantime, 146,000 tonnes of uranium had left the country, an amount equivalent to a market price of nine billion US dollars. The country remains one of the poorest in the world, but with an inheritance – nuclear waste. Almoustapha Alhacen founded the local NGO Aghirin`man – which in the Tuareg language means “Protection of the Soul” – and had scientists from the independent French CRIIRAD laboratory examine the Arlit terrain. “What happens there borders on negligent physical injury”, reports CRIIRAD director Bruno Chareyron. “In drinking water for example, the radioactivity is ten to one hundred times higher than the limits recommended by the WHO.” As in other mining regions, roads were paved with radioactive rock residues while 35 million tonnes of radioactive waste was discarded out in the open without any kind of protection. Background radiation is 200 times higher than permitted. Niger is not the only African country where Areva (now calling itself Orano) prospected for uranium: the company was also active in Gabon, but ended uranium mining there 20 years ago. Here as well, tailings and waste dumps have not been cleaned up.
Rio Tinto, one of the world’s three largest mining companies, opened the first uranium mine in Namibia in 1976, the Rössing mine. Additional mines followed – with all the negative effects for the miners: although they continued to receive pay when they were sick, they had to pay their own medical costs. One lawsuit against Rio Tinto failed because two workers missed the deadline for claiming damages. Today, Namibia is the fourth largest producer of uranium in the world.
In South Africa, uranium was just a side product of gold mining, but the yield was big enough to make South Africa the most important uranium producer on the African continent. With the South African gold rush already underway at the end of the 19th century, and with the mining companies at the time having no interest in uranium, the heavy metal was simply left on the rock piles as radioactive waste. The miners and their families lived right next to these dumps. Since the dumps contain more uranium than some new uranium mines, companies started to mine the waste rock deposits. Under the South African apartheid system, it was a decades-long standard procedure to pay workers who showed symptoms of a disease their last monthly wage and then dismiss them.
Many new uranium mining applications were made over the past several decades, as the example of Tanzania shows: the German Uranerzbergbau GmbH prospected for uranium in Tanzania from 1978 to 1982. There was frustration among many residents in villages close to the south Tanzanian Mkuju River project, according to Tanzanian human rights activists. “For more than ten years now, they talk about research and exploration. What the people in the neighboring communities get is employment for just a few and for the rest the dust raised by cars and trucks”, reports an activist from Songea, who does not want to be named for safety reasons.
The increased price for uranium in the years 2007 and 2008 led to a veritable boom in exploration activities in Africa. However, because the price of uranium dropped again (see p.27), no new mines have been opened apart from Husab and Langer Heinrich in Namibia and Kayelekera in Malawi. As a result of the low prices, the South African company, Mintails, had to file for bankruptcy, while Areva was saved from bankruptcy using taxpayers’ money and Paladin just barely avoided going under. At the same time, Chinese companies who, through a high rate of government ownership are less profit-oriented in the short-term, seized the opportunity these failures presented: CNNC secured the right to uranium deposits, promoted the exploration of new deposits, bought shares in the Langer Heinrich mine, and then planned to take it over. In 2016, the Husab mine in Namibia was quietly put into operation.
Operating and closed mines in Africa: Who owns them and how much uranium has been extracted from them so far?
Shinkolobwe: 25,600 tonnes, first uranium mine worldwide. Open pit and underground mining since approx. 1938, closed in 1960. Ever since: illegal extraction
Mounana: 5,760 tonnes, open pit and underground mining, 1960–1999
Oklo: 14,649 tonnes, open pit and underground mining, 1970–1985
Okelobondo: 3,144 tonnes, underground mining, closed in 1988
Boyindzi: 2,471 tonnes, underground mining, 1980–1991
Mikouloungou: 85 tonnes, open pit mining, 1997–1999
Owner of all mines in Gabon: Areva/state of Gabon
Vatovory: 785 tonnes, open pit mining, 1950s, state of France
Kayelekera: 4,217 tonnes, open pit mining, 2009-2014. 85% owned by Lotus Resources, closed in 2014
Rössing: 66,722 tonnes, open pit mining since 1976, 68 % owned by CNNC in 2018
Husab (Rössing Süd): 1,332 tonnes, open pit mining since 2016. 90% owned by Taurus Minerals Ltd
Langer Heinrich: 16,416 tonnes, open pit mining since 2007, mothballed in 2018. 75% owned by Paladin, 25% by CNNC
Trekkopje: 437 tonnes, open pit mining, 2011-2013. 51% owned by Orano, 49% by CGNPC
Arlit: Open pit mining since 1971. 64 % owned by Orano, 36 % by the state of Niger
Akokan (Akouta): Underground mining since 1974. 34 % owned by Orano (formerly Areva), 31% by Niger, 25 % by OURD, 10 % by ENUSA. 30% drop in production from 2015 to 2018. Akokan and Arlit: 75,986 tonnes since 1998
Azelik: 615 tonnes, open pit and underground mining, 2007-2015. 37% owned by CNNC, 33% by state of Niger, 25% by ZXJOY Invest., 5% by Korea Resources Corp.
Kitwe: 86 tonnes in the 1950s
In South Africa, uranium is extracted as a by-product of gold mining. In charge since 1967: the Nuclear Fuels Corporation of South Africa, today an affiliate of Anglo Gold Ashanti.
Ezulwini (formerly Randfontein): 217 tonnes, 2011–2017
Vaal River Region (Kopanang, Moab Khotsong): 2,817 tonnes, 2011–2017
• Greenpeace: Left in the dust. AREVA’s radioactive legacy in the desert towns of Niger
• Film: Uranium Mining – what are we talking about? Günter Wippel, 76 Min., on Youtube