Millions of tons of uncontained radioactive waste are posing a threat to the drinking water supply of more than 100,000 people in Niger.

According to the French-based Independent Research and Information Commission on Radioactivity (CRIIRAD – Commission de Recherche et d'Information Indépendantes sur la Radioactivité) some 20 million tons of radioactive tailings from uranium mining have been dumped on the ground are still uncovered. Radioactive substances are dispersed by the wind and increase health risks for the population.

Orano, through its subsidiary Cominak (Compagnie Minière d’Akouta), operated a uranium mine and extraction plant in Arlit, Niger, for more than 40 years. The mine closed in March 2021 and redevelopment of the site is now being considered. In a recent podcast and video, CRIIRAD, based on documents issued by Cominak, revealed that radioactive waste has contaminated groundwater and threatens drinking water supply sources in the Arlit conurbation.

Studies by CRIIRAD in 2009 revealed radiation of 450000Bq per kg, well above internationally recommended levels. CRIIRAD scientist, Bruno Chareyron said the waste will be radioactive for hundreds of thousands of years. “The waste produces a radioactive gas known as radon. The strong wind of the desert spreads a radioactive dust which is then inhaled by the surrounding population,” he explained. “Orano should have sealed it off on a secure site, but this was not done.” Cominak, said that it will cover the radioactive mud with a two-metre layer of clay and rocks to contain the radiation. However, Chareyron questions whether this layer will be strong enough to isolate the radiation for the length of time required.

Niger is the world’s fifth-largest uranium producer. In 2021, it provided the European Union with nearly 25% of its uranium supplies. Uranium was discovered at Akouta, in the department of Arlit, 1200 kilometres north-west of Niamey, in 1967. Cominak, a public limited company under Nigerien law, was set ua in 1974 and production began in 1978. The mine produced more than 75,000 tU before it was closed.

CRIIRAD was established in May 1986 in the aftermath of the Chernobyl disaster, on the initiative of a group of scientists and citizens who wished to know the truth about the radioactive contamination of French territory. It specialises in the analysis of radioactivity in the environment.

Image: Niger’s Cominak uranium mine, which was closed in March 2021 (courtesy of AFP/Pierre Verdy)