‘The history of the nuclear age had been written terms of America, Europe and Japan but there’s a whole infrastructure that has been ignored – uranium production,’ says Gabrielle Hecht, a history professor at the University of Michigan and author of Being Nuclear: Africans and the Global Uranium Trade.
‘This meant that the colonial and post-colonial world, particularly Africa, has been written out of the nuclear age,’ she adds.
Uranium production in Africa proceeded differently across the continent. In South Africa, uranium is a by-product of the gold industry. France has been a major player in African uranium mines. ‘Uranium mining started as another colonial mining endeavour, a way for France to claim a separate and independent nuclear potential,’ says Hecht.
‘In Madagascar, mining started in the late 1960s. It remained a French effort throughout and operated to the detriment of the miners. Many of them had no idea what the uranium was being used for and what the long-term implications were,’ says Hecht.
Today there are places where there is some evidence that areas have long-term contamination, but the Madagascan state never tracked the uranium mines with sufficient accuracy to understand the impact. In Gabon, residents and former mine workers are more aware that contamination took place, according to Hecht. French company Areva, the largest nuclear company in the world, now has responsibility for Gabon’s abandoned mines. This includes 200 houses built from mining aggregate that emitted radiation in a company town. Areva has been pulling down the houses, according to a 2010 EU report.
NGOs took on the issue in order to push the company to provide compensation, says Hecht. ‘Surveys were carried and compensation promised for people who could prove [their] health conditions came about due to radiation from the mine,’ she says. Attempts foundered because it was difficult to establish if cancer cases were in excess of the naturally occurring rate in the population. Without being able to prove causality, compensation could not paid.
Niger has become much more significant for uranium production in recent years, radioactive products account for 41 per cent of the country’s exports, according to MIT.
As for future uranium exploitation, there are plans for new mines in Tanzania. ‘The government has cordoned of an area of a national park thought to have uranium reserves,’ says Hecht. Nonetheless, several mines across the continent have shut down due to a fall in uranium prices and Areva has put plans for a new mine in Namibia on hold until prices pick up.
Meanwhile, a new mine in Niger is moving slowly, and the Chinese have established a large mine in the country. China and South Africa are moving closer on nuclear cooperation, with the former committing to build three plants in the latter, a move that may stimulate South Africa’s uranium industry.