Our directory of things of interest

University Directory

Africa’s uranium legacy

An open cast uranium mine An open cast uranium mine Shutterstock
17 Dec
2014
Africa produces around 18 per cent of the world’s uranium, and there are plans to open new mines across the continent. But the industry has a chequered record with old mines

‘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.

Africa Uranium

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.

Related items

BLACK FRIDAY 2

geo line break v3

Free eBooks - Geographical Newsletter

geo line break v3

EDUCATION PARTNERS

DurhamBath Spa600x200 Greenwich Aberystwythherts

TRAVEL PARTNERS

Ponant

Silversea

Travel the Unknown

NEVER MISS A STORY - Follow Geographical on Social

Want to stay up to date with breaking Geographical stories? Join the thousands following us on Twitter, Facebook and Instagram and stay informed about the world.

More articles in NATURE...

Climate

Researchers have identified the extent of microplastic contamination throughout the…

Wildlife

The Thames Estuary has long been home to heavy industry,…

Wildlife

Whydahs and indigobirds, collectively known as the vidua finches, show…

Oceans

Whales sequester an enormous amount of carbon, making their protection…

Geophoto

In his ongoing photographic project, Carpathia, Nicholas J R White…

Energy

Artificial intelligence offers high potential solutions to the climate crisis,…

Wildlife

Rewilding projects across Europe are working to expand populations of…

Wildlife

Scientists are racing to prevent a deadly disease that kills…

Wildlife

Birds are a much-loved component of the natural world, serenading…

Tectonics

The unprecedented pause in human activity that took place during…

Wildlife

Since 2006, tiger habitats have shrunk by more than 40…

Climate

Advances in space-based lightning mapping have allowed scientists to measure…

Energy

The amount of energy used by the wealthy minority dwarfs…

Wildlife

Left denuded and depleted of wildlife following a decades-long civil…

Climate

Katie Burton explores the practicalities and ethics of geoengineering, the…

Energy

Though the pandemic has gripped the world's attention, lying just…

Climate

The IPCC embraced the notion of carbon offset schemes in…

Geophoto

The shortlist for the 2020 Wellcome Photography Prize has been…