In France, the uranium needed to operate the country’s nuclear reactors is imported mainly from Niger and Kazakhstan. This dependence calls into question the myth of energy independence that civilian nuclear power had promised, as well as its image of providing “clean” energy.
Georges-Besse d’Eurodif Enrichment Facility, France, no date, Bernard LAPONCHE Fund. All rights reserved.
During the first oil crisis in 1973, the development of civilian nuclear power in France was based on an official discourse that centered largely on energy independence. The stated objective of the Messmer Plan was, through its “all nuclear, all electric” approach, to make France completely independent; however, this relied on securing uranium supplies.
When the French nuclear power industry was born at the end of the WWII, France still exercised sovereignty over territories whose reserves guaranteed it a long-term supply for its military and civilian programs. Access to these resources, which also held the promise of very lucrative exports for the extracting industries, was the main focus of the CEA’s prospecting policy in France’s colonies in West Africa and Madagascar. This was especially true of Gabon, where deposits were discovered in the east of the country in 1956 under the direction of Jacques Mabille, an engineer from the Corps des Mines.
EXCERPT FROM: GABRIELLE HECHT “AFRICAN URANIUM: A GLOBAL HISTORY” 2016, LE SEUIL
A two-sided poster Uranium enriches / A nuclear power plant or a flower amidst the dunes?, from Friends of the Earth, French National Archives, cote 20050519/97.
To avoid nationalization at independence in 1960, the CEA teamed up with Mokta, a private mining company, to create the Franceville Uranium Mine Company, or COMUF, which oversaw the exploitation of the Mounana mine in Gabon. This monopolizing strategy lies at the heart of the policy known as “Francafrica.”
When independence movements began to stir in these regions in the early 1960s, France signed various agreements with Gabon and also Niger to guarantee its privileged access to a number of strategic resources, including uranium. In exchange, clauses in these same agreements ensured France’s secret military support against the internal and external threats to the leaders of these countries. For example, Léon M’ba, the President of Gabon was targeted by a coup d’état in 1964, but he remained in power. This enabled France to secure its supplies and the profits on its mining industries.
When Prime Minister Messmer announced his plan to nuclearize France in 1974, the argument of energy independence rested on this neocolonialist strategy of securing supplies. What remains of this policy in today’s world, where the stranglehold that AREVA’s subsidiaries maintain over uranium resources is increasingly threatened by a China eager for resources, advancing its pawns, and promoting “Chinafrica,” the Chinese version of this French strategy?
France has watched its national reserves of uranium dwindle significantly since the 1980s and then finally run dry in 2001. It is now fully dependent on exporting countries to obtain the 9,900 tons of natural uranium it needs each year to manufacture yellowcake, the fuel used in the country’s 58 reactors.
EDF buys this fuel directly from AREVA, which is present in the exporter countries through joint ventures. Kazakhstan, the world’s largest exporter, and Niger are France’s primary partners in this arena. Threats to its supplies in Niger compelled France to intervene militarily in the Sahel. The political instability of the countries where AREVA sources its uranium calls into question the validity of the discourse of France’s energy independence, which was purportedly guaranteed by the mass recourse to nuclear electricity. China’s competition in Kazakhstan and Niger is creating a great game around uranium, in which France’s positions are far from solid. The authoritarian nature of the regimes in these countries is sure to provoke future revolts that will end up affecting France directly.
In the last forty years, mining in Gabon, Madagascar, and Niger has been the scene of numerous abuses on the part of the extracting industries. Health and environmental disasters, corruption and the non-redistribution of wealth generated have relativized the qualification of “clean” often used in the discourse that promotes nuclear energy as the ultimate weapon for fighting global warming, and as an important factor of economic development.
The operation of uncovered uranium mines, as at Mounana in Gabon, is particularly striking. Local populations and miners employed by COMUF have never been informed of the risks that radioactivity exposed them to. Numerous houses have been built with rocks taken from the mine, which has resulted in families essentially living in radioactivity.
Obviously the mining companies were responsible for waste management. At Mounana, the contaminated machines and tools, like the rock residues from the uranium processing were simply buried in the mine without any further precautions. Today, with the accumulation of rainwater, this hole in the ground has become an aquifer of radioactive groundwater. Worse yet, the degradation of the radioactive elements released through the mining, which will take decades if not centuries, has made it impossible to reclaim these mining sites. This mining has been the cause of a major ecological disaster. The pollution of the soil and groundwater, which are not fit for agricultural production or consumption, has permanently destroyed local economies and destabilized social structures, in addition to being the probable cause of numerous cases of premature cancer and leukemia in children.
The SOMAIR open-air mine in Niger, no date, Bernard LAPONCHE Fund.
– In the end, neither Gabon, nor Madagascar, nor Niger, France’s three partners in this policy for the last several decades, has benefited from the mining of these resources. While these exports have helped sustain a prosperous, comfortable way of life in France, they have helped make these countries among the poorest in the world.
See the web-based documentary : The Uramin Scandal
When we add to this the level of corruption, as witnessed in the Uramin Scandal, the lack of redistribution of wealth and the economic situation of the exporting countries shed a harsh light on the common argument that nuclear electricity is a form of clean energy that is also commercially equitable.
What sacrifices are we willing to make in the name of France’s energy “independence” and opulence?
When we ask this political, social, environmental, and economic question, and scrutinize France’s foreign policy in-depth, the arguments for nuclear do not hold up at all. Nor do they become any more convincing when we examine nuclear power up close within France itself.