Niger's opposition leader is in court facing charges of defying President Mamadou Tandja, who won a referendum last month extending his time in office. The president says one of the reasons voters want him to stay is to oversee the completion of a billion-dollar uranium mine. Some environmentalists are questioning the mine's impact.
Uranium is nothing new in Niger. First mined in 1971, more than seven percent of the world's uranium already comes from Niger.
But the new Imouraren mine by the French nuclear power group AREVA is unlike anything Niger has ever seen. The $1.4-billion investment is the country's biggest industrial project ever and is expected to be Africa's largest uranium mine, doubling Niger's output.
President Tandja will be there to see it all. His second and final term was due to expire in December. But last month's referendum gives him another three years in office and the freedom to run again if he likes.
President Tandja says he needs the time to finish several large projects, including the French uranium mine that is also expected to produce 30 megawatts of electricity.
During more than 40 years in Niger, AREVA has become one of the country's biggest employers. It has built schools and hospitals, contributed to local government projects, and constructed more than 650 kilometers of road.
But some environmentalists in Niger believe the company has not done enough to protect the land around uranium mines and the people who work there.
Oba Nduma Saliou heads the local environmental group CREN.
Sailou says if people in Niger have to talk about uranium, it is with bitterness because AREVA has been mining uranium in Niger for 40 years without benefiting people in the area. He says he can not understand how a country with such unimaginable riches continues to go around begging from other countries and mining companies.
Saliou says AREVA's impact on Niger is both social and environmental. Socially, he says poverty remains, particularly in mining areas. Environmentally, he says there has been serious degradation in mining zones.
Saliou says people have gotten sick from collecting contaminated mining equipment that AREVA has improperly disposed of. And he fears things will only get worse with the new Imouraren mine.
Moussa Sule handles public affairs for AREVA in Niger.
"There certainly is an impact, but I think it is very likely to be local," said Moussa Sule.
Sule says AREVA regularly monitors radiation levels around its mines and submits that information in annual reports to both the government and local civil society groups.
"The levels of radiation we have are in accordance with international standards and Niger standards," said Sule.
Sule says AREVA also tests the water table around its mines to ensure the health of its workers and the local population.
Saliou says there is an urgent need to improve both the quality and the quantity of drinking water in mining areas as well as more coordinated efforts to reduce air pollution.
Saliou says mining companies and the government of Niger should plant gum arabic trees in the area to reduce carbon levels and give the local population a much-needed source of revenue.
AREVA says environmentalists are wrong to compare conditions in the desert with other, more fertile parts of Niger. Sule says there are few trees and not many animals in the area near the mines.
He says AREVA has always been a good partner to the people and to the government of Niger and would do nothing to risk a 40-year investment of time and resources
"We know if there is something wrong, sooner or later we have to pay," said Moussa Sule. "So, the best way is to do it right, right now."
AREVA says it is committed to spending more than $8 million a year, every year for the next five years to improve health, education, transport, and access to energy and drinking water for Niger.
Production at AREVA's Imouraren mine is due to open in 2012. With an estimated annual production of 5,000 metric tons of uranium for more than 35 years, the mine is expected to make Niger the world's second-largest source of uranium.