NIAMEY (Reuters) - Areva said on Tuesday it would monitor the health of thousands of workers and residents exposed to its uranium mine sites in Niger, bowing to pressure from advocacy groups.
The move comes a year after the French nuclear giant launched a plan in Gabon to treat more than 1,000 former miners who fell ill after working in one of Areva's mines there.
"Health observatories have now become a reality in two African countries and Areva wants to extend the health monitoring to all the mines it operates in the world," said Alain Acker, medical director for Areva.
"In case of illness attributable to professional activity, Areva would take responsibility for healthcare up to French medical standards."
The company's doctor who is in charge of workers in Niger, Assane Baraze, said Areva would also review "all cases of deaths reported over the period 1977-2010... to see if there is a link between the deaths and uranium mining."
There is no reliable data on deaths or diseases in the area of Niger's mine sites, which have been in operation for roughly four decades.
But Areva has come under pressure from rights and environmental groups such as Greenpeace and SHERPA for not doing enough to protect the environment and the health of workers and nearby residents.
Paris-based SHERPA said there is reason to believe there is a direct link between some diseases and radiation caused by uranium extraction, and Greenpeace said last year Areva was endangering residents near its northern Niger mines.
Areva, which employs about 1,600 people in the country, said the health observatory will monitor past and current mine workers starting in the first half of next year.
Areva relies on Niger for a third of its uranium supplies. Its Imouraren mine, expected to be launched in 2014, will raise annual Nigerien uranium production from 3,000 to 8,000 tonnes, making Niger the world's second largest uranium producer.
(Reporting by Abdoulaye Massalatchi; Writing by Bate Felix; Editing by Alessandra Rizzo)