A French company is working to get rid of an estimated 20 million tons of partially radioactive waste left behind following the closure of its operations at one of the world’s biggest uranium mines in northern Niger’s Arlit region, a company executive said Thursday. France’s nuclear giant Areva, which changed its name to Orano, worked in the desert landscape area under a subsidiary called Akouta Mining Company (COMINAK) from 1978 before shutting down the site in 2021. Mahaman Sani Abdoulaye, COMINAK’S director general, told journalists in Niger’s capital Niamey that the rehabilitation of the site would take 10 years before handing it back to the government, according to a video recording. The company will hand back a “site which is safe, healthy and non-polluting, in line with national standards and international recommendations,” said Abdoulaye. The rehabilitation would be followed by at least five years of environmental monitoring, he added. The project worth $160 million is expected to deal with the waste and prevent potential health and environmental catastrophe which has sparked fear among residents of the surrounding area. The reserves at the site were exhausted after 75,000 tons of uranium were extracted, much of which was reportedly used to fuel nuclear reactors which France’s electricity supply depends on. The rehabilitation work will involve dealing with roughly 20 million tons of rock waste and ore tailings that have been in contact with uranium, according to the company. The waste is spread over 120 hectares (296 acres) in heaps as high as 35 meters (115 feet), but its radioactivity levels are very low, according to Helene Sciorella Djibo, the company’s official in charge of the operations. The company’s strategy is to level out the waste and seal it under a two-meter-deep cap of waterproofed clay and sandstone, she said. Reports indicate the uranium waste raises fears for about 200,000 residents of Arlit town and the surrounding area. The major concern is whether the cover on top of the waste could develop cracks and let radon, a cancer-causing radioactive gas derived from the natural breakdown of uranium, to leak and be washed to the town by flood waters. Rhamar Ilatoufegh, head of Aghir in Man, a human rights and environmental protection NGO in Arlit, said the “radioactive residues stored in the open air next to the old mine” are “the biggest negative legacy that uranium mining left to the residents.” Arlit Mayor Abdourahmane Maouli also acknowledged the problem of uranium waste. But the company’s director in charge of responsibility, engagement and communication, Gilles Recoche, told French media that air and water were “being monitored across the whole town.” “The levels are below the norms for Nigerien and international law. There has not been a single proven case of sickness linked to radioactivity,” he said. Niger is one of the world’s biggest sources of uranium.