A lorry accident on Sunday, February 12 in Dassa-Zoumé, a town in the south of Benin, has worried locals because it was transporting a by-product of the highly radioactive material uranium. Despite fears over the dangerous substance, the lorry was left for almost 48 hours on the side of the road before being taken away.

The accident happened right in the middle of a major national road. The lorry had come from Niger and was on its way to the nuclear energy company Areva. Photos were posted on the internet showing the lorry turned over on its side next to the pavement. It had knocked over several market stalls, but no one was hurt.

A few of the images posted by inhabitants of Dassa-Zoumé showing the lorry lying on its side with the yellow symbol indicating its radioactive cargo.

With a license plate from Niger, the lorry was heading towards the port of Cotonou, transporting uranate, an oxidised element that can produce uranium. It was flanked by a police convoy, which witnesses say was driving too fast.

Unease quickly spread through the town, with locals asking about the radioactivity of the material. The town mayor acted fast, asking authorities for more information and setting up a perimeter around the fallen lorry.

A post on social media by a local, showing the worries that spread through the population. Translation: "This lorry coming from Niger full of uraniyome [sic] crashed just off the crossroads of Dassa Zoumé. It's bad faith on the part of the driver and the police escort, who were going at an incredible speed. Human life was lost. We know how dangerous this product is for health. No authority has got involved."

The authorities reassure locals — but...

A delegation with officials from the Ministry of the Environment, the police, and the company Areva (the lorry's original destination) gathered at a conference on Monday to reassure locals. According to initial tests, the product contained alpha and gamma rays two to six times less than official limits. The container wasn't damaged in the accident and so the product was not spilt. As a precautionary measure, the market stalls destroyed by the lorry and indirectly touched by it were disposed of. 

Despite this announcement, several citizens of Dassa-Zoumé contacted by France 24 said that they were still worried about the potential risks of the material. On Tuesday morning, nearly 48 hours after the accident, a crane was sent to the town to put the lorry upright and take it to the port of Cotonou.

"Two days to get a crane in, it's not right"

As well as the risks posed by the product, activists are also questioning the management of the police convoys. Lorries transporting uranium often take the same route from companies based in Niger to Cotonou, from where the products are then sent to Europe. Clément Kotan, president of the Unité de protection de l'environnement [Unity for the protection of the environment], has already spoken out about the situation.

This situation presents a thorny problem: this type of convoy going from Niger to Benin has to be carefully managed. They have to know what to do in the hours following an accident. The fact that it took two days for a crane to be brought in is a breach of these rules [According to article 84 of the law on the environment].

We have regularly criticised the conditions when transporting these products, and the lack of preparation for potential accidents, to the detriment of the health of Beninese people. In this case the story ends well — but it should serve as a lesson to us.

"An incident that shows cracks in the system" according to Beninese authorities

The professor Martin Pépin Aina, the general director of environment and climate for Benin, admitted that the incident brought up questions.

This incident shows the cracks in the system. It's not right that it took two days to bring a crane in, and we have to try to reinforce the communication between the ministry of the environment and the ministry of transport, in order to protect the people. Laws relating to safety and radiation protection in Benin are being studied right now and should provide some answers.

Article written with
Alexandre Capron

Alexandre Capron ,Journaliste francophone