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The military coup in Niger has raised concerns about uranium mining in the country by the French group Orano, and the consequences for France’s energy independence.

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One week after the military coup in Niger led by General Abdourahamane Tiani, France completed the evacuation of 600 French nationals on Wednesday, August 2. This uncertain political context is also beginning to raise economic concerns.

In France, fears are particularly focused on the exploitation of uranium from Niger, and the possible consequences of this energy independence. A natural resource essential to the operation of French nuclear power plants, uranium mined in Niger has been exploited for over four decades by the French nuclear fuel cycle group Orano (formerly Areva).

Three mines operating in Niger

The multinational, which is 90% owned by the French state, operates three mines in Niger, only one of which is currently in production:

  • The Aïr mines, whose operating company Somair is 63.4% owned by Orano, are based near the town of Arlit, in the desert to the north of Niger. Although the mine is nearing depletion, its operation has been extended until 2040.
  • The Akokan mining site, around ten kilometers from Arlit, has been closed since the end of March 2021. With reserves exhausted after four decades of mining, Compagnie minière d’Akouta, 59% owned by Orano, is now working on a project to redevelop its sites.
  • Finally, Orano holds a 63.52% stake in the Imouraren mine, located 80 kilometers south of Arlit, which is considered to be one of the world’s largest uranium deposits. However, after an operating permit was issued in 2009, production at the site was suspended due to a lack of favorable market conditions.

For the time being, Orano has announced that it will continue its mining activities, despite the putsch in Niger. “To date, activities at the operational sites in Arlit and at the headquarters in Niamey are continuing with an adapted organization in the context of the curfew in place throughout Niger,” the group announced on its website on Thursday, August 3.

Niger, one of France’s top three uranium suppliers

To operate the fifty-six nuclear reactors in France’s eighteen power plants, operator EDF requires an average of around 8,000 tons of natural uranium every year. Following the cessation of mining on French soil in the early 2000s, France turned to several countries simultaneously for its supplies. The diversification of suppliers is a source of security for EDF.

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Over the last ten years, the 88,200 tonnes of natural uranium imported into France came mainly from three countries: Kazakhstan (27%), Niger (20%), and Uzbekistan (19%). Niger plays an important role in France’s supplies, but its importance is overestimated by some politicians.

On a global scale, however, “Niger has become a secondary producer over the years, as production costs are high and prices slumped until 2016 after [the nuclear accident at] Fukushima,” explained Teva Meyer, a lecturer at the University of Haute-Alsace and researcher at the French Institute for International and Strategic Affairs, to French newspaper Les Echos. By 2022, Niger would account for just 4% of global production, well behind Kazakhstan (43%), Canada (15%), Namibia (11%), and Australia (8%).

Kazakhstan, the world’s largest uranium producer

With close to half of the world’s uranium production (43%) coming from Kazakhstan in 2022, Niger accounted for just 4% of global production.

LE MONDE

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