Niger's vast uranium mines in the spotlight as fears grow for country's stability

West African nation is among the world's top suppliers of ore for nuclear fuel

The Somair uranian mine in Arlit, Niger, operated by French firm Orano, previously Areva. Reuters
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Last week’s military coup in Niger has focused global attention on the country's role as a major uranium ore producer, supplying around five per cent of the world's total.

Niger also supplies around 25 per cent of France’s uranium ore, which goes into enriched uranium for nuclear power production, which generates 70 per cent of France’s electricity.

Concerns about insecurity in Africa’s second largest nation are growing after the junta accused France of plotting with ousted president Mohamed Bazoum to attack the military.

Coup plotter Col Amadou Abdramane did not provide evidence for his televised statement, however Ecowas, the Economic Community of West African States, said it had given the coup leaders one week to release Mr Bazoum, who appears to be under house arrest, or face military action, in addition to sanctions.

Mali and Burkina Faso have threatened any country that intervenes militarily in Niger.

There are also fears the new military regime could use the vital ore resources to pressure countries, including France and the EU – which sources one-fifth of its uranium ore from mines in Niger – even as they place sanctions on Niamey.

It raises the spectre of new hurdles for the EU as it tries to wean itself off Russian nuclear fuel supplies, similar to the monumental challenge the bloc faced replacing Russian oil and gas supplies.

The EU still sources much of its natural uranium and uranium nuclear fuel from Rosatom, the Russian state-run nuclear power company. Earlier this year, the European Parliament debated sanctioning Russia’s nuclear industry, but has held off.

However, Phuc Vinh Nguyen, an energy policy expert at the Jacques Delors Institute, says for now, France has enough uranium reserves for a crisis in Niger lasting several years.

In the interim, he says the global uranium market could pick up the slack if Niger falls into further instability.

“Uranium can be stored for long periods. For instance, France has two to three years’ worth of uranium in strategic storage so the situation has time to settle before having to rush any decision.

“France already has multiple suppliers and can rely on them if necessary, including Canada and Australia as the most obvious ones.

“It will cost a little more but the overall impact on price will not be as significant as what happened with gas for instance,” he says, referring to Europe’s effort to cut out Russian gas supplies.

Similarly, EU spokesman Adalbert Jahnz said on Tuesday that “there is no supply risk” in the current crisis.

Uranium powerhouse

Despite almost half of the country's population living on less than two dollars a day, Niger has long been a critical supplier of uranium ore.

French firm Orano, previously Areva, has been a major player in the West African nation for decades and operates a major uranium mine there.

The company's Somair uranium mine in Arlit was attacked by Al Qaeda-linked militants in 2013, killing one person and injuring 14, and again in 2016, though there were no casualties in the latter attack.

Niger was the EU's second-largest supplier of natural uranium in 2022, after Kazakhstan, the bloc's Euratom agency said.

In total, Kazakhstan, Niger and Canada supplied 74 per cent of the total delivered to the EU.

Long-term crisis looms

But even if Europe's supplies are secure for now, in the longer term there are concerns for the Niger's overall security amid Islamist insurgencies on its borders, cutting across the Sahel region and into Nigeria, which has struggled to contain the extremely violent Boko Haram group in its north.

Countries across the Sahel have benefitted from Western security co-operation, but this has gradually slipped away amid coups in Mali in 2020 and 2021, which led France to withdraw its forces.

Fola Ainu, an associate fellow at London’s Royal United Services Institute, tells The National there is no obvious solution to Niger cutting security ties with Western allies on counterterrorism operations.

The regime would have to “shoulder the responsibility of leading counterterrorism operations across the region which would also mean international partners looking up to it and providing it with the support it requires,” he says.

“Unfortunately Senegal isn’t able to do this and Ghana, on the other hand, has its hands full.”

Niger's already fragile situation has also worsened on the economic front, according to Rida Lyammouri, senior fellow at the Policy Centre for the New South think tank, based in Morocco.

It is now unclear who will step in to fill a void left by the withdrawal of hundreds of millions of dollars of development aid by the US and EU.

"Significant development work is carried by partners other than western countries," he says.

"China and Turkey have major ongoing economic development projects in Niger and those are unlikely to be affected by the outcome of ongoing crisis.

"The EU, France, Germany, and US are the main aid donors to Niger, and the country [Niger] depends heavily on this aid coming from these western partners, and if ties are cut or damaged, humanitarian conditions will deteriorate further, especially in conflict-affected areas."

Updated: August 01, 2023, 2:57 PM