The World Nuclear Association says Niger is the world’s fifth producer of uranium with an output of 4,256 tons in 2010, accounting for 7.82%.of the world total, after Kazakhstan (17,803), Canada (9,783), Australia (5,900) and Namibia (4,496). Uranium is mined close to the twin mining towns of Arlit and Akokan, 900 km north-east of Niamey. The main mine is the open pit at Arlit. It is operated by the Socitété minière del’Aïr (Somaïr) and produced 2,650 tons of uranium in 2010. The other mine, Akouta, is an underground operation operated by the Compagnie minière d’Akouta (Cominak), and with a production of 1,606 tons a year.
The French nuclear giant Areva is the main shareholder in both projects, with a 63.4% stake in Somaïr and a 34% share in Cominak. The State controlled mine company, Onarem, retains a 36,6% minority share in Somaïr and a 31% stake in Cominak through its subsidiary Sopamin. Other partners are Japan’s Overseas Uranium Resources Development and Spain’s Empresa del Uranio which hold 25% and 10% of Cominak.
Despite the crisis generated by the Fukushima accident last March, and the subsequent decision by Germany and Switzerland to embark on a denuclearisation program, Areva has maintained plans to start production at the Imouraren mine by 2013. It will be supported by the Korea Electric Power Company and Sopamin. Areva is aiming at an output of 5,000 tons per annum over a period of 35 years. The mine is the second world’s largest with total reserves estimated at 180,000 tons.
Some minor projects have also come or are coming on stream. In 2010, the China National Nuclear Corporation (CNNC) through its subsidiary China International Uranium Corporation (SinoU) has started the exploitation of the Abokorum and Azelik mines and hopes to produce 700 tons/year. Other Asian companies are carrrying out exploration. One is the Hong Kong-based corporation Trendfield Holdings Ltd, which has set up a joint venture with the Vancouver-based corporation Goviex Uranium Inc, which was set up by Govind Friedland, the son of the notorious American tycoon Robert Friedland, to develop the Madadouela uranium deposits in the Arlit region. Besides, reports the Paris-based newsletter Africa Mining Intelligence, the Malaysian companies MMC and Petronas are considering investing in uranium mining projects in partnership with the Dubai-based company Africa Middle East Resources (AMER). Russia’s Gazprom corporation and the Indian companies Earthstone and Taurian Resources have also been given licences.
Niger’s authorities are clearly trying to put an end to Areva’s near monopoly on the resources. Yet, Areva’s influence in the country and the importance of uranium in Niger’s economy remain considerable. In 2010, uranium accounted for 71% of export revenues and 5% of the GDP. Areva’s 2,500 employees provide revenues for 100,000 people. When Imouraren comes on stream, 4,600 new jobs will be created. The French company is also the first private employer in the country. The company claims to have paid €40 m. of taxes in 2010 (about 5% of the country’s budget), €30 m. of salaries to its employees and to have spent €200 m. in goods and services purchased on the local market.
However, French NGO Survie, which campaigns for the abolition of neo-colonial ties between France and its former colonies, says uranium has generated a triple disaster in Niger: in society, health and environment. In a nutshell, Niger is short-changed for its contribution to France’s security of supply. Niger’s Human Development Index in 2011 was at the bottom of the list, just ahead of the DRC. Though sitting on a wealth of energy commodity, Niger imports electricity from Nigeria. In a book published last February, Survie member Raphaël Granvaud claims that Areva has signed new contracts with the government of Niger, which have remained secret since 2007.
Uranium extraction causes irreversible consequences for the population. It destroys the fauna, and the flora. Sulphuric acid used for the treatment of the minerals is dispersed in the environment. Raphaël Granvaud also claims that radioactive dusts, dispersed by the wind, are contaminating the air over a large area. According, mountains of radioactive wastes totalling several million tons remain open to the action of winds and superficial waters. Water contamination is problematic for miners and population alike. In Arlit and Akokan some wells show radiations level which are 100 times above normal.
Another NGO called ‘Areva will not rule in Niger’ stresses that uranium exploitation is not only contaminating water resources but that it is also accelerating the exhaustion of two large underground deposits in the region of Agades. The Chinese of SinoU is already pumping 4,000 cubic meters of water per day at the Azelik mine and the situation will further deteriorate when Imouraren comes on stream because the water consumption there will be of 20,000 cubic meters. If consumption levels remain the same, and a planned irrigation scheme will be implemented, the entire fossil water reserves may be exhausted in 30 years. Survie also stresses that the French Institut de Radioprotection et de Sûreté Nucléaire’s research shows that French workers of the uranium sector die sooner than other and develop lung and kidney cancers.
Areva retorts that the health, safety and environmental standards which are applied in its Niger mines are identical to those in place in Europe and Canada. Besides, over the last 15 years, the number of industrial accidents fell drastically from 50 every million working hours to less than 3 at Cominak and Somaïr. The French nuclear company also says that the radiations exposure of the nearby residents is twice below the legal limits in Niger and in Europe. Areva also claims to make regular checks on air, water and soil quality and to sprinkle radioactive dusts in order to avoid air contamination, and boasts to spend €6 million per annum in various development projects for the local population.
Yet, political scientists François Cellier and Cyril Robinet report that Areva’s attitude is sometimes ambiguous. In 2007, Niger’s government suspected Areva of maintaining links with the Tuareg rebels of the National Movement for Justice. Since then, the situation has changed Areva’s technicians and particularly the expatriates but also Chinese engineers from the nuclear industry have become the targets of the kidnapers of the Al Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb, who operate in the Sahel.