Once Paris absorbed the shock of the Niger coup, French President Emmanuel Macron on July 30 issued a statement revealing the extent of his sense of danger, declaring that his country "will not tolerate any attack on France and its interests" in this West African country. (1)
Macron was aware of the magnitude of the threat to energy security in French reactors, as the country, which fell under the influence of an anti-Paris coup military junta(2), is the oldest link between France and the uranium that powers the reactors that generate electricity from the old colonizer. While France has enjoyed exclusive access to Niger's uranium over the past decades, the new changes seem to cast a shadow over French interests that Macron has repeatedly spoken of.
A long French legacy
France first discovered uranium in Niger's Azelik in 1957, before officially announcing the opening of the first French-led uranium mining mine in Arlit in 1971. (Al Jazeera)
Once (3) the "Arlit" sign written in rusty letters is passed, one feels that the title "Paris II" of the Nigerien city of "Arlit" is perfectly appropriate, as the city in the middle of the Sahara Desert, 900 kilometers northeast of the capital, Niamey, tells the story of the passage of French colonialism from it one day, before this stage ended with Niger's independence in 1960.
Over the past sixty years, France (4) has remained obsessed with maintaining a foothold in West African countries in general, establishing political, diplomatic, military, and economic relations with the rulers of its old colonial states, a network often referred to as the "Françafrique". But on a very special level, Niger, the impoverished Sahel country, has a special place in Paris, lighting 5 out of three light bulbs in France, while the majority of the country is plunged into darkness, with nearly 90% of the population without regular access to electricity.
France first discovered (6) uranium in the Nigerien Azelik in 1957, before officially announcing the opening of (7) the first uranium mining mine by the French in the city of Arlit in 1971, when the French state-owned company Areva, now known as "Orano", took over the tasks of extracting the metal most used for French nuclear power generation.
Over time, Urano operated three mines in Niger (9), only one of which is currently in production, the Sumer mine in Arlit, which the company manages in partnership with the Nigerien company Sopamin, while the Akota mine, located about ten kilometers from the city, closed in 2021, however, Urano did not abandon the site, where it will carry out "post-mine" activities until 2033, and likewise (10) the "Imurain" mine, located 80 kilometers south of Arlit, closed its doors. Home to one of the world's largest uranium deposits, production at the site has been suspended due to a lack of favorable market conditions. France relies heavily on uranium for the nuclear power from which electricity is generated* (11), as Paris is still one of 13 EU member states that use nuclear power plants (12) for its electricity, and argues(13) that nuclear power offers a low-carbon alternative to fossil fuels in electricity production.
Before 2000, France (14) relied mainly on its domestic uranium production, but with the depletion of uranium within French territory where the last French mine closed in 2001, the French government focused more on the policy of diversification in the import of uranium of foreign origin, as a safe source for the French energy company (EDF), the operator of nuclear power plants in France, and pursuant to (15) a long-standing recommendation of the Euratom Supply Agency.
In recent years, (16) Paris' strategy in bringing uranium has focused on Central Asian countries such as Uzbekistan, Kazakhstan and Australia, for cost reasons, as until 2022 France had five suppliers of uranium: Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, Australia, and Canada, in addition to Niger, which (17) continued to provide 15% of France's reserves of radioactive metal, while Urano controls most of the country's production, which constitutes more than 4% of the world's GDP.
Although Niger is no longer the strategic partner of Paris as it was in the sixties or seventies of the last century, the extraction of uranium from Niger by the French to this day remains a burning issue, due to the volume of sales of the French company Orano, which about a decade ago (18) amounted to 9 billion euros ($ 12.4 billion) annually, more than four times Niger's annual budget (of <> billion euros) in full, as this sparked internal anger about the need to use the funds. of extractive industries to promote development in one of the world's poorest and least developed countries.
Outrage also sparked incidents of neglect by the French who, when uranium extracted, left dangerous levels of radioactive waste among locals living near the mines: 19 towns of Arlit were left alone with 20 million tons of radioactive waste after the Akota mine closed in 2021.
Uranium at the heart of French concerns
The employees of the French company Orano were busy with their work when they received news (20) of a military coup in the country on July 26. The management of the French company at the time had to work to reassure its employees and also prepare them to adapt to the current context, the first of which was the curfew throughout Niger. Indeed, 21 of Orano's 900 employees in Niger – most of them Nigerien citizens – were able to continue their activities from inside the company's headquarters in Niamey, and at the operational sites in Arlit and Akokan, and although there is still no indication that the company will have to leave Niger, several concerns have been raised by the company's management operating in the country for 50 years, such as the possibility of the expulsion of the French group by the military, or any emergency that pushes it to forcibly withdraw.
In the beginning, it can be said that preventing the company from completing its work in any way will not be limited to causing great economic losses, as the absence of an alternative to it or the abandonment of security operations in the mine (22) will lead to significant health and environmental risks, due to the contamination of groundwater that may be used by the population with uranium deposits, as the company performs the tasks of covering the remaining waste and rocks to prevent radioactive dust from spreading or preventing rainwater from loading and polluting groundwater.
At a time when Niger's putschists are flexing their muscles in defiance of France and the international community, the fact that France, the country's old colonizer, plays an indispensable role cannot be overcome. First of all, Paris (23) has been providing a major economic and development aid package for decades to a country where 40% of the population lives in poverty, where foreign aid accounts for 9% (24) of GDP, about 40% of the state budget, and 33% of Niger's steeply declining exports go to France, almost all of which consists of radioactive fuels.
Paris fears the fate of energy stability needed for France's nuclear industry, which is already needed to produce electricity. (Reuters)
In fact, if the putschists insist on ending the French presence and the suspension of French aid by Paris continues, Niger will find it difficult to find the right alternative partner to help mine uranium and pursue its sale. As for the French government, it is concerned not only about growing weary of its diminishing political influence within Niger and across the Sahel more broadly, but also about the fate of the energy stability necessary for the French nuclear industry, which is already necessary to produce electricity.
In this context, signs quickly came to support Paris' fears, with the escalation of anti-French rhetoric by the military who accused the French government of "wanting to intervene militarily" in their country (26), to threaten the military council in the country after which to suspend exports of heavy metal to France, which gave an idea to Paris of what awaits it in one of its most important former African colonies, after it recently received successive serious blows due to coups against its influence in Mali, Guinea and Burkina Faso.
In the first moments of the coup, the French argued that banning uranium would not be harmful to France in the short and medium term, since Paris has a strategic stockpile of uranium at all stages of the transition equivalent to two years of consumption. However, the French themselves do not deny that Niger still plays an important role in the country's supply of uranium, and suspending the exploitation of this mineral from Niger, estimated at 27% of the needs of its nuclear plants, would affect its access to energy, as about 15% of France's electricity is derived from nuclear energy, as it is the most dependent country on nuclear energy in the world.
Uranium war. Russia at the forefront
The leader of the Russian paramilitary group Wagner Yevgeny Prigozhin, who was recently killed in a mysterious crash of his plane, was one of the first to intervene in the Niger coup crisis, as the man whose thousands of fighters poured into Mali and Burkina Faso after a similar military takeover of the country quickly offered assistance to the military in Niger, something that raised several concerns, including the fate of uranium exported to France and the European Union if Wagner or the Russians in general are accepted by the Council. Military in Niger.
While not ruling out the possibility that (29) of Niger's new military rulers will resort to using the uranium card and prevent its shipments to the West in response to EU sanctions and aid cuts, we have to pause a little on Niger's importance to European energy stability, as Niamey was (30) in 2021 the largest supplier of uranium to the EU, followed by Kazakhstan and Russia, according to the Euratom Supply Agency, and is now (31) the seventh largest producer of uranium in the world. In 2022, 32 accounted for about 10% of energy consumption in the European Union, without forgetting a very important fact, which is that Niger does not prohibit the use of uranium to produce nuclear weapons, while other major uranium producers such as Australia and Canada strictly limit the use of the metal to the civilian sphere.
Even considering the alternatives to Niger's uranium, the resort of France and the European Union to important producing countries such as Kazakhstan or Uzbekistan does not provide real guarantees of energy stability, at a time when Russia will not hesitate to use energy as an economic weapon, these 33 countries, which alone represent half of the natural uranium imported by France and constitute about 50% of the world's metal supply, are after all former Soviet republics under the influence of the Kremlin, as all their radioactive fuel is transported by Rosatom. It is the Russian national nuclear energy company.
Russia itself is another large supplier (34) of uranium used in European nuclear plants, is also one of the world's largest uranium exporters (35)(36), and controls nearly half of the enrichment capacity of the global radioactive metal. In the end, this means that there is a stranglehold of Russia that U.S. officials (37) recently called an "unsustainable strategic weakness," as about a third of the enriched uranium consumed by U.S. facilities last year comes from Russia. At a time when uranium and nuclear energy in general are still not subject to international sanctions, the EU may be forced to reverse the adoption of 38 sanctions against Russia in the nuclear sector, or at least postpone these sanctions until then.
With Moscow showing its willingness to enter the battle for influence in Niger, France and the West fear that the Kremlin will actually use uranium as an economic weapon, so they are preparing to defend their interests to the end, with the impoverished and marginalized coastal state on its way to becoming an arena for power struggle at the expense of its poor and marginalized population.
- It has the second largest fleet in the world after the United States fleet – 56 in eighteen uranium power plants.
(1) Niger coup leaders accuse France of wanting to 'intervene militarily'
(2) A Shrinking Footprint in Africa for France, the Former Colonizer That Stayed
(3) A forgotten community: The little town in Niger keeping the lights on in France
(4) A Shrinking Footprint in Africa for France, the Former Colonizer That Stayed
(5) Niger coup will have global ramifications for the US, France, and Canada
(6) A guide: Uranium in Niger
(8) How dependent is France on Niger's uranium?
(10) Niger is among the world's biggest uranium producers
(11) Niger coup will have global ramifications for the US, France, and Canada
(12) Nuclear energy
(13) There's a lot of posturing': Europe's nuclear divide grows as one plant opens and three close
(14) Crise au Niger : l'uranium au cœur des préoccupations françaises
(15) Après le coup d'État, quid de la dépendance à l'uranium du Niger ?
(16) Uranium : la crise au Niger, un risque pour l'approvisionnement de la France ?
(17) US/France threaten intervention in resource-rich Niger: Fears of war in West Africa
(18) Niger fails to reach uranium mining deal with French nuclear firm Areva
(19) French uranium mine leaves 20 million tonnes of radioactive waste in Niger
(20) Update on the situation in Niger
(21) Uranium : Au Niger, Orano poursuit ses activités d'extraction... et doit aussi sécuriser une mine fermée pour éviter tout risque radioactif
(23) Is Niger's coup a sign that France's influence in the Sahel is over?
(24) Concern ova Niger uranium dey grow afta coup
(25) Le Niger, un fournisseur majeur d'uranium pour la France, y compris à usage militaire
(26) Coup d'État au Niger : à quel point la France dépend-elle de l'uranium nigérien ?
(27) Niger coup sparks concerns about French, EU uranium dependency
(32) US/France threaten intervention in resource-rich Niger: Fears of war in West Africa
(33) The Long Arm of the Kremlin and the Politics of Uranium
(34) previous source
(35) Why The Niger Coup Has Sparked Concerns About Nuclear Power
(36) previous source
(37) Testimony of Dr. Catherine Huff
(39) Macron's Africa Strategy in Tatters as Bet on Niger Unravels