Niger’s greatest treasure lies underground: Uranium is the most important commodity in the Sahel state. But coup plotters have been in charge for just over a month, fueling fears that the uranium supply to global markets is in jeopardy.
France, the former colonial power in Niger, is in a particularly tight spot. Around two-thirds of its electricity comes from nuclear power plants powered by uranium sourced in Niger. It also exports electricity to other countries in Europe that have no nuclear plants of their own.
Dealings with France ‘unequal’
In the wake of the coup in Niger on July 26, the economic cooperation and military partnerships between the two countries are on the line.
Niger’s new military junta under General Abdourahamane Tiani has signaled it is tired of France.
When it took power, the junta ordered a halt to uranium exports and later gave the French envoy 48 hours to leave. Ambassador Sylvain Itte, however, has stayed on in Niamey despite the expulsion. The government of President Emmanuel Macron doesn’t want to give up its influence or supply of raw materials, but there is little tolerance in Niger.
“Everyone in Niger feels this partnership is very unequal,” said Mahaman Laouan Gaya, a former Nigerien energy minister and the Organization of African Petroleum Producers (APPO) secretary general until 2020.
In an email to DW, Gaya cited what he said were significant inconsistencies. Niger, he wrote, exported uranium worth €3.5 billion ($3.8 billion) to France in 2010 but received only €459 million in return.
“If Niger decides not to export uranium to France, it will have dramatic consequences for France but little impact on the Nigerien economy,” Gaya said.
He added that some 90% of Niger’s population has no electricity, and price exploitation means Niger today also receives too little income for its exports.
Has uranium production stopped?
For decades, the French nuclear conglomerate Orano (formerly Areva) has been mining uranium in Niger. The material is used mainly to produce fuel rods for France’s 56 nuclear power plants.
It is unclear whether the junta’s moratorium on uranium exports is being implemented.
“The current crisis has no short-term impact on Orano’s supply capacity,” a company spokesman recently told the AFP news agency.
Meanwhile, Niger’s former prime minister and opposition leader, Hama Amadou, told broadcaster Voxafrica that the mining company was still producing uranate, the basis for uranium.
“I don’t think the new authorities have canceled the uranium mining contracts between France and Niger,” Amadou was quoted as saying in the report. “So what is the French state afraid of when it comes to its interests in Niger?”
Niger mines firmly in French hands
Somair exploits the largest uranium mine in the Sahara, located on the outskirts of the city of Arlit. The company is 63% owned by France’s majority state-owned Orano group. Sopamin, a Nigerien state-owned company, owns the remaining 37%.
In 2021, the Somair mine accounted for more than 90% of Niger’s uranium exports. France and the ousted government of Mohamed Bazoum had also agreed to restart another mine.
And in May, Orano signed new contracts with the Nigerien government, extending French uranium mining in the country until 2040.
Nigerien journalist Seidick Abba said the coup did not change these commercial agreements between corporations.
“The uranium will still be shipped from the mine near Arlit to France via Cotonou. The contract does not give Niger the right to stop the shipments,” Abba told DW.
“The junta has no way to stop the deliveries.”
Europe has other suppliers
Last year, France received about one-fifth of its uranium from Niger, according to Euratom Supply Agency data. Central Asian states like Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan also supplied significant amounts of uranium to France.
As recently as 2022, Niger was France’s third-largest uranium supplier, says Alex Vines of the London-based think tank Chatham House. But the dependence is overestimated, Vines told DW.
“France does business with countries like Kazakhstan, Australia, and Namibia. It can easily diversify its uranium supply,” said Vines.
According to the World Nuclear Association, only 5% of the uranium sold on the global market in 2022 came from Niger.
Some analysts warn of price increases with far-reaching effects if no or less Nigerien uranium were to reach the global market.
In 2022, French nuclear power dominance in Europe was visible when energy prices increased as many power plants ran out of cooling water.
Europe has been searching for alternative uranium supplies. Kazakhstan has already signaled, according to reports, that more uranium could be shipped to Europe if needed.
But doubts and worries about whether the lights could go out in Europe because of the conflict in Niger were dispelled by European Commission spokesman Adalbert Jahnz.
He said the European Union (EU) has sufficient stocks of natural uranium to cushion short-term supply risks. There are “sufficient deposits on the world market in the medium and long term to meet the EU’s needs,” according to Jahnz.