Uranium: five questions to understand the impact of the putsch in Niger on France

On July 26, a putsch took place in Niger. Since then, there has been violence against the French embassy. As a result, on Tuesday, August 1, Paris decided to evacuate some 600 of its nationals. The African country has historically been a major supplier of uranium to France, with Orano having a strong presence in the country. However, even if mining activities in the country were suspended, this would have no impact on EDF’s reactor fleet.
1) What is France’s uranium presence in Niger?

Orano has a strong presence in Niger. In a press release, the company states, “The Orano group has been present in the country for 50 years through 3 companies incorporated under Nigerien law: Cominak, Somaïr and Imouraren SA”. They relate to three mining sites. But today, only one of these mines is in function in the Aïr region through Somaïr (Société des mines de l’Aïr). Last May, Orano signed an agreement with the Niger government to operate this mine until 2040. The Akouta mine in Niger, operated by Cominak, was closed in 2021 due to resource depletion. Decisions have yet to be taken on the Imouraren site, which, before the putsch, was scheduled to come on stream in 2028, with trial operations starting in 2024.

In a press release issued on July 28, 2023, Orano assures that “activities at the Arlit operational sites and the Niamey headquarters are continuing with an adapted organization within the framework of the curfew established throughout Niger”. This was confirmed to the press on Monday, July 31, by company spokespeople. Orano has around 900 employees in the country.

2) Does France depend on Niger for its supplies?

France imported around 21,000 tonnes of uranium last year, according to Customs data. Annual consumption by EDF’s 56 reactors varies between 7 and 9,000 tonnes, depending on the amount of electricity generated. Most imports are linked to materials owned by Orano customers for conversion or enrichment services or by Framatome for fuel fabrication. A small proportion is also linked to the increase in the country’s strategic stocks.

Of this volume, Niger accounts for a variable share of imports. As a geographer, Teva Meyer explains in an interview with Libération: “Last year, Niger accounted for 34% of France’s demand; three years ago, only 8%. But if we look over ten years, Niger represents 15 to 17% of France’s needs”. France’s top four suppliers are Australia, Kazakhstan, Canada and Niger, plus a host of smaller suppliers. Thus, the French Ministry of Energy Transition concludes: “The situation in Niger poses no risk to France’s security of supply of natural uranium”.

3) Will France need Niger more in the future?

For several years now, France and EDF have been pursuing a policy of diversifying uranium supplies to further increase supply security. As a result, Niger’s share, which was very high in the late 2010s, is trending downwards in favour of other suppliers, particularly Australia, Kazakhstan and Canada. Orano operates one mine in Kazakhstan and two in Canada. The Franco-Canadian free trade agreement, which will be ratified in 2019, is crucial in securing French supplies of specific strategic resources, such as uranium.

However, the current geopolitical situation could change all that. Tensions with Russia and the embargo on certain energy products are majorly impacting European supplies. France has imported almost no natural uranium from Russian mines for several years. And in Niger, the commissioning, or not, of the Imouraren mine, with an estimated reserve of 200,000 tonnes of natural uranium, could change Niger’s place in French supplies.

4) Does France have uranium stocks?

Even if supplies from Niger were to cease, France could continue to rely on a diversity of suppliers, many of which are located within the OECD. Moreover, France has significant resources on its territory that can be mobilized more or less immediately. According to Orano data, France has 39,8000 tonnes of natural uranium (equivalent to over five years’ consumption), 3,380 tonnes of enriched uranium (equal to two to three years’ consumption) and 324,000 tonnes of depleted uranium (equivalent to over seven years’ consumption). Being very cautious, we can say that France has at least ten years’ worth of resources on its soil.

EDF has initiated work to increase reprocessed uranium (TRU) use in its fleet. EDF has a stockpile of around 25,000 tonnes of TRU, growing by about 1,045 tonnes a year. Only the four reactors at Cruas (Ardèche) in France are certified to use enriched reprocessed fuel. EDF aims to increase the number of reactors capable of using TRU [1]. By combining the use of these recycled materials, the national electric utility makes significant savings on virgin materials. Using TRU means consuming 15% less material and Mox 10% less. These savings do not include the work currently underway to develop multi-recycling in pressurized water reactors (MRREP).

5) Is there a risk of a global shortage?

If Niger were to stop exporting uranium in the long term, the impact on the world market would be fairly slight. Niger only accounts for around 6% of world production and 5% of identified resources. There are many other resources around the world. In current knowledge, known uranium resources represent 130 years of world consumption. This figure rises to 250 years if estimated resources are taken into account.

Moreover, since the start of the war in Ukraine and the rise in uranium prices, many projects worldwide have become profitable once again [2]. At the European level, the Commission confirms: “There is no supply risk as far as the EU is concerned”, says a spokesman. He added: “In the medium and long term, sufficient deposits on the world market cover the EU’s needs”. ■

By Ludovic Dupin (Sfen)

Image: In Niger, demonstrators attacked the French embassy in Niamey on July 30 – ©AFP

[1] Before the war in Ukraine, agreements had been signed with Russia to enrich URT. Eventually, dedicated facilities could be set up in France, which would take 7 to 10 years.

[2] Rising uranium prices have little impact on the competitiveness of nuclear power, as fuel represents less than 5% of production costs.