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Niger revokes French operating licence at major uranium mine

Niger has revoked the operating licence of French nuclear fuel producer Orano at one of the world’s biggest uranium mines, the company said Thursday, in…

Niger has revoked the operating licence of French nuclear fuel producer Orano at one of the world’s biggest uranium mines, the company said Thursday, in a move that highlighted tensions between France and the African country’s ruling junta.

Orano said it has been excluded from the Imouraren mine in northern Niger which sits on an estimated 200,000 tonnes of the metal, used for nuclear power and weapons.

Mining was meant to have started at Imouraren in 2015 but development was frozen after the collapse in world uranium prices in the wake of the 2011 Japanese nuclear disaster.

The Niger government did not immediately comment on the company’s statement. But it had vowed to review mining concessions in the country and the mining ministry had warned that it would take away Orano’s licence if development work had not started by June 19.

A week before the deadline, Orano told AFP that “preparatory work” had recently started at Imouraren.

“Orano takes note of the decision by the Niger authorities to withdraw from its subsidiary Imouraren SA its licence to work the deposit,” the company said in a statement Thursday.

It added that the move came despite its recent resumption of “activities” at the site, which it said had been fulfilled in line with the government’s wishes.

Niger’s key uranium exports
Orano said it was “prepared to keep open all channels of communication with the Niger authorities on this subject, while reserving the right to contest the decision to withdraw the mining licence in the national or international courts”.

The company added that mine infrastructure had reopened from June 4 and dozens of people were involved “to make progress with the work”.

It said Imouraren would eventually provide jobs for 800 people on the project, including subcontractors.

The French firm has been present in Niger since 1971. A uranium mine at Arkokan has been closed since 2021 but Orano runs another uranium mine in the northern region of Arlit despite what it calls “logistical” difficulties.

Niger is landlocked and its border with Benin, its main sea access, is closed. The government says this is for “security” reasons. But the closure is an obstacle to exports of Niger’s minerals.

Niger in 2022 accounted for about a quarter of the natural uranium supplied to European nuclear power plants, according to data from the atomic organisation Euratom.

Kazakhstan is Europe’s main supplier, ahead of Niger and then Canada.

The junta vowed to review foreign mining concessions in the country after it took power in July last year.

The military rulers have also turned against France, ordering out French troops based in the country and increasing criticism of the former colonial power. Niger has increasingly turned to Russia and Iran for support.

Chinese, Australian, US, British, Italian, Canadian, Russian and Indian firms have secured uranium mining licenses in recent years. In 2022 there were 31 prospecting permits and 11 mining licences.

The Azelik mining company, majority held by Chinese interests, is increasingly taking over uranium mining in the north of the country that have been suspended for the past decade because of poor profitability.

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