Niger revokes French nuclear group’s licence at major uranium mine

Removal of Orano licence highlights tensions with France, with Russia said to be eyeing the major site.

A sign for Imouraren uranium mine
A sign for the Imouraren uranium mine [File: Joe Penney/Reuters]

Niger’s military government has revoked the operating licence of French nuclear fuel producer Orano at one of the world’s biggest uranium mines, as it continues to cut ties with former colonial power France.

State-owned Orano said on Thursday that it had been ordered out of the Imouraren mine in northern Niger which sits on an estimated 200,000 tonnes of the metal, used for nuclear power and weapons.

Reporting from Abuja, Al Jazeera’s Ahmed Idris said the Nigerien Ministry of Mining had warned it would revoke Orano’s licence if development of the mine had not started by June 19.

Orano insisted in a statement on Thursday that it had recently resumed “activities” at the site, reopening “infrastructures” to accommodate “construction teams”, its work in line with the wishes of the government, which came to power in a coup in July last year.

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 disaster when a tsunami hit the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Plant in the northeast of the country.

Russian interest

The Nigerien government’s decision to revoke Orano’s licence may have wider geopolitical stakes. As Al Jazeera’s Idris noted, relations between Niger and its former colonial ruler took a “nosedive” after last year’s coup.

Thousands of Nigerians gather in front of the French army headquarters, in support of the putschist soldiers and to demand the French army to leave
Supporters of the military government protest outside the French airbase in Niamey to demand the departure of the French army from the country [File: AFP]

“The Nigerien government ordered the French ambassador to leave,” he said. “That was followed by the eviction of several hundreds of French soldiers based in Niger and the shutting down of all French bases in Niger.”

The government, which has increasingly turned to Russia and Iran for support, pledged to review foreign mining concessions in the country after it took power in July last year.

Now, said Idris, it seems it is targeting French businesses

“Russian companies have indicated interest in the uranium mining site in Imouraren and we’ve seen also a flurry of activities between Russian businesses and … Russian mercenaries in Niger, which could point to the direction where this new license …  may be headed to,” he added.

Orano 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 terms “logistical” difficulties.

Niger, which accounts for about a quarter of the natural uranium supplied to Europe, is landlocked and its border with Benin, its main sea access, is closed, hindering exports of its minerals. The government says this is for “security” reasons.

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 Niger government did not immediately comment.

Source: Al Jazeera and news agencies