The French Overseas Mining Bureau discovered uranium in Niger in the late 1950s. The uranium deposit is located in the piedmont plains. Two companies, Somaïr and Cominak, were established to operate the mines. Until now, only uranium deposits have only been mined in the Arlit region.
AREVA’s concession covers 360 square kilometers (140 square miles) and the group is planning a major exploration program and submitted 19 new permit applications in 2006. Uranium mining is a
significant share of Niger's income and it has been strategic for French nuclear policy since the beginning, because Niger uranium, unlike Australian or Canadian uranium for example, never had any peaceful end-use conditions attached and thus France was free to use it in its nuclear weapons program. Consequently, the issue is being dealt with on the highest government levels in both countries.
Somaïr (Société des Mines de l’Aïr)
Somair was established in 1968. AREVA owns 63.4% of the capital, with the government of Niger owning the remaining 36.6% through Onarem, the national mining resources agency. Somaïr has operated several mines near Arlit since 1971. The ore is processed in a 2,000 MT mill (5.2 million pounds of U3O8) at the site. Somaïr employs about 600 people.
Cominak (Compagnie Minière d’Akouta)
Cominak was established in 1974 and is operated by AREVA, which owns 34% of the company shares. Other shareholders are Onarem of Niger (31%), Ourd of Japan (25%), and Enusa Industrias Avanzadas S.A. of Spain (10%). Cominak has operated the two main
deposits of Akouta and Akola, near the town of Akokan, since 1978. The on-site mill has a capacity of 2,000 MT of uranium per year (5.2 million lbs of U308). Cominak employs about 1,100 people. In July 2006, AREVA received an exploration permit for Imouraren, 80 kilometers south of Arlit.
The permit includes an ore body, originally discovered in 1969, that AREVA has decided to restart now that market conditions are more favorable. One hundred people are currently employed at the site. In January 2009, AREVA and the Niger government signed a convention that grants AREVA to exploit the Imaouraren deposit. AREVA will hold 66.65% in a joint company that will produce about 5,000 MT of uranium per year. The initial investment is estimated to reach more than €1.2 billion and will be the largest industrial project ever carried out in the country.
AREVA considers that its uranium mines are "providing jobs, the companies offer health, social and educational services to the local populations of this isolated and economically deprived area". The French company stresses that "in all, AREVA is engaged in sustainable development actions in Niger planned over the next five years worth more than €6 million per year." The sum corresponds to 0.5%
of the estimated investment expenditure for the sole Imouraren project. A survey carried out by French independent laboratory CRIIRAD on behalf of Niger environmental
organization AGHIR IN'MAN between 2003 and 2005 identified that:
• Radioactive waste was stored closed to a public road for more than a month;
• Drinking water that exceeds WHO contamination limits;
• Contaminated metals that are available on a public market;
• Mining wastes that are stored for decades without cover.
AREVA is also facing a long-standing Tuareg rebellion in Northern Niger. A Tuareg leader told AFP in January 2008: "We are going to attack the uranium mines, including those of AREVA, to stop factories functioning, prevent the exploitation of new quarries, and seize the cargo that is en route to the sea". The Tuaregs demand "that parts of the profits of uranium mining are handed back to them, while Tuaregs regularly raise the issue of the ecological impact of these mining operations on the
health of local populations".
AREVA's Vice-President for Protection of Assets and Personnel, former Navy Admiral Thierry d'Arbonneau, has been quoted as stating that the French State would do better to supply the authorities of Niger with the means to put down the rebellion of the Tuareg. The Tuaregs have illustrated in the past that they can seriously threaten AREVA's mining operations in the country. In April 2007, the Tuaregs attacked one of the mines and Dominique Pin, head of AREVA's uranium mining in Niger, admitted that “the attack caused us to stop all our operations for almost a month.”
In July 2007, AREVA took over the uranium company Uramin. Production at the Trekkopje site in Namibia was expected to begin in 2009-2010. Development has begun of the Ryst Kuil project in South Africa and the Bakouma project in the Central African Republic.
Now this update: France sends troops to secure Niger uranium mines
And this one too France orders special forces to protect Niger uranium