Africa's largest uranium mine gets the go-ahead

06 January 2009

The government of Niger has granted French nuclear giant Areva a permit to mine the Imouraren uranium deposit in what will be the country's largest ever industrial project. Mining is due to begin in 2012.

Under the terms of the mining agreement signed in Niger's capital, Niamey, by Areva CEO Anne Lauvergeon and the government of Niger, Areva will hold 66.65% of the newly created mining company, with the state of Niger holding the remaining 33.35%. According to Areva, the mine will produce 500 tonnes of uranium (tU) per year and will be the largest uranium mine in Africa and the second largest in the world, making Niger the world's second largest uranium producer. It will require an initial investment of €1.2 billion ($1.6 billion) and will operate for more than 35 years. Unlike Niger's operating mines, Imouraren will be an in-situ leach (ISL) operation, with uranium dissolved from the host rock and pumped to the surface through wells.

Uranium was first discovered in Niger in 1957 and the country has been producing uranium commercially since 1971, with around 7.5% of the world's uranium production currently coming from its two operating mines at Arlit and Akouta. Areva operates and is the major partner in the companies running both mines: indeed, according to Lauvergeon, the company enjoys a 50-year old "historic partnership" with Niger, a former French colony which gained independence in 1960. The Imouraren deposit, which has some 146,000 tU of measured uranium resources at a grade of 0.11%, was first discovered in 1966.

Areva signed an agreement to develop Imouraren, about 80 km south of the Arlit mine, in 2006. In 2007 the company signed a deal with Niger to increase the dividend on all the uranium it produces in Niger that it pays to the country. Areva is not the only overseas company interested in Niger's uranium. The China National Nuclear Corporation (CNNC) signed an agreement in 2006 to develop the 12,790 tU Abokorum deposit and is developing the 700 tU per year Teguida mine as well as holding rights to other deposits. Government uranium exploration permits for various regions have also been issued to companies including Areva and Rio Tinto, and in 2008 Niger Uranium Ltd announced an inferred resource of 1700 tU at In Gall. However, workers for overseas uranium companies have at times been the target of Tuareg separatists, with several cases in recent years of company employees being kidnapped by rebel bandits.