Russia said to seek French-held uranium assets in Niger

Pit operations at Orano’s Somair uranium mine in Niger. Credit: Orano

Russia is seeking to take over uranium assets in Niger held by a state-controlled French company, according to people informed about the matter, in a further challenge to Western interests in Africa.

Rosatom, Russia’s state nuclear company, has had contacts with Niger’s military-led authorities about acquiring assets held by France’s Orano SA, according to a person in Moscow familiar with the matter, who asked not to be named because the discussions are private. A western diplomat based in the region said talks were likely centered around mining permits. Niger accounted for about 4% of global uranium mine production in 2022, according to the World Nuclear Association.

Following a coup last July that ousted the west African nation’s Western-allied leader, Niger is the latest in a string of African countries, almost all military ruled, that have forged closer security ties with Russia. That’s opened the way for Moscow to seek access to mining interests as it tries to revive its Soviet-era presence in Africa, in particular by exploiting widespread resentment of France’s decades-old influence in its former colonies.

“Russia has been stepping up its economic, diplomatic, and military links in Africa, including after the Niger coup, and they see this part of the world as a strategic investment opportunity,” said Mark Hibbs, a Berlin-based nuclear analyst with the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. “Hand in hand, Rosatom has been diversifying its uranium investments in Africa.”

It’s not clear how many assets Rosatom is seeking in Niger and the person in Moscow characterized the discussions as being at an early stage that had not reached the point of negotiations, with the terms of any transfer not yet set out.

Orano has majority stakes in the operating companies of Somair, an open-pit mine, Cominak, a now-shuttered underground mine, and the Imouraren project, which has been suspended since 2015, according to its web site.

Orano is unaware of any discussions between Niger and Russian entities, the company said in emailed responses to questions. It has continued to engage with Niger’s new leaders since July, Orano said. Niger Prime Minister Ali Mahamane Lamine Zeine’s office declined to comment. Spokespeople for Rosatom, the French presidency and the Kremlin didn’t respond to requests for comment.

The International Atomic Energy Agency is aware of a potential transfer of uranium assets in Niger, said a diplomat close to the Vienna-based United Nations’ nuclear watchdog, without specifying which entity may be involved.

One of the world’s poorest countries, Niger expelled French forces and ended a decade-long security agreement with the US in the wake of the coup. In April, 100 Russian military instructors arrived in the capital Niamey to train Niger’s forces in the use of air defense systems supplied by Moscow.

Niger’s military leader, Abdourahamane Tiani, and other junta officials held talks with Russian Deputy Defense Minister Yunus-Bek Yevkurov on boosting “security, defense and economic” cooperation on Sunday, the ruling National Council for the Safeguarding of the Homeland said in a statement on Facebook.

In March, a delegation from Niger for the first time attended Russia’s flagship nuclear industry event supported by Rosatom, the Atomexpo forum, in the Black Sea city of Sochi.

France has relied on Niger for as much as 15% of its uranium needs to fuel nuclear reactors that account for 65% of the country’s electricity production, Le Monde reported last year, citing Orano. European Union utilities depended on Niger, the world’s seventh-largest producer, for about a quarter of their uranium supplies in 2022, according to the Euratom Supply Agency.

Uranium prices have risen to a 17-year high, in part because the military takeover halted exports from Niger, whose supplies are drawn from Africa’s highest-grade uranium ores, according to the World Nuclear Association.

The Pentagon said in March that US officials traveled to Niger to express concerns about the junta’s “potential relationships” with Russia and Iran.

Despite their competition and the confrontation over Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, Paris and Moscow have continued to cooperate in the nuclear field. Rosatom is providing machinery for France to manufacture fuel for Russian reactors in eastern Europe, where utilities are seeking alternatives to Rosatom. France also continues to send part of its nuclear waste products for recycling in Russia.

Orano — formerly known as Areva — has worked in Niger for more than 50 years to develop deposits in the country’s northwest Aïr region. The Imouraren project in the Sahara Desert was forecast to help supply France’s 57 operable reactors with fuel for 35 years.

In February, Orano said it set aside a provision of less than 10% of operating income for what its chief financial officer described as the “worst-case scenario where we would have to stop our business and we would be expelled from Niger.”

An assessment prepared by analysts for senior Russian officials and circulated in September proposed that Moscow’s relations with Niger could be used to threaten French access to uranium mined in the country, according to the London-based defense think tank, the Royal United Services Institute.

A Russian takeover of Niger’s uranium assets would be one more step toward a market split, said Pendo Löfgren, the chief investment officer of Zug-based Arnova Capital AG, an investor in uranium miners and physical uranium.

“US-aligned countries will seek to import from allies only. Russia and China likewise,” he said. “But this is much more difficult for the US-aligned countries — in particular for the US itself, which today has essentially no domestic production.”


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