Will A Coup In One Of The World’s Biggest Uranium Producers Squeeze Nuclear Energy?
By: Alexander C. Kaufman - HuffPost
Uranium from Niger helps power Europe, but all eyes are on the West African country after the military overthrew its elected president.
It takes a long time to dig a mine, especially in the middle of the Sahara Desert. Just ask Bob Tait.
The Toronto-based Global Atomic Corp. where he serves as vice president of investor relations started exploring for uranium in the middle of Niger, a landlocked West African nation roughly twice the size of Texas, some 18 years ago. It took until late last year to finally start digging the mine.
The timing couldn’t have been better. Countries all over the world were announcing plans for new nuclear reactors, right as nations that already had them started seeking alternatives to Russia for buying uranium fuel after the invasion of Ukraine. By July of this year, the company finished building the access ramp to the edge of the underground ore ― putting the project, called the Dasa mine, ahead of schedule. And a second shipment of mining equipment had just completed its overland journey north from a port in neighboring Benin.
Then, suddenly, Niger’s military toppled its elected government.
On July 26, not long after the tools for excavating rock arrived in customs, Gen. Abdourahamane Tchiani, the erstwhile head of Niger’s presidential guard, led a revolt, detaining President Mohamed Bazoum and threatening to kill the leader if foreign powers intervene to stop the coup. Casting the ouster as an anti-colonial rebellion, the junta and its supporters accused France of meddling in its former colony and cut off military cooperation deals with Paris.
Once the fourth-largest producer of uranium in the world, Niger has since slid to No. 7, exporting about 5% of the global supply. But Niger’s uranium fuels at least 10% of France’s nuclear reactors, which generate most of its electricity, and supplies as much as one-fifth of Europe’s atomic fleet. Prices in the spot market jolted slightly upward after the coup.
But at Global Atomic’s construction site for the Dasa mine roughly 600 miles northeast of the capital of Niamey, “people are going about business as usual,” Tait said.
“I don’t see our operations getting interrupted,” he said. “There was some noise that the military leadership was going to block shipments of uranium to France. Whether that happens or not, I don’t know. But it wouldn’t affect us.”
Analysts say it wouldn’t affect France much either. Or, for that matter, global uranium supplies.
In the days after the coup, the price of uranium in global spot markets inched up only by 10 cents, to $56.25 ― more than double what it was three years ago, but still less than half its historic peak of $140 in 2007, when the world last looked poised for a major build-out of new reactors. By late August, the price spiked another $2 to $58.25.
The incident highlights one of nuclear energy’s key advantages. Natural gas and oil need to be constantly replenished with fresh supply, giving producers ― particularly countries that control the taps of hydrocarbons buried beneath their land ― tremendous leverage over those nations whose economies would screech to a halt without fuel.
While solar and wind run off of free sunlight and airflow, a dark, still sky means no electricity, making it virtually impossible for any major economy to run exclusively on those renewables without some kind of backup sources. And the supply chains for the processed metals needed to make solar panels, wind turbines and batteries to store that electricity to use later run overwhelmingly through China, which has recently threatened to cut off certain exports to geopolitical rivals.
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