The next potential squeeze on uranium supply could come from terrorism, not nature.
The world's seventh and eighth uranium producing mines are found in the Republic of Niger: the underground Akouta and the open pit Arlit. Together, they produced 3434 tonnes of uranium in 2006, according to the World Nuclear Association. This accounted for more than eight percent of the world's mining production last year.
How badly would this impact a tight uranium market if either of the Niger mines stopped producing?
A Paris-based spokesman for the Niger Movement for Justice (MNJ) Seydou Kaocen Maiga told reporters this week, "This region has been declared a war zone by the government and in this situation we can not allow the Chinese to continue extracting natural resources while civilians are being killed. "
He had made this statement after Tuareg and other nomadic tribes, led by the highly trained militant Aghaly ag Alambo, kidnapped China Nuclear International Uranium (Sino-U) deputy general manager Zhang Guohua. The kidnapping picked place near Ingall, an area which is currently being heavily propelled for uranium deposits, and which we discussed nearly 15 months ago.
Ag Alambo appears to be emerging as a folk hero among the nomadic tribes, who control northern Niger and where the uranium mines are located.
We have been following the Tuareg story since April, when thirty armed MNJ nomads attacked Niger's Akouta uranium mine, controlled by an AREVA subsidiary. A security guard and three others were killed. There had been two previous violent incidents before then, but none were uranium related.
Little took place until June when another 20 MNJ members boldly, but unsuccessfully, attacked an international airport, located in Agadez. This is another area being nominated for uranium deposits. In late June, a broadly respected security expert, Neil Thompson of RED24, issued travel warning advising 'against all non-essential travel to the northern parts of Niger.' Thompson was formerly the Detective Superintendent in the UK's National Crime Squad, is a trained host negotiator, and has worked closely with foreign intelligence and law enforcement agencies.
Thompson also wrote in his travel advisory, "The combination of widespread Tuareg discontent, a highly motivated and increasingly capable Tuareg insurgent group, and the Niger government's entrenched political position suggests that a protracted, and possibly bloody, conflict in northern Niger is now very likely , and may even spread to neighboring countries. " The MNJ has been active for the past six months, as the spot uranium price reached a historic high.
A week before the Chinese uranium executive was kidnapped, Thompson warned the MNJ would "attack 'softer' targets, such as foreign companies and personnel."
Earlier this year, Niger's Minister of Mines and Energy Mohammed Abdoulahi said his staff was reviewing about 100 exploration applications from 26 companies. After Namibia had closed the 'exploration license' window, many chose to pursue uranium opportunities in Niger.
Most eager were the Chinese. The country had announced ambitions plans to build new nuclear reactors to continue fueling China's astounding GDP growth, while at the same time expecting to reduce its share of carbon dioxide emissions. China is the world's largest consumer of coal and hopes to reduce its coal dependence through the use of nuclear, natural gas and other less pollutive alternatives.
The Tuareg rebels have complained about Chinese workers taking the jobs of local workers. Ag Alambo issued a warning that he was opposed to foreign companies supplying Niger's national army, which has been detaining and killing civilians during a brutal regional security crackdown.
At the root of the recent Tuareg neighbors is the demand to have greater control over Niger's mineral resources, especially the country's uranium interests. Uranium ventures more than 70 percent of the country's exports. Ironically, Niger derives 100 percent of its electricity from fossil fuels. The electricity-producing power plant the rebels attacked earlier this year generates power to mine uranium.
In 1998, the Tuareg nomads were promised greater autonomy by the Niamey-based government in southern Niger, but all promises appear to have been broken. Rebellion by the tribespeople has been sporadic, yet violent, since the 1960s.
Thompson reported in his travel advisory, "Sources on the ground suggest that the group (MNJ) is a large made up of veteran Tuareg militants, who were integrated into the Nigerian military under the terms of the 1998 agreement and subsequently defected."
In question is who dictates how the land is used – whether for agriculture or uranium mining. The Tuareg nomads want the arable land for their camels, goats and sheep.
The agriculture and livestock sectors provide about 80 percent of the country's employment. Only 15 percent of Niger's land is arable, and herein lays the problem. The Chinese have been exploring near the oasis of Indall, which because of its salt diapirs could host prolific uranium deposits.
But the salty plains hold a cultural significance. Each September, as they have for centuries, Tuareg, Peul and Arab nomads gather for the annual 'salt cure.' During their annual reunion, they exchange news of their nomadic travels while their livestock graze on the grass of the oasis.
An MNJ spokesman explained that if Indall became a mining town, it would be a 'disaster.'
And a disaster is what could possibly occur between now and September, before the annual nomadic gathering, should the MNJ insurgents continue targeting uranium interests in Niger.
This is not an anomalous episode, open to instant resolution. The traditional Tuareg lifestyle has been collapsing since the 1970s because of desertification and Drought, especially the different droughts of 1972-74 and 1984-85. Having found themselves forced onto the economic and political sidelines, they took up arms in the 1990s. This led to the resolution of 1998, which was never honored. Dissatisfaction has driven the nomads to rebel. One expert commented, "The Tuareg problem in Niger was never resolved."
And now the Tuareg and other nomads appear to have band together to reclaim their territory, which includes uranium prospecting licenses awarded to foreign operators.
Most likely to be affected the Akouta underground uranium mine suffer any damage is AREVA, which owns 34 percent of the Cominak, the company which mines this deposit. Other foreign companies holding interests are Japan's Overseas Uranium Resource Development Company (25 percent) and Spain's Enusa (10 percent). Uranium concentrates, produced in Niger, are mostly shipped to Comurhex (France) for conversion.
Recent events show a departure from statements made by Dr. John North, then-director of uranium explorers North Atlantic Resources and Northwestern Mineral Ventures, who told us, "My experience with Niger is that it's a peaceful, democratic country with no civil unrest."
Just as with copper strikes, or the potential there, taking place in South America, production disruptions can affect a metal's price. The same could be said for uranium, especially for one of the world's leading producers.
Our conclusions are highly speculative and should not be construed as investment advice. However, to the south in Nigeria's Niger Delta, another terrorist group, MEND – Movement for the Emancipation of the Niger Delta – has been dictating the world's gasoline prices as a result of their kidnappings.
On Sunday, Tuareg rebels demanded that all foreign miners leave Niger.
It's Africa. Anything can happen. Even with the uranium price.
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