Uranium Mining in the African Continent - Fatih D. Oral


Last month, French nuclear group Orano's Compagnie minière d'Akokan (COMINAK) uranium mine in Niger closed due to the depletion of the reserves, as the mine's board of directors announced. It was one of the biggest uranium mines in the world, and the mine carried out the last blast on March 25 and ceased production on March 31. Today, uranium has been a significant raw material, especially for nuclear energy production. While Kazakhstan, Australia, and Canada have 50% of uranium reserves in the world, resources in the African continent constitute approximately 20% of the total reserves. Uranium deposits in South Africa, Niger, Namibia, Botswana, and Tanzania have been used actively. The first uranium exploration activities on the continent took place in 1945 by the United Kingdom, and the production started in 1952. After this important discovery of the United Kingdom, France began uranium production activities in Gabon and Niger.

Uranium is the most important fuel used in nuclear power, and it is a low-carbon technology to generate electricity. According to the data of the International Energy Agency, the world will increase its energy consumption by 18% until 2030, and the energy consumption will increase by 39% in 2050. Then, the produced nuclear energy using uranium will have a significant role in meeting this growing demand. Moreover, the usage amount and variety of uranium have been increasing. Therefore, uranium has been used as nuclear power plant fuel and powering nuclear submarines and nuclear weapons by military, armor coating of military equipment, ship and aircraft construction, production reactors, and plutonium and hydrogen bomb construction. Especially since it is used in atomic production, great importance is attached to ensuring its security, and international restrictions are applied to its production and usage.

Today, Niger has two significant uranium mines providing about 6% of world mining output from Africa's highest-grade uranium ores. The uranium in Niger was discovered 65 years ago by the French Bureau de Recherches Geologiques et Minieres (BRGM). Then, the French Atomic Energy Commission (CEA) pioneered further uranium exploration and mining activities. Niger was leading uranium production in Africa until overtaken by Namibia. Imouren mine is the largest uranium reserve in Africa and the second-largest uranium reserve in the world. The SOMAIR and the closed COMINAK are other uranium mines in Niger. Those three mines are located in the Arlit and Akokan regions of the capital Niamey, 87% of the uranium mined in this area is owned by French nuclear power company Orano Group. Orano holds the operating rights for Uranium in Niger for 46 years. The uranium extracted from here meets approximately one-third of the France's electricity demand. Uranium mines in Niger supply required raw material for 59 nuclear energy plants of France.

Namibia has important uranium mines capable of providing 10% of world mining output. The country, which can produce 10% of the uranium mined in the world with its two facilities, ranks fourth in uranium production after Kazakhstan, Canada, and Australia. Uranium was first discovered in the Namib Desert 93 years ago by Captain G. Peter Louw in the Rössing Mountains vicinity. Although Captain G. Peter Louw tried promoting uranium prospecting in the Namib Desert, there was no prospecting activity until the 1950s. British multinational mining company Anglo America Corporation drilled and performed some underground exploration; however, they could not find stable uranium values and affluent economic prospects, and the search was abandoned.

In 1966 Anglo Australian Rio Tinto mining group obtained exploration rights, and the first commercial uranium mine began operating in 1976. In 2011, the Namibian government announced that its state-owned mining company, Epangelo, would have exclusive control over new strategic minerals developments, including uranium. This regulation cannot apply retrospectively or amount to the nationalization of existing mines or leases. As a consequence of this regulation, new exploration licenses are granted only to Epangelo Mining Ltd., and others interested need to negotiate farm-ins with it to become joint-venture partners. Nowadays, China and India have been looking to acquire uranium from Namibia. Chinese companies, namely Husab and Langer Heinrich, have taken major equity positions. In 2018, Rio Tinto announced the agreement which sells its majority share in Rössing Uranium Limited to China Uranium Corporation Limited (CNUC). The Husab Uranium Project, undertaken by the state company in the nuclear field of China, where uranium will be mined and processed as raw material, has reached full capacity. Besides, it is calculated that the reserve in the Husab Project can supply 40 years of fuel for a nuclear power plant with an electricity capacity of 20 thousand megawatts. Therefore, the country, which established one of the most extensive uranium facilities in the world, has a plan to increase its capacity by inviting foreign investors. Namibian government aims to become the second-biggest provider of uranium globally.

Although COMINAK uranium mine ceased mining activity with the closure, uranium mining is an important activity in the African continent, especially for Niger and Namibia. While French and Australian mining companies have already been active in Africa, China has been improving uranium mining activities. According to World Nuclear Association, Uranium demand is fundamentally driven by the number of operating reactors, which ultimately is driven by the demand for electricity. The purpose of nuclear energy in improving meet projected electricity demand would depend on state policy decisions affecting nuclear development and how effectively several factors such as the contemporary issues of the world, which are environmental considerations, disposal of waste, and economics. Sufficient nuclear fuel reserves exist to suffice energy markets at current and raised demand well into the future. Nevertheless, to reach their full potential, essential exploration, innovative techniques, and investment will be required to develop new mining projects and facilitate promising technologies promptly. Therefore, the role of the African continent in uranium mining will increase, and that would put forward a piece of significant evidence why Africa is observed as the continent of the future.