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Uranium in Niger

(Updated September 2014)

  • Niger has two significant uranium mines providing 7.5% of world mining output from Africa's highest-grade uranium ores.
  • Niger's first commercial uranium mine began operating in 1971.
  • There is strong government support for expanding uranium mining.

Uranium was discovered at Azelik in Niger in 1957 by the French Bureau de Recherches Geologiques et Minières (BRGM), looking for copper. The French Atomic Energy Commission (CEA) initiated further studies. Further discoveries in sandstone followed including at Abokurum (1959), Madaouela (1963), Arlette, Ariege, Artois & Tassa/Taza (1965), Imouraren (1966) and Akouta (1967). In the midst of this, Niger became independent of France in 1960.

In 1964 the coal deposit of Thirozerine was also discovered. It is currently operated by SONICHAR and produces electricity for the northern Agadez region, including the uranium mines.

Historically, uranium mining in Gabon has been closely linked with Niger due to the role of the French Atomic Energy Commission and Cogema (now Areva NC).

Uranium mining today

Niger is the world's fourth-ranking producer of uranium. In 2011 it produced 4351 tU, and cumulative production from the country was 114,346 tU to the end of 2010. About 62,000 tU of this was from underground, and 52,000 t from open pit mining.

Uranium is mined close to the twin mining towns of Arlit and Akokan, 900 km north-east of the capital Niamey (more than 1,200 km by road) on the southern border of the Sahara desert and on the western range of the Air mountains. The concentrates are trucked to ports in Benin and exported for conversion, mostly to Comurhex in France. 

Production is first sold to the partners in proportion to their equity at an 'extraction price' determined by the government, notionally based on operation costs, but somewhat higher. From February 2012 the extraction price is CFA 73,000/kgU ($145/kgU), paid in Euros. The partners then sell or use it, in the case of the government, through a trading company.

Areva’s SOMAIR and COMINAK were licensed to the end of 2013, and in mid-December 2013 both were shut down for maintenance, pending resolution of negotiation on licence renewal. The Niger government has been seeking a new deal to be based on the 2006 mining law, which raised royalty taxes from 5.5% as set in the 10-year licence to between 12% and 15%, depending on profits. However, current low uranium prices limit the economic scope for higher taxes, and negotiations were protracted. The mines resumed operation at the end of January 2014 under the terms of a government decree.

In May 2014 the government and Areva signed a new 5-year agreement for the two mines based on the 2006 mining law and expressing what both sides said was a balanced partnership. The royalty rate will increase potentially to 12% of market value, but depending on profitability. The deal includes for the first time that the firms' boards will include Nigerien managing directors - appointed this year for SOMAIR, and in 2016 for COMINAK. Also, Areva will provide €90 million ($122 million) to support constructing a road from Tahoua to Arlit, near the uranium developments, as well as a further €17 million ($23.1 million) for development in the surrounding Irhazer Valley. Areva will also build a new headquarters building for the two operations in the capital Niamey at a cost of €10 million ($13.6 million).

Areva’s Niger website documents some of the wider issues involved with its long-term activity in the country. Areva claims that “in 2013, 90% of the direct revenue from the mines went to the state of Niger.”

SOMAIR: Arlit/Arlette, Tamou, Tagora, Artois

The Société des Mines de l'Air (SOMAIR) ) was formed in 1968 and started production from the Arlette /Arlit deposit in 1971, by open cut mining of 0.30-0.35% ore down to 60 metres depth. The mine is 250 km north of Agadez. Capacity was subsequently expanded to about 2100 tU/yr in 1981 (though half was then laid up). Since 2003, production ramped up again, with the Tamou deposit producing 1565 tU in 2006. The Artois deposit is deeper (90 metres) and at a lower grade (0.20-0.25%). Mill capacity was increased to 3000 tU/yr, from typical 0.3%U ore. Overall SOMAIR production was 1808 tU in 2009, and reached 3065 tU in 2012. Production in 2013 was reduced due to damage from a terrorist attack. Resources at end of 2013 are tabulated below.

A new 1.4 Mt per year heap-leach operation for low-grade ore (<0.1%U) – Somair Lixi – has contributed up to 1000 tU/yr to production from 2010. Mine operations are certified under ISO 14001 for environmental management. The company’s mining agreement is being renegotiated, as it is due to expire at the end of 2013.

In May 2013 a terrorist car bomb damaged the mine plant and killed one employee, also injuring 14. Production partially resumed four weeks later, in mid-June, and was fully restored in August. Four French nationals including an Areva employee, among a group of seven who were kidnapped from Arlit in 2010, were released in October 2013.

At the end of 2013 Areva reported 20,000 tU inferred resources for a 100% owned Arlit Concession.

COMINAK: Akouta, Akola, Afasto/Ebba

The Compagnie Miniere d'Akouta (COMINAK) was set up in 1974 and started production from the Akouta deposit in 1978, a few kilometres southwest of Akokan, and then from Akola and Afasto orebodies. This is an underground operation at a depth of about 250 metres, with 250 km of tunnels. Mill capacity is 2000 t/yr of magnesium uranate (75% U) or 1800 tU/yr. Cominak's 2006 production was 1870 tU from 0.45-0.55% ore, though grade is now 0.4%U. Production rose to 1506 tU in 2012. Resources at end of 2013 are tabulated below.

Cominak has been engaged in a process to improve its competitiveness. Production is currently switching to the new deposit of Ebba/Afasto, south of Akouta and Akola. Mine operations are certified under ISO 14001 for environmental management. The company’s mining agreement is being renegotiated, as it is due to expire at the end of 2013.

SOMINA: Azelik

The Societe des Mines d'Azelik SA (SOMINA) was established in 2007 to mine Azelik/Teguidda, 160 km southwest of Arlit and 150 km northwest of Agadez, in the Agadez region. Azelik is being developed with major Chinese (CNNC) equity and came into production at the end of 2010. It will ramp up to 700 tU/yr. It is an open pit and underground operation using alkaline leach. It is reported to have resources of 15,600 tU at 0.2%, the tonnage confirmed in in 2011 Red Book. CNNC said in August 2014 that Azelik has experienced prolonged project delays, overruns in its construction budget, and low production “which led to heavy losses and causing default [on the] repayment of bank loans.” CNNC earlier hoped to raise production to 2500 t/yr by 2015 and double that by 2020. 

Niger mine production (tonnes U)

  2009 2010 2011 2012 2013
SOMAIR 1808   2726 3065 2730
COMINAK 1435   1075 1506 1508
SOMINA -   64 est 96 est 290 est
Total     3865 4667 4528

Imouraren

Development of the large Imouraren deposit about 80 km south of Arlit and 160 km north of Agadez was confirmed in January 2008, after Areva agreed to increase royalty payments to the government by 50%, following a 2006 agreement. In January 2009 Areva was awarded a mining licence. In December 2009 Korea Electric Power Co (Kepco) agreed to take a 10% interest in the operating company Imouraren SA and 10% of the product, for a single payment of EUR 170 million. This is in line with Kepco's 2.5% equity in the new Georges Besse II enrichment plant in France. The government holds 33.35% of the project. In January 2013 CNNC's SinoU subsidiary agreed to buy a 10% stake for €200 million, though early in 2014 this was still being negotiated (probably with CNNC International).

The Imouraren project is a €1.9 billion investment, and Areva will also spend €6 million per year on health, education, training, transport and access to water and energy for local people. Areva was aiming for initial production in 2014, ramping up to 5000 tU/yr for 35 years. Production is expected to be 5000 tU/yr for 35 years from late 2013. It will be the largest mining project ever undertaken in Niger, the largest open pit uranium mine in Africa, and the largest anywhere to use heap leaching – on a 42-hectare pad. The deposit covers 8 km by 2.5 km and Areva lists 213,700 tonnes of uranium reserves at 0.07% U, plus 62,500 tU indicated resources. Average depth is 110 m and maximum thickness 60 m. At full production, the project’s heap leaching facility will process 20,000 tonnes of ore per day with an expected 85% rate of recovery.

Excavation of the first pit was under way in mid 2012, but labour disputes put the schedule in sufficient doubt for the government to warn the company that delays were unacceptable. Areva agreed to pay the government €35 million to support security at the site. In May 2014, with current uranium prices not sufficient to allow profitable mining of the deposit, the government and Areva agreed to set up a joint strategic committee which will determine when mining should start. Almost €1 billion in capital expenditure is still required.

An earlier Imouraren joint venture agreement was signed in 1974 but development stalled on economic grounds.

Mine equity

SOMAIR is 63.6% owned by Areva NC and 36.4% by Office National des Ressources Minieres du Niger (ONAREM) through Sopamin, the Niger mining assets company.

COMINAK is 34% owned by Areva NC, 31% by ONAREM through Sopamin, 25% by Japan's Overseas Uranium Resources Development Co. (OURD) and 10% by Enusa SA, Spain.

Imouraren SA joint venture is 56.65% owned by Areva, 33.35% by Sopamin, and Kepco holds 10%. In February 2012, in connection with a 20,000 tU purchase agreement over 15 years, EdF agreed with Areva to take a 12.7% stake in the mine, but this was not evident in 2013 reporting by Areva. Discussion proceeds on SinoU taking 10% equity.

SOMINA is a joint venture established in 2007. Its equity is 37.2% China's CNNC International, 33% Niger government, 24.8% ZXJOY Invest (Chinese) and 5% Trendfield Holdings Ltd. In 2009 Trendfield sold its 5% of the Teguidda/ Azelik deposit to Korea Resources Corp (KORES). 

New mines and prospects

Madaouela

Goviex Uranium's Madaouela deposit is close to the Arlette and Akouta mines (SOMAIR & COMINAK) in the Arlit region of the Air Massif, and was discovered by the CEA in the early 1960s. Trendfield (25%) and UK-based GoviEx Uranium Inc formed the GoviEx Niger JV in 2007 to explore the Madaouela and Arnou Melle deposits, but Trendfield then exchanged this equity for a 10% share of GoviEx. Goviex is a private company and the major shareholder is Govind Friedland. In August 2008 Cameco bought an 11% share in the company for US$ 28 million, with option to increase to 48%.The Niger government holds a 10% carried interest and has the option to purchase a further 30% share when the mining licence is issued. In September 2012, NI 43-101 compliant resources of the Madaouela Uranium Project were 38,000 tU indicated resources and 9,200 tU inferred resources, most in sandstone of the Marianne/Marilyn, Miriam and MSNE deposits over 15 km. The unusual Miriam deposit was discovered in 2012.

In April 2012, Toshiba Corporation completed a convertible debt-financing agreement with GoviEx Uranium Inc, providing some $40 million to support the company's operations through to the start of uranium extraction and processing. Production is expected to begin in 2017 and Toshiba's off-take rights to uranium concentrate will become effective in 2020, when output is expected to reach its peak capacity of over 1000 tU/yr. The annual off-take of concentrate will be about 230 tU. Sales will be handled by Advance Uranium Asset Management Ltd, a UK-based Toshiba Group Company.

An open pit mine on at least part of the deposit with conventional processing is expected to produce 1000 tU/yr over 15 years, with potential for expanding the resource. A definitive feasibility study is under way for 2014 completion, mine development is envisaged from 2014 and full commercial production in 2017.

Abokorum

In July 2006 the China National Nuclear Corporation (CNNC) agreed to develop the 12,790 tU Abokorum deposit in the Agadez region, through its subsidiary China Nuclear International Uranium Corporation (SinoU), but no more has been heard of this.

SinoU and China's ZTE Energy Corporation have established a joint venture to carry out uranium exploration near the Azelik mine.

Trendfield formed the UREX joint venture (approx 50:50) with Australia's Artemis Resources to explore the Tagaza deposits adjacent to Teguidda. (Parent company Trendfield Energy and Resources is a China-based "private international mining and consulting firm".)

In April 2007 the government issued uranium exploration permits to Areva, Rio Tinto and others for the Tchirozerine area, 40 km northwest of Agadez. An Indian company took out an exploration licence in the Arlit region.

Niger Uranium Reserves and Resources in 2013

End 2009 Reserves Resources
  proven   probable   measured   indicated   inferred  
SOMAIR 40 tU @ 0.127% 5192 tU @ 0.259% 1184 tU @ 0.093%  37,027 tU @ 0.132% 20,8227 tU @ 0.167%
 Arlit concesion         20,403 tU @ 0.159%
COMINAK 3000 tU @ 0.321% 11,090 tU @ 0.361% - - 2239 tU @ 0.305%
Imouraren  - 213,722 tU @ 0.07% - 62,584 tU @ 0.058% 2879 tU @ 0.066% 
SOMINA Azelik - - 15,600 tU @ 0.2% - -
Madaouela       38,000 tU 9200 tU

At the end of 2010 Niger's Reasonably Assured Resources (RAR) were estimated by IAEA as 339,000 tU up to US$ 130/kgU, mostly accessible by open pit. Inferred Resources are 82,000 tU at up to $130/kg, accessible by open pit (56%) and underground. All are in sandstone. 

In April 2007 the government said that it aimed for uranium production of 10,500 tU/yr "in the next few years", and named Areva as its strategic partner in uranium development.

Areva is reported to have been paying royalty on the basis of a product valuation of 27,300 CFA francs (US$ 57) per kilogram, and in 2007 this was increased to 40,000 CFA (US$ 83/kg), plus the provision of 300 tonnes of product for Niger to sell on the open market. This was then sold to Exelon in USA for $42 million.

In August 2008 Niger Uranium Ltd announced an inferred resource of 1700 tU at In Gall, this being Samrec-compliant and in shallow sandstone.

In November 2009 Global Atomic Fuels Corp., a private Canadian company, has six concessions around Agadez. It has announced a 2000 tU indicated resource and 21,000 tU inferred resource at its four Tin Negouran and two Adrar Emoles concessions, with ISL potential. In September 2010 it announced that a preliminary economic study on the Dasa open pit on the Adrar Emoles tenement was favourable, with head grade about 0.01%.

In January 2010 NGM Resources announced an inferred resource of 5000 t U3O8 at Takardeit, some 100 km south of Imouraren. Paladin Energy made a $24 million takeover bid for NGM, but it decided to let this lapse in October 2010 due to armed hostilities in the region. However, the Australian Takeovers panel disallowed the decision and Paladin proceeded with the takeover of NGM and its Indo Energy Ltd (IEL) subsidiary, in line with the recommendations of NGM directors. Following attacks on Areva’s operations, in mid-2013 Paladin ceased its exploration activities and invoked a Force Majeure consideration.

In 2009 Korea Resources Corp. agreed to buy 400 tonnes per year of uranium or U3O8 and take a 5% share of the Teguidda mine in central Niger from Trendfield, a Chinese company.

Non-proliferation

Niger is party to the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty. It has a comprehensive safeguards agreement in force and in 2004 signed the Additional Protocol.

Main References

Areva NC.
OECD NEA & IAEA, 2012, Uranium 20011: Resources, Production and Demand – the "Red Book".
WISE