PARIS/NIAMEY Jan 3 French state-controlled
nuclear group Areva has closed its two uranium mines
in Niger for a month of maintenance while it negotiates with the
government over the renewal of its licences, a company spokesman
said on Friday.
Niger, the world's fourth-largest uranium producer, is
trying to extract increased royalties from the French group,
with the mines operating in legal limbo after the expiry of
Confirming union information, the company spokesman said
Areva's Somair and Cominak mines have been closed since
mid-December and will remain closed until mid-January.
The mines' 10-year licences expired on Dec. 31, though Niger
issued a decree on Dec. 27 that potentially provides a legal
framework for them to continue operating for now.
"The directors of the mines have told us they have stopped
operations because they operate in a legal vacuum," Salifou
Chipkaou, deputy secretary general of the Synamin miners union,
Inoua Neino, secretary genral of Syntramin, another miners'
union, told Reuters that the maintenance had merely been brought
forward from April. "Contrary to what some are saying, this is
not a move by Areva to put pressure on the government during the
talks," he said.
An Areva spokesman said the mines routinely close for
maintenance about twice a year for periods between 15 days to a
Sources told Reuters last month that the licence
negotiations would be extended by up to three months after the
two sides failed to clinch a deal ahead of the year-end
deadline. The talks have been going on for nearly two years.
Niger accounts for more than a third of Areva's uranium
production and President Mahamadou Issoufou's government wants
to increase the royalties the company's mines pay from 5.5
percent of revenues to as high as 12 percent, officials say.
The former French colony remains one of the world's poorest
nations despite its mineral wealth.
Areva, which is nearly 90 percent owned by the French
government, says that an increase in the royalties rate would
make its Niger operations unprofitable.
It owns about two thirds of the open-air Somair mine, which
produced a little more than 3,000 tonnes of yellowcake last
year, and around 34 percent of the smaller underground Cominak
France obtains 75 percent of its electricity from nuclear
energy but has never said to what extent it relies on Niger for
uranium to fuel its 58 nuclear reactors.
Niger authorities and non-governmental organisations say
that one in three light bulbs in France is powered by Niger
uranium. A French parliamentary committee report in 2008 put the
figure at nearly a fifth.
In 2012 Areva sourced nearly 37 percent of its 9,760 tonnes
of uranium production from Niger and French state-controlled
utility EDF has told Reuters that Areva supplies 40
percent of its annual uranium needs.
(Reporting by Abdoulaye Massalatchi in Niamey and Geert De
Clercq in Paris; Editing by David Goodman)