The coup in Niger has prompted concerns the West African country could curtail uranium exports, possibly hamstringing nuclear power production in France and beyond. But so far, source diversification and well-stocked inventories should be able to mitigate any disruptions in the short term, experts say.
Due to a long-standing policy that dates back to ex-president Charles de Gaulle, France derives about 70 percent of its electricity from nuclear energy, more than any other country. France is also the world’s largest net exporter of nuclear energy, bringing in more than €3 billion per year.
But the military coup in Niger last week – and unconfirmed reports that the West African country intends to suspend uranium supplies to France – have raised questions over what role the industry should play in France’s future.
The reports led some opposition politicians in France to question the role of nuclear power in France’s energy portfolio, notably given French President Emmanuel Macron’s repeated calls for “energy independence”.
“Niger supplies France with the uranium it needs for its nuclear power plants … Reminder: nuclear power does not make for energy independence,” said Sandrine Rousseau, a left-wing Green politician on X (formerly Twitter) July 29.
Le #Niger fournit à la France l’uranium indispensable aux centrales nucléaires.
D’où le conseil de défense.
Rappel : le nucléaire ne permet pas du tout l’indépendance énergétique.
— Sandrine Rousseau (@sandrousseau) July 29, 2023
Niger has maintained a market share of between 4 and 6 percent of the global uranium trade for the last decade, according to the OECD’s Nuclear Energy Agency (NEA). But despite its modest share of the market, Niger supplied France with around 18 percent of its uranium between 2005 and 2020.
France’s largest suppliers, Kazakhstan and Australia, provided 20 and 19 percent, respectively, while Uzbekistan’s supplies have been on the increase in recent years.
This reliance on diverse sources is a cornerstone of the energy security strategy of state-owned Électricité de France (EDF), designed to ensure it is able to withstand large shocks to the market – such as an unexpected export ban on Nigerien uranium.
“France is not dependent on any one site, company or country to ensure the security of supply for its power plants,” an anonymous government official told Politico on July 31.
The EU’s nuclear agency Euratom – which gets one-quarter of its uranium from Niger – has also said it is not worried about the coup affecting nuclear power production. “If imports from Niger are being cut, there are no immediate risks to the security of nuclear power production in the short term,” Euratom told Reuters.
The European Commission said the 27-nation bloc had “sufficient inventories of uranium to mitigate any short-term supply risks”.
Another factor that will help mitigate any fluctuations are the relatively low fuel cycle costs (including for uranium, uranium enrichment, conversion and fuel fabrication) of generating nuclear power. The NEA estimates uranium to count for only about 6 percent of the cost of nuclear energy – a figure overshadowed by the 59 percent in investment costs and 25 percent in operation and maintenance costs.
The possible suspension of uranium supplies to France also raises questions about whether Niger could effectively replace French demand without seeing a sharp economic decline itself – 33 percent of Nigerien exports go to France, almost all of which are radioactive fuel.
How much Niger – which despite vast uranium reserves remains radically underdeveloped – gets out of its relationship with France has been a point of contention since the country gained formal independence in 1960.
Successive Nigerien presidents have demanded more from Orano (formerly Areva), one of France’s state-controlled nuclear fuel producers, in terms of safety assurances for Nigerien employees and higher prices for uranium.
Today, almost all of Orano’s employees in Niger are recruited locally but the company still has a majority share in Niger’s state-owned uranium treatment company, Somaïr.
Despite the volatile situation, Orano told FRANCE 24 it is continuing to operate in Niger and says it is monitoring the situation.
“The security of all our employees in Niger and of our sites is being monitored and the company remains on high alert,” a spokesperson from Orano told FRANCE 24.