China’s nuclear future may depend on better relations with Niger’s uranium mining towns.
The California Gold Rush drew thousands of people to remote areas in the then-uncharted Sierra hills. Today, in the vast desert of northern Niger, a modern treasure is creating a new rush for wealth.
Outside of the town of Arlit in Niger, about 1300 kilometers for the country’s capital city Niamey, are found the two largest uranium mines in the country, according to Business Insider. Uranium was discovered there in 1957, and today experts say Niger holds 7 percent of the world’s reserves of the material that is crucial for powering nuclear energy plants.
The French energy company Areva owns the mines, which account for a third of all of Niger’s exports. France controlled Niger until the country declared independence in 1960, but Areva continues to be the country’s largest employer, other than the government.
But the French mines are nearing the end of their productive life spans, and China is now making huge investments in uranium in Niger. Mines owned by Chinese companies, in partnership with the Niger government, are being developed in Azelik, which is now a center of a rush of Chinese investment and immigration.
But a drop in global uranium prices following the Japanese Fukushima disaster are coupling with local tensions over the Chinese influence in the area are creating challenges for the project. Despite a Chinese commitment of $300 million for the mine development, to date no uranium has been extracted.
Instead, locals say that the mining operation took advantage of local workers, and has resulted in pollution that has sickened their animals and diminished critical water resources. They also note that profits from mining exports have not helped Niger’s people, but instead have gone to foreign corporations.
China currently operates 26 nuclear reactors, with plans to build 24 more.
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