French nuclear giant to explore potential of uranium deposit in Niger
French nuclear giant, Orano, and the Niger government, are exploring the potential of a uranium site in Imouraren in the northern Arlit region.
One of the world’s less advanced countries, Niger is also home to one of the planet’s biggest sources of uranium, the main source of nuclear fuel.
The Imouraren project, some 80 kilometres south of the town of Arlit, was put on hold in 2015 after the price of uranium collapsed following the 2011 Fukushima disaster in Japan.
Instead of open-pit mining, the team is now studying the in-situ recovery (ISR) method of extraction at the site which is estimated to hold 200,000 tonnes of the metal.
“We are relaunching the project following several hydro-geological studies that lead us to believe that the ISR method may be very interesting for the exploitation of this deposit,” said Matthieu Davrinche, director of Imouraren SA, a joint enterprise between Orano and the Niger government.
This method involves using chemicals to dissolve uranium from the rock that is still in the ground and pumping it to the surface – rather than conventional mining.
“We want to go all the way to see if this methodology is appropriate. It would be one of the first applications in Africa and afterwards, why not develop it for other types of minerals like copper or gold,” he said.
Environmental and health concerns
There has been growing resentment in the town of Arlit over health and environmental concerns after Orano closed another uranium mine in the region in 2021.
Locals are worried about the method that will be used to rehabilitate the heaps of partially radioactive waste left from four decades of operations.
Orano plans to level out the waste and seal it under a two-metre-deep cap of waterproofed clay and sandstone, in addition to monitoring air and water in the area for at least five years.
But there are fears that cracks could develop in the cover resulting in leaks of radon — a cancer-causing radioactive gas derived from the natural breakdown of uranium.
A French watchdog, the Independent Research and Information Commission on Radioactivity, has described the waste as a “sword of Damocles” hanging over the area’s water supply.