Coup in Niger: what's at stake on the African continent

Western's interest in what is happening in Niger has little to do with defending democracy or "restoring constitutional order" in the country. The main reason is the sources of uranium, of which Niger is one of the main producers in the world.

Aug 18, 2023 - 01:00
Coup in Niger: what's at stake on the African continent
Image by CNN

In a continent like Africa, which has never known long periods of political and social stability, coups d'état are not uncommon phenomena. This time it was in Niger, as has recently happened in Burkina Faso and Mali.

With the various world interests in conflict and the presence in the territory of Russian mercenaries from the Wagner Group, it may happen that the situation in Niger turns into another "proxy war" between the Western Alies and Russia.

Niger is one of the poorest countries in the world, but the military coup in that country provoked a strong reaction from the West, particularly from France, which even threatens the former colony with a military intervention. Not to defend the people, just to protect their interests, as usual.

France has several economic interests in Niger, a landlocked country located in West Africa.  One of the most significant economic ties between France and Niger is the uranium mining sector. Niger is one of the world's top producers of uranium, a crucial element used in nuclear power generation. French energy company Orano (formerly known as Areva) has been involved in uranium mining operations in Niger for decades. France's reliance on nuclear energy has led to a strategic interest in maintaining access to uranium resources.

In fact, Niger ranks among the top uranium-producing countries in the world. It's one of the significant global producers of uranium, which is a valuable resource used primarily in nuclear energy production. Niger's uranium production contributes to the global supply of this crucial element. 

Apart from uranium, France has an interest in maintaining energy stability in the region. This is partly due to France's reliance on nuclear power and its need for resources to fuel its nuclear reactors. Ensuring a stable supply of energy resources from Niger is crucial for France's energy security.


What is this uranium used for?

The uranium mined in Niger undergoes several processing steps to convert it into nuclear fuel. After being extracted from the mines, the uranium ore is refined and processed to create uranium concentrate, also known as "yellowcake." Yellowcake is a powdered form of uranium that contains a higher concentration of uranium isotopes, particularly uranium-235.

The next step is uranium enrichment. Most nuclear reactors use uranium-235 as fuel, which needs to be enriched to increase its concentration. Enrichment involves increasing the proportion of uranium-235 in the uranium fuel to a level suitable for sustained nuclear reactions. This enriched uranium is formed into fuel rods that are used in nuclear reactors.

Enriched uranium fuel is loaded into the core of nuclear reactors. When uranium atoms undergo controlled fission (splitting) in the reactor core, a significant amount of heat is generated. This heat is used to produce steam, which then drives turbines connected to generators. The generators convert the mechanical energy from the turbines into electrical energy, producing electricity that can be distributed to homes, industries, and businesses.

The primary purpose of using uranium as nuclear fuel is to generate electricity. Nuclear power plants provide a stable and consistent source of electricity without emitting greenhouse gases or air pollutants during operation. This is in contrast to fossil fuel-based power plants that rely on coal, oil, or natural gas, which can contribute to air pollution and climate change.

Nuclear power is considered a low-carbon energy source because it doesn't produce direct carbon dioxide emissions during electricity generation. This characteristic has led some countries to include nuclear power in their energy mix as a way to reduce their carbon footprint and transition away from fossil fuels.

Uranium's primary use is in nuclear power generation, but it can also have other applications, including in scientific research, medical isotopes, and, historically, in the production of nuclear weapons. However, nuclear power generation is the most significant and widely recognized application of uranium from Niger and other uranium-producing countries.

Valérie Tellier EA Global Coordinator