Africa’s uranium which is becoming increasingly popular for new nuclear projects is also causing geopolitical concerns, from instability in the continent’s western Sahel region to Iran’s nuclear ambitions.
While the north of Mali is still overrun by Tuareg rebels and Islamic extremists, analysts say companies and governments dealing with West African uranium are becoming increasingly nervous.
Nearby Niger, which has had its own troubled history with extremist Islamic groups and Tuareg fighters, is among the world’s top five uranium producers. But Tuareg leaders there have often been angry for not getting enough benefits from the mining in areas where they live.
In troubled Mali, where the situation was complicated by a March military coup in the capital Bamako, there is currently uranium prospecting by Canadian and Chinese companies.
Alessandro Bruno is a Canadian-based senior editor with Pro-Edge Consultants and one of their websites called the Uranium Blog. The uranium expert would not be surprised by firm international action to try and normalize the situation in Mali.
“The revolt that has taken place can easily spread to Niger. Sooner or later I think we will see some kind of action because the northern revolt right now is quite destabilizing for the region, and not just for Mali,” Bruno said.
He says he believes the U.S. government as well as former colonial power France will likely be sending more military equipment and provide more training to the armies of Niger and Mali, which they already help.
Another country which he says is very interested in obtaining West African uranium for future nuclear power plants is Saudi Arabia, which could also intervene.
According to Bruno, one country which has shown interest but has been rebuffed in West Africa is Iran. But he says Iranian officials have been trying to get uranium from other African countries, including Zimbabwe and the poorly governed Democratic Republic of Congo.
“Central government (in the DRC) does not have much control. Some governments or companies can manage to get some minerals without formal controls and sometimes there is smuggling. I am not saying there is smuggling of uranium but there is a possibility. Zimbabwe seems as far as governments are concerned the one that would be the most likely to work direct, government to government, with Iran. They are both facing sanctions. They have nothing to lose,” Bruno said.
Iran says its nuclear program is for peaceful civilian purposes, but the United States and several allies suspect Iran is trying to develop nuclear weapons.
Other sub-Saharan African countries which produce uranium in sizeable quantities are Namibia and South Africa.
University of Michigan professor Gabrielle Hecht is the author of a book published this year called “Being Nuclear: Africans and the Global Uranium Trade.”
She says the importance of Africa’s uranium in current geopolitical and even world economic discussions should not be underestimated.
“We are not talking about a small amount of uranium here. We are talking these days of a good 20 to 25 percent of the world’s uranium, that is coming or will shortly come from Africa. So our electric bills are much more tightly connected to African sources than people might initially realize,” Hecht said.
One crucial change she would like to see in Africa’s uranium sector is independent regulation, so that the industry becomes safer, less corrupt and prone to suspect deals, even if that would mean higher electricity prices for all.