There is a meme circulating on web claiming that France’s intervention in Mali can be traced to a desire to capture the country’s uranium resources. That idea is complete and utter rubbish that can only be believed by people who have done no math and no research to recognize whether such a theory can be supported by facts and logic.
There is a certain set of facts that would lead gullible people to believe the theory that the conflict in Mali has something to do with uranium. It is true that France obtains roughly 80% of its electricity supply from the output of 59 nuclear reactors. It is also true that reactors operate by fissioning uranium. It is also true that nations, especially former colonial powers like France, have a long history of engaging in war over resources. In fact, the notion that resource conflicts underly many of society’s deadliest conflicts is one of the concepts that motivates me to do what I do every day.
However, a curious person who is willing to do a little research and math needs more information before jumping to conclusions about France’s motivations for intervening in Mali. Here is a set of relevant questions that are not hard to answer; those answers determine if the theory holds any water.
- How much uranium does Mali have?
- How much uranium does France need?
- How much would it cost France to buy the material? (Stated another way, how much is Mali’s uranium worth on the open market?)
- Is there an adequate supply of uranium from other sources?
- How much will intervention cost in the short term?
The World Nuclear Association has two relevant web pages, one titled Supply of Uranium and one titled World Uranium Mining. Mali does not appear on either page, indicating that it has neither world leading uranium resources, nor any substantial uranium production.
Digging a little deeper into the sources claiming that uranium is the key to understanding the motives for the Mali conflict, I found a site published by a firm called Consultancy Africa Intelligence that has a page about Mali’s mining industry and natural resources. Buried in the discussion about gold and diamonds, I found the following statement:
Several companies in Mali are currently carrying out uranium exploration in the Falea and Gao regions, where the uranium potential is estimated to be 5,200 tonnes.
Going back to those pages from the World Nuclear Association, I found that the world’s uranium mining industry produced 54,000 tonnes of uranium in 2011 and that the world’s known recoverable resources were 5.3 million tonnes as of the end of 2011. Next to those numbers, a speculative, “potential” resource of 5,200 tonnes is trivial.
Aside: Unlike many people who might be taken in by the false story, the numbers I already knew about uranium were very close to the numbers I found from that credible source. I have been actively researching and covering the topic for years. I have been engaged in a discussion about a uranium deposit that is less than an hour from my house that has been fully explored to determine that it contains 119 million pounds (54,000 tonnes).
That single, well characterized resource is ten times the speculative total attributed to the entire country of Mali. Many people oppose the mine and believe that its value is not worth the effort and extremely low risk associated with the potential for causing damage to distant neighbors. However, according to conspiracy theorists who want to put nuclear energy and uranium resources into the same category as oil and gas (with limitations on supply and delivery systems that are sufficient to motivate fighting), France should be making plans to invade Virginia. End Aside.
Once again, I turned to the World Nuclear Association for my data. France uses approximately 10,500 tonnes of uranium each year. About 45% of that total is mined in Canada and 32% is mined in Niger (a neighbor of Mali) by Areva, a company whose major stockholder is the French government. It purchases its remaining needs, mostly under long term contracts with suppliers in Australia, Kazakhstan and Russia. In addition, France has a stockpile of 220,000 tonnes of depleted uranium, a recycling program and a fast reactor research, development, and demonstration program. It has no long term supply problems.
If France wanted more uranium, it could turn to the open market for spot purchases. According to UxC, a consulting firm that tracks uranium deals, the current market price is $42 per pound of U3O8, which is roughly $52 per pound of uranium. Purchasing an amount equal to Mali’s entire speculative resources would only cost $600 million. It is a huge stretch to believe that any country, especially one as large and as wealthy as France would decide to go to war over a speculative resource that would be worth that tiny amount of money (in the big scheme of things) even if it was able to be fully extracted.
One more variation on the story that is almost not worth mentioning is the idea that France is fighting in Mali to protect its supply lines to Niger, where Areva currently produces about 3,200 tonnes of uranium every year. Since it would be shipped in the form of yellowcake (U3O8) and not uranium, France needs to move about 4,000 tonnes of material from Niger each year.
A document that I downloaded from the Uranium Council Transport Working Group provides a depth of information about methods for shipping uranium oxide. A typical means of packaging the material for shipment is to seal the yellowcake into drums and then pack those drums into a standard 20 TEU shipping container. Full containers contain about 19 tonnes of U3O8 concentrate. Shipping 4,000 tonnes would thus require about 210 containers each year. That is not much more than one truck every 2 days.
Do you really believe that small of a transportation requirement would justify fighting over supply lines?
Hat tip to No Agenda show 480 for introducing me to this false meme that needed some immediate debunking. I enjoy listening to Adam Curry and John C. Dvorak assassinating the way that the commercial media covers stories, so I was a little disappointed to hear that John was taken in by the notion that France might be fighting so that it could take Mali’s uranium. Adam thought there might be an oil, gas or pipeline angle to the story – I have not done enough research to confirm or deny that theory.