France does not need Mali’s uranium despite all conspiracy stories to the contrary
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.
Great work Rod – but small correction if I may
“About 45% of that total is mined in France and 32% is mined in Niger (a neighbor of Mali)”
That’s not quite right – France hardly produces any uranium at all. The paper you refer to actually states “France uses some 12,400 tonnes of uranium oxide concentrate (10,500 tonnes of U) per year for its electricity generation. Much of this comes from Areva in Canada (4500 tU/yr) …”
Just to add some thoughts on debunking the ‘supply line’ idea.
It appears that the Niger uranium mining is in western Niger towards the Mali border, but there are no major roads from Niger into Mali in that area. The roads go north and south not west.
So my guess is that the material would be trucked either north through Algeria to a Mediterranean port or south through Benin or Nigeria to an Atlantic port.
Heck with you numbers showing one shipping container every two days or so you could almost use a large cargo aircraft, 19 tonnes is about the same as a light tank and those are easily airlifted.
But then why did Hollande state a few days ago that he would not step into Mali without instructions from the United Nations or a similar organisation.
France did move in on their own with no such resolutions. So what is the motivation today as opposed to a few days ago ? I do not know the answer but your analysis of the Uranium motivation is strong.
My speculation: because France doesn’t like a region only a small sea away to be further destabilised. And going in without an UN resolution, IIRC they did the same in Ruanda to stop the massacre there in the ’90s. France doesn’t seem to give very much weight to resolutions and sometimes goes its own way with or without approval from the others.
Protecting economic interests could be a part of the reason behind sending troops there, but I guess most of it is politics.
Since Phénix has been shut down 3 years ago and the Flamanville EPR is not anywhere near completion yet there are actually 58 NPP Units in France at the moment.
“France should be making plans to invade Virginia”
OMG – I just heard a rumor that Areva has established a facility (a forward reconnaissance enclave?) in Lynchburg. In fact Rod may pass by it on his way to work.
It’s all becoming clear now. Those devilish Frogs! Please help sound the alarm to The Internet!
I smell another Red Dawn remake… Bleu Dawn?
“Bombarded with the miasma of bleu cheese and garlic, the poor Virginians never had a chance.”
Call it the war of 2013. 201 years after our last bout with the Brits.
Historically speaking, the French “invasion” of Virginia for its nuclear energy related assets started in the early 1990s when Framatome (one of the companies that was combined to form the current Areva) purchased the commercial nuclear business of B&W, my current employer.
Areva’s North American headquarters is right here in Lynchburg. There was a time, when it looked like the Unistar Alliance was going to be building at least a half a dozen EPRs, when Areva was hiring about 500 new engineering employees in the area every year.
I work with a pretty fair concentration of those exceptional people every day. Lynchburg is still a hotbed of nuclear innovation; displays some of the characteristics of a typical cluster of businesses in the same general technology field.
That’s one of the reasons I am working hard to share what I know about the lack of risk associated with uranium mining. We can always use some more good nukes (that is Navy slang for people who are nuclear trained) in the area.
The following map shows it will hard for us to claim historical rights over Virginia, it was an English colony from the very start : http://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/f/f8/Nouvelle-France1750.png
OTOH if ever there’s also some in Kentucky … 😉
More seriously, the connexion to Niger is not utterly stupid. We have four hostages that were captured by AQIM in the mining site of Arlit 2 years ago. If this al-Qaeda linked movement were to take over the whole of Mali, it could lead major scale attacks on Niger and make uranium mining there impossible. There would of course still be many other option for France to get uranium. But such a situation helps feeling concerned about what happens in Mali.
It must however be said that they are quite a few Malians living in France, and the reaction I’ve seen up to now from them is always : “Please, please help us ! Please expel those terrorists out of our country !”
Here’s a paper about that :
– “About 100,000 Malians live in France” (over a population of 14,5 millions. It’s like if 1.4 millions Americans were living in France)
– “Doucoure said Malians will never forget the military help that France has offered. He hopes the French soldiers in Mali stay safe.”
Robert Fawler a retired canadian diplomat who was an hostage of AQIM is fully in favor of France intervention and his opinion of what would happen if we let AQIM rule Mali is very clear :
Actually Canada has much more at stake in Mali with it’s gold mines than does France :
Here is an article dated yesterday stating that the french military are in Mali for … their Uranium …
I do agree with your position however …
Oups … Sorry, french military in Niger to protect Uranium mines due to unrest in neighbor Mali …
This appears to be a coordinated action, despite how it is being reported in the press. British and French aircraft, and refueling provided by US. The Mali government mishandled a rebellion in the north, and now Western nations (under the auspices of counter-terrorism) are attempting to provide assistance where they are able (in an effort to prevent the area from becoming a larger hot spot for terrorism and muslim extremists).
Retaliation from groups such as Al Qaeda has been quick, and focused on Western installations in the region (gas field in Algeria, and it appears uranium installations in Nigeria are also at risk). French special forces have been sent to Nigeria to protect up to 2,700 national citizens (existing mines, and a mining operation in development), and they did so before seeking permission of the Nigerian government (highlighting the seriousness of the concern). Muslim extremists have said they are taking these actions: “in response to France’s operation, Algeria’s decision to open its airspace to the French and western looting of the country’s natural resources.”
So yes, the actions in Mali were not taken to protect uranium resources in Nigeria, but uranium resources in Nigeria are nevertheless involved. And there appears to be a reasonable case that these tensions are long standing, and have been historically rooted in long-standing conflicts with Western imperial powers, and natural resource development in the region (the predominant resources being gold, oil, natural gas, and uranium).
I think that the Mali conflict has something to do with the uranium mines from Arlit, Niger.
Well … the region is a mess, and Niger is one of the poorest places in the world (with wages at $1 day). I suppose it depends on what you think are the sources of the Toureg Rebellion, and the demands of the rebels (“the National Movement for the Liberation of the Azawad,” or NMLA) which appears to have strong political ties to the former Gadhafi regime. They deny having any ties to Al Qaeda (who appear to be just another group of opportunists looking to capitalize on the growing discontent and trouble in the region). So a lot of people seem to want a piece of the action in the region (Libyans, Al Qaeda, drug trafficking warlords, Malinese, Toureg separatists, UK, France, US, Canadians, Chinese). But NMLA is an independence movement, “the Lost Lords of the Sahara,” and they appear to want their political unity back, tribal independence, and cultural freedoms (despite many decades of being robbed of them or taken by force “in their view”). Whether this is a realistic demand or not (and whether an armed rebellion is way to go about this), well, this is entirely a different question? It’s quite possible the movement has been hijacked by more extreme Gadhafi loyalists who are just looking for another fight to pick (and those impoverished masses of the Toureg mainstream caught in the middle).
Here are two articles that shed some light on the conflict (and uranium, or more broadly natural resource interests in the region, do seem to be playing a role).
Yes, poverty appears to be as much a cause as anything else (and colonial powers taking up stakes and advancing rational self interest for natural resources in the region). Also a concern, however, it seems to me to be Gadhafi thugs spilling over the border (and ethnic Touregs once again caught in the middle). Maybe they are fierce nomads standing up for their cultural and tribal independence with guns, or maybe the majority of them are nomadic families residing on their grazing grounds (decimated by drought) and content to be left alone. Whatever the case, it’s clearly very completed. Maybe this is a compelling example of climate impacts, and regions that are currently experiencing social displacements (and lost of traditional livelihoods) as a consequence of prolonged drought?
Your figures are not accurate. Mali has the 5th largest uranium reserves. Like many resource exploration projects, exact figures are not made available to the public. That would spoil large deals.
However before extractive industries can move into the country, a friendly government must rise to power.
That is important information. Do you have any sources that can be made available so that we can see for ourselves? The sources I quoted in my post are quite reliable, but obviously the WNA would depend on reported finds from other organizations. When you say “5th largest uranium reserves” is that on a world wide basis, putting Mali just ahead of Niger, its neighbor?
this is for you Mr researcher: the idea of invasion its not about how much the malian uranium its worth? but rather who could buy it? dont forget that you have an emerging nucluar power!!!!!!!!! Iran of cource.
that what explain the stock that frence have. they could use that mony to pay their own depths. the idea is who can controle it from those emerging power even if it cost to much for theur own national economy. its an old game just open your eyse.
do you beleive that canada is going to sell uranium to Iran or North corea?
Mr. Adams unfortunately misses the point entirely, and his numbers count for nothing. Of course France is concerned about its uranium mines in Niger that supply 1/3 of France`s annual uranium consumption. The concern here is not about supply lines, but radical Islam trying to take over Mali, and a possible spill over into Niger.
So, rather than supply lines the French are concerned about the future of the MINES themselves and what could happen if you have a radical muslim revolution in Niger denying France access to these mines. Yes, France doesn`t need Mali`s uranium ores, but that`s simply not the point.
Btw., this is not a conspiracy theory, only a geopolitical analysis at the present situation where we have had radical muslim takeovers in many North African and potentially Middle East countries.
Think again Mr. Adams, and think hard!
Please read my post again more carefully. I was responding to a specific theory that was being bandied about that said that France was interested in Mali’s uranium. That is not the case.
I agree that there is a reason for concern about spill over into Niger. That is a plausible explanation.
Check out what this Belgian MP says about France in Mali! Please check the CC (closed caption) in the bottom right of screen if nec. : http://youtu.be/vUAFCXCZ6MI
MP Laurent Louis seems to oppose all intervention (Mali, LIbya, Syria, Iraq, Afghanistan, Iran). And his diatribe against US and neocolonialism is boilerplate (and is unspecific). Think Dennis Kucinich.
The government has lost control over northern Mali, and it’s currently a lawless region that is getting picked clean by folks with very big guns and have little else to offer but mayhem, intimidation, and despair for local populations. They mainly come from Libya and are interested in proxy battles (not independence or greater human rights for the region’s minorities). France (with help from US, England, and even the UN), are not taking over Mali. They are helping government restore order, and they are looking to contain the spread of blood and mayhem from remnants of Kadhafi’s regime in Libya. There are long standing human rights and colonial struggles here, for sure, local populations do want greater independence and decision making (but this is not what intervention is about). And the best way to get this with a stronger Mali State … one able to protect and defend rule of law, peace and order, and defend autonomous rights (perhaps even resource sharing) for local communities in the North. To do nothing is not a particularly attractive or consistent approach to the alternative.
As usual the facts do not support Rod Adam’s opinions – France protects Niger uranium mine , http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-africa-21318043
As usual, an informationally-challenged anti-nuke fails to realize that a “Niger uranium mine” is in … well … Niger, an entirely different country than Mali.
Geography has many useful facts.
Fantastic article! Well written, well argued…
“The nation has considerable natural resources, with gold, uranium, phosphates, kaolinite, salt and limestone being most widely exploited. Mali is estimated to have in excess of 17,400 tonnes of uranium (measured + indicated + inferred). In 2012 a further uranium mineralized north zone was identified.”
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