198 (04.07.18)

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2. Agadez, Niger

How uranium trucks in the Sahara keep the lights on in Paris

In landlocked Niger, on the southern edge of the Sahara, near a trading town called Agadez, deep terraces have been cut into the desert, the pockmarks of two huge uranium mines open since the 1970s. Niger is one of the world's poorest countries but the fourth biggest uranium producer and the mines are surrounded by military bases. France has 4,000 troops in the region and the US recently opened a $110m drone facility near the mines, which are owned by Areva, a private company controlled by the French presidential palace. Every week, a convoy of trucks leave the mines, carrying locked, numbered drums of yellowcake (ore that has been crushed and washed with acid). The convoy is escorted by soldiers and monitored from a response centre near Paris, bombing south down one of Niger's only paved roads, known as the Uranium Highway. Block the road and fridges and kettles would switch off across France, in theory at least. In reality, it is routinely blocked by herds of marauding goats and France is kept going by stockpiles. The convoy crosses the border into Benin, the drums are loaded onto trains and railed to Cotonou harbour, where they are counted and checked in a buffer zone, before being shipped round the coast to the Mediterranean, unloaded at a French port and taken to a nuclear facility built in an old sulphur quarry. The yellowcake is purified, then enriched, turning it into tiny pellets that fuel France's fleet of nuclear submarines, plus four vast nuclear reactors that are designed to withstand missile strikes. French president Emmanuel Macron is trying to shift the country to renewables, but over 70 per cent of its electricity currently comes from nuclear energy and Niger is its largest source of uranium. Areva's mines pay royalties in Niger, but are exempt from most taxes and Areva's revenue is bigger than the country's state budget. Niger's president, Mahamadou Issoufou, previously worked on site; he now has a PR firm in Paris. Whilst France uses its power to fuel its $2.5 trillion economy, Niger's own electricity comes from diesel. After uranium, its other exports include camel milk, peanuts and dates.

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15 days

Shipping time from Cotonou in Benin to the south of France; the logistics of the trade route are kept secret

6.4m lbs

Niger exported 6.4m lbs of uranium in its most recent set of annual export figures, equal to 2,900 tonnes. France has 58 nuclear reactors, which use around 8,000 tonnes of uranium each year


Niger's uranium exports have dropped sharply with prices, down from a peak of $670m in 2011. Other exports include dates and peanuts