After months of negotiation, the French nuclear energy group Areva has been granted a license to build and operate the Imouraren uranium mine in Niger, the biggest in Africa and the second biggest in the world.
The Imouraren deposit is the largest known uranium deposit in Africa, and the world's second largest, after Australia's Olympic Dam deposit. At a time when a number of countries are reviving their nuclear industries, this is a large-scale operation for both Niger and Areva.
Under the agreement, Areva will have a 66.65-per cent share in the newly created mining company, with the remaining 33.35 per cent being owned by the State of Niger.
Mining at Imouraren is the largest industrial project ever to be envisaged in Niger, with an ultimate annual production of 5,000 metric tons for more than 35 years, an initial investment of more than €1.2 billion ($1.6 billion) and the creation of almost 1400 direct jobs.
Uranium mining at Imouraren will be an in-situ leach (ISL) operation, with uranium dissolved from the host rock and pumped to the surface through wells.
The Imouraren deposit, which has some 146,000 tU of measured uranium resources at a grade of 0.11 per cent, was first discovered in 1966.
Mining is due to begin in 2012 and will enable Niger to double its current production, making it the world's second largest uranium producer.
Since 2006, it has granted more than a hundred exploration licenses to foreign companies, mainly Chinese, Canadian, Indian, South African and Anglo-Australian.
Areva is not the only overseas company interested in Niger's uranium. The China National Nuclear Corporation (CNNC) signed an agreement in 2006 to develop the 12,790 tU Abokorum deposit and is developing the 700 tU per year Teguida mine as well as holding rights to other deposits.
India, which pushed through the nuclear deal with the US last year to unshackle the decades old nuclear embargo, has also moved fast in sourcing for uranium in Niger, when last month, the Indian government signed a contract with the Niger government in Niamey to mine for uranium in the area of Tuareg, known potentially to hold good reserves of the precious ore.
Even prior to India signing the Indo-US nuclear treaty, Taurian Resources Private Limited, a little known mining company from Mumbai with a Rs300 crore turnover, had secured mining rights last August covering over 3,000 sq km. to explore for uranium in the Arlit region of Niger.
The estimated hold of uranium in this area is at least 30,000 metric tons of uranium, which according to experts, should be enough to meet India's requirement for the next 1,000 years.
The Earthstone Uranium FZE company headed by non-resident Indian Pankaj Shah, had secured four exploration rights from the government of Niger for uranium and associated ores.
The four permits cover an area of about 2,000 sq km and are part of the Tim Mersoi sedimentary basin. These permits are in regions now producing uranium, including the Akouta underground mine and Arlit open pit mine operated by Areva.
Earthstone Uranium FZE managed to secure these permits in spite of competition from Rio Tinto and 15 other companies.
The company will supply uranium to Indian corporations, both in private and government sectors.
Niger is the world's third largest uranium producer, after Canada and Australia. Uranium accounts for the bulk of foreign earnings in Niger and represented 70 per cent of export revenues in 1997.
Niger has two main uranium producing areas, the Arlit and Akouta situated in the north of Niger. French uranium company, Cogema operates both mining concerns.
Niger has estimated resources and reserves of over 53 000 t of uranium, producing 3,076 t of uranium in 2002.