NIAMEY (Reuters) - Niger has announced it will renew uranium exploration permits which expired largely unexploited during a period of unrest and begin an overhaul of its mining code to boost the sector’s productivity.
The top uranium supplier to France’s nuclear industry has attracted billions of dollars in investments but development has slowed in recent years due to political instability, simmering rebellion, and an uptick in al Qaeda-linked kidnappings in the lawless Sahel part of West Africa.
Tuareg militants waged a low-level insurgency from 2007 to 2009 in the country’s northern desert, leading Niger’s government to declare a state of emergency in the zone where foreign firms held more than 100 3-year exploration permits, hindering mining activity.
“Among the 158 exploration permits we’ve provided, there are today about 130 related to uranium and these are the ones affected by the period of emergency,” Souleymane Mamadou Abba, mines minister in the junta-ruled country, said late on Tuesday.
“We will renew these for all who have requested it. Those who have not requested it are welcome to do so,” he told state radio.
France’s Areva is Niger’s largest uranium player and is in the process of developing what could be Africa’s largest uranium deposit — Imouraren — with first production expected in 2013 or 2014.
Five French nationals, including an Areva worker and his wife, were taken hostage by al Qaeda’s North African wing in September in the latest in a slew of kidnappings in the vast and lawless Sahel analysts say could hinder investment.
Chinese companies have also committed large sums to develop Niger’s uranium and energy resources.
Abba said Niger planned to start a nationwide survey of its minerals resources that could be completed by 2030, and would also review its mining code to update environmental regulations and the framework governing production, processing, labour, and transport.
“At the moment, we barely know 17 percent of what our land contains in minerals resources,” he said.
He did not provide details on planned changes to the mining code, or the timeframe for the overhaul.
“There’s a legal vacuum in this industry. We’re going to have a close look at this with legislation covering mines, workers, transport vehicles — in short, the entire chain will be regulated,” he said.
Niger has been ruled by a military junta since a February coup toppled former President Mamadou Tandja, widely viewed by Nigeriens as corrupt. But the junta has promised a return to civilian rule through elections within one year.