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Africa's uranium producers stand to benefit as world reins in carbon emissions

Global warming has taken an outsized toll on many African countries. But with world uranium demand rising, there may be a way to recoup some of the losses.

By Drew HinshawCorrespondent / November 18, 2010

This undated photo provided by French nuclear manufacturer Areva shows workers at the uranium mine of Arlit, northern Niger.

AREVA/AP

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Dakar, Senegal

Here's one messy and convoluted way for the African continent to recoup the climate change losses it claimed at Copenhagen: uranium.

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The mineral-rich landmass contributes just a fraction of the airborne carbon that the world's top polluters let fly, but Africa arguably suffers global warming's brunt, as drought lines below the Sahara drift southward, one dry season after another.

Policymakers at the December 2009 conference addressed this conundrum less by promising to cut carbon emissions than by promising to budget more foreign aid for climate change-rattled countries, including $100 billion by 2020 from the US alone.

But while bureaucrats in Chad and Burkina Faso wait for agriculture aid to seep into state coffers, they may start netting a more immediate profit by auctioning off the flush radioactive rocks sitting idle in Africa's three deserts.

China and India are scouring world markets for non carbon-emitting fuels – chief among them uranium to light up the 60 new reactors the People's Republic aims to build by 2020.

That's bound to be a boon to the uranium-rich nations in Africa, from Mauritania to Uganda. In fact, the continent appears to be on the upswing for another uranium boom, the second since the 1970s, when Niger's Niamey, capital of the world's 6th top uranium exporter, transmogrified itself into a gaudy disco town in the desert.

Analysts expect uranium's going rate to notch up 32 percent in 2011, from about $40 this summer to about $60 over the next few years.

The obvious reason is China. The nation, which is working to ease its dependence on coal, is stockpiling 5,000 metric tons of uranium for its reactors this year, and plans to produce nine times as much nuclear power as it does now by the decade's end, according to the China Nuclear Energy Association. Come 2020, the World Nuclear Association expects the country to purchase at least 20,000 tons a year, nearly half of the 51,000 tons that the entire world bought last year.

By comparison, India should be buying just 8,000 tons by 2020, if, like China, it succeeds in boosting uranium purchases nearly ten-fold, which it is expected to do.

That would mark an enormous influx of government-bound royalties for a country like Malawi or Niger.

And yet, needless to say, piping money into state treasuries is a longer holler from helping subsistence farmers keep grass rooted in remote brush areas, to feed their braying goats.

Whether such governments can use their uranium slush to irrigate parched land and graft new soil, could be a fundamental question for food in the 21st century.

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