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In light of the recent attack on a Nigerien uranium mine in Arlit, Niger, it is worth taking a step away from fossil fuels to examine the nuclear side of energy.

French Nuclear Ambitions

France is known for, amongst other things, its reliance on nuclear power to deliver electricity to its citizens. Électricité de France exists as a public company with majority ownership by the French state and manages most French electricity production.

According to the EIA, France generated 530 billion kWh in 2011. Of this, the majority came from nuclear, and the rest from a mixture of fossil fuels and renewables. This is the breakdown:

  • 420 billion kWh from nuclear – 79.24%
  • 45 billion kWh from all fossil fuel sources – 8%
  • 44 billion kWh from hydroelectric – 8%
  • 22 billion kWh from renewables – 4%

French installed capacity for electricity generation, meaning total capacity of currently installed generators, expressed in kilowatts (kW), totaled 124 million kW in 2010. If the entirety of French capacity operated 24/7 for a full year, it would be capable of generating 1.086 trillion kWh. For comparison, the world consumed 18 trillion kWh in 2010.

The following list shows the breakdown of French installed capacity in 2010:

  • 63 million kW of nuclear – 50.8%
  • 27.4 million kW of fossil fuels – 22.09%
  • 18 million kW of hydroelectric – 14.51%
  • 8.5 million kW of renewables – 6.8%
  • 6.9 million kW of pumped storage hydro – 5.5%

If all French nuclear plants operated at 100% capacity for a full year, they would be able to generate 551,880 million kWh, which is more than French consumption in 2011. In this sense, France is very secure in electricity production as long as it can continue operating its nuclear reactors and retain the other sources of energy

Compiling data from the International Atomic Energy Agency, French nuclear reactors operated at a capacity factor of 73.73% in 2012. For comparison, US reactors operated at a capacity factor of 91%.

Giving some attention to the systemic issues with French energy, it is important to note that France achieves its high level of nuclear power generation because it is able to export to neighboring countries. According to the French General Commission on Sustainable Development, France exported 56.4 billion kWh in 2011.

The following list shows French net electricity exports by country in 2011:

  • Germany – 20.2 billion kWh
  • Italy – 13.3 billion kWh
  • Switzerland – 10.7 billion kWh
  • UK – 5.8 billion kWh
  • Belgium and Luxembourg – 4.9 billion kWh
  • Spain – 1.7 billion kWh

According to the World Nuclear Association, France will require 9254 tons of uranium in 2013 or roughly 13% of world demand. The uranium markets operate on a contractual basis of 3-15 years, and as a spot market, which constitutes less than 20% of supply.  According to Reuters, France received about 18% of its uranium from Niger in 2008.

Uranium mining provides the primary supply, but the secondary supply, resulting from “commercial stockpiles, nuclear weapons stockpiles, recycled plutonium and uranium from reprocessing used fuel, and some from re-enrichment of depleted uranium tails” provides additional energy security. These stockpiles are difficult to quantify due to commercial confidentiality, but they are estimated to be near 154,000 tons of uranium.

Uranium Mine Attacks in Niger

Although the event was not covered very well in the US, extremists attacked two towns in Niger on May 23, 2013.  One attack occurred at a military base in Agadez and another at a uranium mine in Arlit. The attacks were coordinated, occurring simultaneously. According to NPR, Moktar Belmoktar, the extremist behind the Algerian attacks in January, claimed responsibility for the attack on Arlit, while the Movement for Oneness and Jihad in West Africa (MUJAO), an affiliate of Al Qaeda, claimed responsibility for both attacks. The attacks on Algeria already had potential effects, which have been described here before. 

Africa Map.

Legend:

  • Red represents areas in Mali outside of government control. 
  • Green represents Niger
  • Black dots represent recent terrorist attacks. 

Effectively, large swathes of the Sahara lays ungoverned and provide a base of operations for extremists in the area. French intervention in Mali has halted further gains, but the French presence in Niger, limited to special forces allowed to secure mining operations, is hardly a full commitment, allowing the extremists to become bolder in their attacks.

Implications of Uranium Production Disruption

Although France depends on nuclear power for its electricity at the present, supply shocks from Niger will not definitively endanger France. France is diversified enough to withstand such a shock, being capable of generating as much power from non-nuclear sources as from nuclear. The country focuses on energy security, and its stockpiles of uranium, though the numbers are confidential, are likely to be ample enough to withstand a disruption in Nigerien uranium production. One must note that Germany and Japan are decreasing their use of nuclear, driving down prices and making more uranium available. Simultaneously, Chinese growth in nuclear pushes up demand and prices. Furthermore, France could tap into other countries’ secondary supplies if necessary and possibility import electricity if absolutely necessary. As a result, the threat to France is only minimal at this point.

However, the main threat rests with increased energy and commodity prices as a result of diminished supply and shift to other fuels for power generation. The market tends to react to such events;  the attack on Arlit on May 23 caused a small spike in uranium prices. However, spot prices are somewhat difficult to gauge because of the limited market. Electricity prices in Europe will likely rise in the case of a Nigerien supply shock because the French electricity export market affects  neighboring countries, especially Germany as it decreases its own capacity for nuclear power. This carries both political and economic risk as several governments face uncertainty and unpopularity at home while economies are teetering on the brink of recession. As a result of these woes, the effect of additional pressures in the form of a uranium supply shock is multiplied. Furthermore, Russia becomes relatively more powerful as it has the potential to supply natural gas to mitigate the effects of such a shock. Given Gazprom’s history of monopolistic pricing, it would likely take advantage of the situation for both political and economic gain. Gazprom is slowly succumbing to the pressure of mismanagement and seeks to reverse its decline; a disruption in the normal energy order within France would provide a lucrative opportunity.

Political and Military Security Risks of Expanding Extremist Influence

If the extremists in West Africa are able to continue carrying out such attacks and gain unmolested safe havens in the vast lawless areas of the region, then both Europe and West Africa will suffer. Successful attacks are inherently legitimizing to a group such as MUJAO, even if they fail to cause catastrophic damage; they are used as a tool of recruitment for the decentralized networks of fighters. Furthermore, the countries in the region are hardly developed and are lacking in capacity to withstand such incursions. Even oil-rich Nigeria can scarcely contain the fomenting insurgency within its own borders. In a positive feedback loop, successful attacks beget additional followers and cells, which culminate in additional attacks and further reach, especially into Chad and down into the energy rich coastal region. These safe havens also allow for the opportunity to plan attacks against Europe for further legitimization. However, the West African desert is not like Afghanistan in that it is much more inhospitable. If the terrorist threat is not addressed, the risk of collapse, coups, and political instability is heightened while Europe becomes exposed to low-level terrorist attacks if the extremists gain a foothold there.

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