Sunday, May 19, 2013

The Song of the Gallic Rooster

Post by from "The Oil Crash" - Translation from Spanish by Max Iacono

As another example of the complex relation of mineral depletion, the economy, and the tendency of grabbing what is left, one way or another, this article by Antonio Turiel sheds plenty of light on the difficulties that the nuclear industry has in obtaining a steady supply of uranium

by Antonio Turiel

"All told," I say, "I would say that if France has invaded Mali,  it’s for the uranium.  You know that don’t you?"  

"Of course I do!  Everyone knows it."

Night was falling,  cold,  rainy and dark,  over Bordeaux.  I found myself looking at my friend, once my boss.  He was looking at the ground and then continued in a calm voice:

"France has 89 nuclear power stations, 59 of which are commercial.  83% of the electricity produced comes from nuclear sourcing.  We can’t do without uranium."

I didn’t say anything and we continued walking.  I had lived for several years in France and at the time I didn’t quite understand how to interpret the curious display of cynicism and pragmatism with which the French public accepted certain kinds of barbaric actions  which their government committed in the name of “La France”.


For a few weeks, France has been at war.  Several thousand soldiers and dozens of armored vehicles have been deployed to the battlefront in Mali.  The objective:  to prevent the advance of the Islamic front which has rebelled in the north of the country after the fall of Gheddafi in Lybia, and also due to the fear that the country could transform itself into one of the various nests of Jihad which is threatening the western world.  Or at least this is, broadly speaking, the official explanation.

Gheddafi had kept himself in power thanks to mercenary units formed starting with various Tuareg desert tribes,  and these mercenaries,  -upon the fall of the Lybian dictator, -and together with the training and military equipment they had received,- took refuge with their cousins in Mali.  In Mali and in Niger, for several years and periodically from time to time,  various armed groups rebelled calling for and seeking better living conditions for the Tuareg.  However this time their military capacities were considerably more significant.  In just over a year the Tuareg took control of two thirds of the country and without Mali’s weak and corrupt army being able to do much to stop them:  That the problem has the character of a civil war is evidenced also by the fact that not just a few of the various army units switched sides, something also indicating that Mali’s government does not have the unconditional support of its population.

In fact before France began its bombings on the 11th of January, both factions had agreed to a cease fire and were negotiating a peace accord.  Nonetheless, France pretended to present the internal conflict as a battle for democracy and against Islamic fundamentalism and organized a coalition of African countries as a defense force.   And this, so as not to appear like the old colonialist power which interferes in the affairs of its ex colony.  And it even managed to secure a UN resolution to justify the intervention.  But the support of its allies was nonetheless lukewarm.  Other than some words of support from the United States and some cargo airplanes from its European allies, France found itself alone in its fighting in Mali, while the African coalition force is yet to arrive. The fact is that France started to deploy its troops without waiting for anyone else as soon it found itself facing the real possibility that the government of Mali could fall,  and that the Tuareg could come to power.

What is driving France in this manner in Mali?  It is neither petroleum nor gas, primary resources whose potentially exploitable quantities in the country are not significant,  and which also easily could be obtained elsewhere.  Nor is it the precious metals that the country is rich in.  Rather, what is driving France to act at this time is uranium and, moreover, from a double perspective, that is, both short-term and long- term.

In the long term exploiting the uranium mines in Mali will be fundamental to satisfying the Gallic hunger for uranium on which depends its entire industrial model - one of which they are also often proud,  given that they consider the nuclear energy which is produced as indigenous (notwithstanding the fact that the base fuel, uranium, is obtained outside the country)

The quantities of uranium in Mali are significant but not spectacular, -(if one considers that at Falea there are roughtly 5,000 tons of natural uranium which is equivalent to recharging ten times – once every 18 months-  a nuclear power plant of one Gigawatt capacity,   and that the exploration phase for additional uranium is not even yet complete)  But in any case, these mines will be indispensable in the future.  And in the short term, the aspect for which Mali is crucial for France is for the transportation of uranium from Niger – not to be confused with Nigeria.  This is indeed truly fundamental for French industry:  One third of the uranium which is consumed in the old metropolitan country comes from the territory of Niger.  And the uranium resources of Niger are truly important and significant and  are among the largest in the world….

France has suffered many setbacks in Niger, which just like Mali , is one of its old colonies.  Throughout the years the governments of Niger have been rather docile and have allowed the extraction of their uranium at low cost and without having to include or internalize the costs of the environmental damage that extraction generated.  The majority of the mines are open-pit surface mines which degrade the living conditions of the peoples of Niger nearby, who often have been placed under military influence or control whenever that became necessary.  This has generated frequent revolts, strikes and increasing difficulties for the exploitation of such mines,  also due to the armed persecution on the part of separatist groups near the border with Mali.   In fact certain experts are of the opinion that behind the precipitous French action there was also the need to reinforce the security of the mines, and the observable  facts tend to confirm this directly.

To the difficulties of exploiting Niger’s uranium which already existed for some years,  now also can be added the more recent competition in the field with China, which has obtained various mining concessions in Niger and is expanding rapidly its own operations in that country.  Incapable of competing with such a powerful country,  the French company Areva opted for seeking collaboration and partnership in some mining projects, also in an attempt to lower its costs.  And this is fundamentally because the resource which it desperately needs is becoming ever more scarce, expensive and dangerous to extract in addition to now also having to be shared.

All of this scarcity on the part of our cousins on the other side of the Alps (the original article was in Spanish) takes place in a general global context  which is not at all flattering or encouraging:  Uranium is becoming more rare and scarce.  At the moment a relative stagnation is occurring in its extraction. :  According to data from the World Nuclear Association,  2012 is the the second year in a row during which global extraction has decreased.  (54,660 tons in 2010, 54,610 in 2011 and 54,221 in 2012)  Even if such oscillations of production which are observable in the historical data -coupled also with the Fukushima disaster- have decreased slightly uranium demand, there continues to be a considerable difference between the uranium which is extracted and that which is consumed;  the latter having been up to now covered by the re-cycling of uranium from Russian nuclear warheads that were being dismantled in keeping with the Megatons to Megawatts program.  Unfortunately that program will run out precisely this year, in 2013, and will not be renewed or continued, and therefore we also can expect a deficit of uranium whereby one easily can foresee a fairly serious scenario of fresh problems in its supply;  and perhaps even the precipitous arrival of the feared “peak uranium”.  And it is within this ever more tense and tight market for uranium that France is now playing out its own “raison d’etre”.

This war by France is yet another of the various wars for resources, similar to other preceding ones, and to others which will follow it.  The only thing which differentiates it from those which surely will follow it, is the extent of desperation by the aggressor.   The Industrial France which arose again with force in the twentieth century,  is now agonizing.  Its financial condition is not nearly as good or as healthy as is thought,  and probably will become prey to the same vultures which have not stopped observing and watching Spain, even if at the moment the opposite is being pretended.

France is playing with an important part of the survival of its industrial model in trying to assure its supply of uranium from Niger and Mali.  If it were now to fail, the vacillating economic and industrial fabric of France would not be able to allow itself another war.   This war is the Song of the Proud Gallic Rooster.  Perhaps its last.

Cheers, AMT


Ugo Bardi is a member of the Club of Rome, faculty member of the University of Florence, and the author of "Extracted" (Chelsea Green 2014), "The Seneca Effect" (Springer 2017), and Before the Collapse (Springer 2019)