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Niger uranium mine ends operations after 47 years

Production at the Cominak uranium mine at Akouta in Niger came to an end yesterday after over 40 years of operations during which it produced more than 75,000 tU. The mine has now entered the remediation phase, which will also include action to address the impact of the mine’s closure on its employees and on local communities. Cominak’s board of directors announced in October 2019 that the mine would close this month due to depletion of its resources.

Orano is the majority owner of Cominak (Compagnie Minière d’Akouta). Orano CEO Philippe Knoche yesterday paid tribute to all the miners who have worked at the project. “They have passed on a tremendous heritage to us. Orano will keep this heritage alive and remains committed to Niger with investments to extend the life of the Somair mining site and the development of the Imouraren project.”

Uranium was discovered at Akouta, in the department of Arlit, 1200 kilometres north-west of Niamey, in 1967. Cominak, a public limited company under Nigerien law, was set up in 1974 and production began in 1978. The underground mine, located at a depth of 250 metres, is accessed via a 1300-metre decline and consists of 291km of galleries. Its ore processing plant has a capacity of around 1500 tonnes per year. According to Orano, at the end of 2020 the project provided work for 617 employees and 630 sub-contractors.

Measures put in place to help those employees include an already operational outplacement unit and training sessions leading to professional qualifications. The remediation plan also envisages a community involvement component with a transition plan drawn up in consultation with stakeholders. Measures will also be taken to support the local economy, in particular through aid for entrepreneurs, healthcare, the education system and the transfer of infrastructure managed by Cominak to the state of Niger.

“For Cominak, the aim is to be an integral part of a long-term, sustainable social transition that is of practical benefit for the local population,” the company said.

Operations to remediate the site are expected to last for at least 10 years, with environmental monitoring continuing after the completion of remediation work at least five years.

“These works will make it possible to hand back a site that is safe and compliant with national standards, international recommendations and Orano standards in terms of safety and radiation protection,” Orano said.

The work will be financed in part by a fund set up several years ago by Cominak and by its shareholders.

Orano Mining holds 59% of Cominak’s capital, with Niger assets mining company Sopamin holding 31% and Enusa of Spain holding 10%. Orano earlier this year acquired Overseas Uranium Resources Development Co (OURD) of Japan’s 25% share in the company. OURD at that time contributed 25% of the estimated costs of dismantling and transition.

According to World Nuclear Association, production from Niger’s two mines – Somair and Cominak – accounted for around 5% of world uranium output. Work to bring a third mine, Imouraren, into production has been suspended since 2015 pending more favourable market conditions.

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