As India forays into various civil nuclear co-operation agreements with countries such as France, Russia and the US, India’s policy planners should well remember that there are smaller but important players in the nuclear energy market. Just as it is important for India to be a member of the Nuclear Suppliers Group (NSG) and be on the right side of the NSG, it is also equally important for us as a sovereign nation to have access to nuclear fuel and raw material legitimately from all commercial sources. Time and again, in the procurement of hydrocarbons and raw materials, we have lost out to China, which has made major inroads into Africa’s hydrocarbon and mineral market. It is time for us to plan proactively since nuclear energy is going to constitute a significant part of our total national energy requirements in the 21st century. We don’t always have to look up to Uncle Sam for our nuclear energy requirements and the ways to obtain reliable sources of raw material for nuclear fuel.
It is likely that there will be a significant lag period in developing thorium fired nuclear energy reactors. It is also a fact that we as a nation will not be able to mine uranium in Meghalaya on a larger scale owing to political reasons. Japan is still reluctant to do nuclear commerce with India. We continue to have difficulty with Australia in brokering a civil nuclear energy agreement. They refuse to sell uranium to India while doing so without any qualms to China. Such a scenario limits our sources of raw uranium for nuclear energy production. We will have to diversify our sources for raw uranium for our nuclear energy needs. It is thus time to look to other sources for our requirements, a possible source being the Republic of Niger, a developing, landlocked, Francophone country of fifteen million tribal population.
The Republic of Niger has been troubled by numerous military coups but still maintains a legal, rule-based system of international commerce. It remains at peace with its neighbours. Niger pursues a moderate foreign policy and maintains friendly relations with the West and the Islamic world as well as non-aligned countries. It belongs to the United Nations and its main specialised agencies and in 1980-81 served on the UN Security Council. It maintains a special relationship with its former colonial power France. Indeed, France had provided India with nuclear fuel for the Tarapore Nuclear reactor (TAPS) when the US reneged on the bilateral contractual agreement. France had taken a very pragmatic view of Pokhran-II in 1998 unlike rest of the Western world. France has been an ardent supporter of India’s civilian nuclear programme even prior to the 2005 Indo-US agreement. France had signed a civil nuclear agreement with India following the Nuclear Suppliers Group (NSG) waiver which preceded the formal Indo-US agreement. India needs to exploit the special relationship France enjoys with the Republic of Niger in forging a trilateral nuclear commercial and mercantile relationship.
The Republic of Niger’s subsistence economy is based on two or three commodities. Uranium ore (yellow cake) is Niger’s largest export. Foreign exchange earnings from livestock export are second. Export of other raw materials also helps the national exchequer. Substantial deposits of phosphates, coal, iron, limestone, and gypsum also have been found in the Republic of Niger. The persistent uranium price slump has brought lower revenues for Niger’s uranium sector, although uranium still provides 72 per cent of national export proceeds. Therefore, this is the time for India to sign a long-term agreement with Niger at a low fixed price for several decades. It is important to remember that the Republic of Niger is not a member of the NSG. It will be easier to negotiate an agreement with a non-NSG member like Niger because it would not make signing the NPT as a pre-requisite unlike Australia or Japan.
The Republic of Niger enjoyed substantial export earnings and rapid economic growth during the 1960s and 1970s after the opening of two large uranium mines near the northern town of Arlit. When the uranium-led boom ended in the early 1980s, however, the economy stagnated, and new investment since then has been limited. Niger’s two uranium mines—SOMAIR’s open pit mine and COMINAK’s underground mine—are owned by a French-led consortium and are operated by French interests. However, as of 2007, many licences have been given to other companies from countries such as Canada and Australia in order to exploit new deposits. It is time that Indian companies too, both private and public sector, open their account in the Niger and obtain these independent licences to exploit new deposits of uranium ore. The sooner we do that, better it would be for our long-term national interests.
China should not upstage India yet again in harvesting this important source of yellow cake. Nor do we wish Pakistan to play the Islamic card as Niger is a Muslim majority nation-state. Let us not forget that Pakistan is multiplying its nuclear arsenal at an astonishing pace. It is single-handedly blocking any efforts to negotiate the Fissile Materials Cut-off Treaty, despite being a US ally. The Department of Atomic Energy and the Ministry of External Affairs need to do their homework fast and approach the national government of Republic of Niger for a long-term agreement for mining uranium ore for India. Some Indian investment in the cash-starved economy of Niger will help create a win-win situation. If we can rope in our French friends in a multi-lateral venture in the Republic of Niger, all the better.
Dr Adityanjee is President, Council for Strategic Affairs, New Delhi
(The views expressed in the article are that of the author and do not represent the views of the editorial committee or the Centre for Land Warfare Studies).