The African tour performed by Nicolas Sarkozy, accompanied by the head of France's nuclear power giant Areva, was clearly focused on uranium imports – not only in Niger on Friday, but also in the Democratic Republic of Congo the day before.
Even before the French president landed in Kinshasa Thursday morning, Anne Lauvergeon was already entering the palace of Congolese President Joseph Kabila. He alone has the power to grant uranium mining licenses.
Areva's beaming CEO was there to sign a deal making the French group the sole uranium prospecting company in the DR Congo.
According to Prof. Dona Kampata, who heads the Congolese government's Technical Unit for Mining Co-ordination and Planification, the country's known uranium fields are located in the southern Katanga province.
There, a long strip of rocks contains known reserves of 1.9 million tonnes of ore, which would convert into thousands of tonnes of uranium. The area is also rich in copper, cobalt, nickel and manganese. Smaller deposits may yet be discovered in the Bas-Congo province.
Areva currently extracts 6,000 tonnes of uranium annually.
The data, however, are old. “Modern exploration methods, such as airborne ones, have never been used” in the DR Congo, Lauvergeon said. “Is there a challenger here to Niger? It is too early to tell”, she added.
Areva's CEO said the agreement inked on Thursday was “a first” as Congolese legislation had so far reserved uranium for the state-owned company Gécamines, which is presently going through severe restructuring after its collapse in the late 1990s. Areva has yet to strike a deal with Gécamines, which still holds the permits to exploit existing mines.
Katanga's mines were opened in the early days of the Belgian colonisation, in 1900. They produced the fuel used in the 1945 Hiroshima atomic bomb. While uranium extraction ground to a halt in 1960, rising prices have restored the industry's profitability and could now give a much needed boost to the DR Congo after years of war.
The fresh interest in nuclear energy worldwide has made those untapped resources a much coveted asset, but it has also raised concerns about nuclear material trafficking.
This, Prof. Dona Kampata explains, played in Areva's favour: “Traceability and transparency will be better managed by a French company than by the Chinese or others, who had also applied.”