The odds of finding much of anything seem slim in northern Niger’s unnerving expanses of hazy white desert.
The land is so vast, so untethered from any obvious landmarks that when straying just a few hundred feet off of the inconsistently paved road between Abalak and Agadez, it’s hard to shake the fear that the driver won’t be able to find the highway again.
Even with plenty of water, gas, and daylight on hand, there’s a general feeling of being marooned.
In the post-World War II years, huge amounts of cheap electricity were needed to fuel the breakneck growth of Western economies.
At the same time, nuclear weapons became the ultimate embodiment of national power and prestige.
So the discovery of uranium in Niger in 1957 was a much-needed economic boon for a country that still ranks 187th on the Human Development Index.
And the ambitions of the nuclear powers in Niger are still playing out today as Niger’s remote and inhospitable northern desert environment contains the world’s fifth-largest recoverable uranium reserves, some 7% of the global total.
The ore must be extracted and then milled into yellowcake in distant pockets of the Saharan wastes, where it’s then sent on a multi-day truck convoy to the port of Cotonou, in Benin, some 1,900 kilometers (1,180 miles) away.
With degraded roads and unpredictable passenger air service, it’s hard to physically access the country’s two major mines, which are outside of a town called Arlit, about a five-hour drive north from Agadez and a more than 20-hour, 1,300-kilometer (807-mile) drive from Niamey, the capital.
Those mines are operated by Areva, a nuclear-energy-services company that is 70% owned by France, the colonial power that ruled Niger between the 1890s and 1960.
Those two mines have been in operation since the late 1960s and are collectively the largest employer in the country other than the Nigerien government.
Both of the mines are nearing the end of their operational lifespan — one is expected to only last another 10 to 15 years.
A third mine, at Imouraren, is currently under development and has reserves enough to become one of the most productive uranium sites in the world.
But plans to begin large-scale mining at Imouraren are now on hold because of the worldwide plunge in uranium prices that followed the Fukushima incident and the resulting shutdown of Japan’s 43 commercial nuclear reactors.