* Areva says Imouraren mine to start when prices rise
* Agrees to new production deal at existing two mines
* Mines under 2006 law that cut exemptions, upped royalties
* Areva to spend 90 mln euros on new road to mining town
(Adds quote from mines minister)
By Abdoulaye Massalaki
NIAMEY, May 26 French nuclear group Areva
agreed to a reduction in tax breaks and a rise in
royalty rates at its uranium mines in Niger on Monday but said
the start of production at its giant new Imouraren mine would be
delayed until prices improve.
Under the terms of a long-awaited deal to renew its
production agreements in Niger, the state-owned French company
also agreed to pay 90 million euros ($123 million) to rebuild
the road to its mines in the northern town of Arlit and to
invest 17 million euros in a local development project.
Acceding to pressure from President Mahamadou Issoufou's
government, Areva pledged to build a new headquarters for its
mining operations in the capital Niamey at a cost of 10 million
euros. It also committed to naming Niger nationals at the head
of its two mines in the country - Somair and Cominak - by 2014
and 2016 respectively.
Areva and Niger have been locked in talks for two years but
failed to reach a deal before the previous 10-year production
agreement expired on Dec. 31, requiring its temporary extension.
Niger, the world's fourth-largest uranium producer and one
of the world's poorest countries, won its battle to extract
higher tax payments from the French group under the terms of a
2006 mining law that reduces exemptions and raises royalties
Under the new deal, which lasts for five years, Areva's rate
of mining royalties - a tax based on the market value of the
minerals produced - will rise from a current level of 5.5
percent to as high as 12 percent depending on profitability,
under the terms of the 2006 law.
Areva had long argued this would make its mines in the West
African country unprofitable. Somair and Cominak together
produce more than 4,000 tonnes of uranium a year.
"The two parties will take the necessary steps to ensure the
economic and financial profitability of these companies and to
safeguard employment," read a joint press statement issued after
Areva's Imouraren mine, which would more than double Niger's
output of uranium to around 9,000 tonnes a year, had been
scheduled to start production at the end of next year after a
series of delays linked to security concerns in northern Niger.
President Issoufou had been keen for the mine to start
production before he seeks re-election in 2016, but Monday's
agreement recognised that the mine was not profitable at current
uranium prices. Niger and Areva will create a strategic
committee to decide on a timetable for its start up according to
market conditions, it said.
"We're going to follow the evolution of the market with the
objective of restarting Imouraren by Jan. 1, 2017 at the latest,
as soon as the world price allows it," Mines Minister Omar
Hamidou Tchiana later said on state television.
The March 2011 meltdown at Japan's Fukushima atomic plant
triggered a slump in uranium prices, which have struggled to
recover ever since.
"Our decision on Imouraren is a reasonable one," Areva CEO
Luc Oursel told a news conference. "In the current context,
neither Areva nor Niger are interested in dumping uranium on the
market that would not find a buyer."
France depends on nuclear power for three-quarters of its
electricity supply - the highest ratio in the world.
According to an industry source, Niger accounted for around
one fifth of the uranium supply to France's nuclear reactors
last year, though this figure should decline to around 10
percent this year as Areva and EDF diversify supplies.
($1 = 0.7336 Euros)
(Additional reporting by Geert de Clercq; Writing by Daniel
Flynn; Editing by Diadie Ba, Pravin Char, Mark Potter and Lisa