PARIS/NIAMEY, Jan 3 (Reuters) - French state-controlled nuclear group Areva has closed its two uranium mines in Niger for a month of maintenance while it negotiates with the government over the renewal of its licences, a company spokesman said on Friday.
Niger, the world's fourth-largest uranium producer, is trying to extract increased royalties from the French group, with the mines operating in legal limbo after the expiry of their licences.
Confirming union information, the company spokesman said Areva's Somair and Cominak mines have been closed since mid-December and will remain closed until mid-January.
The mines' 10-year licences expired on Dec. 31, though Niger issued a decree on Dec. 27 that potentially provides a legal framework for them to continue operating for now.
"The directors of the mines have told us they have stopped operations because they operate in a legal vacuum," Salifou Chipkaou, deputy secretary general of the Synamin miners union, told Reuters.
Inoua Neino, secretary genral of Syntramin, another miners' union, told Reuters that the maintenance had merely been brought forward from April. "Contrary to what some are saying, this is not a move by Areva to put pressure on the government during the talks," he said.
An Areva spokesman said the mines routinely close for maintenance about twice a year for periods between 15 days to a month.
Sources told Reuters last month that the licence negotiations would be extended by up to three months after the two sides failed to clinch a deal ahead of the year-end deadline. The talks have been going on for nearly two years.
Niger accounts for more than a third of Areva's uranium production and President Mahamadou Issoufou's government wants to increase the royalties the company's mines pay from 5.5 percent of revenues to as high as 12 percent, officials say.
The former French colony remains one of the world's poorest nations despite its mineral wealth.
Areva, which is nearly 90 percent owned by the French government, says that an increase in the royalties rate would make its Niger operations unprofitable.
It owns about two thirds of the open-air Somair mine, which produced a little more than 3,000 tonnes of yellowcake last year, and around 34 percent of the smaller underground Cominak mine.
France obtains 75 percent of its electricity from nuclear energy but has never said to what extent it relies on Niger for uranium to fuel its 58 nuclear reactors.
Niger authorities and non-governmental organisations say that one in three light bulbs in France is powered by Niger uranium. A French parliamentary committee report in 2008 put the figure at nearly a fifth.
In 2012 Areva sourced nearly 37 percent of its 9,760 tonnes of uranium production from Niger and French state-controlled utility EDF has told Reuters that Areva supplies 40 percent of its annual uranium needs.
(Reporting by Abdoulaye Massalatchi in Niamey and Geert De Clercq in Paris; Editing by David Goodman)