The future of uranium – higher prices to come?

6 May 2014

Predictions of the rise in price of uranium are unjustified; they do not fully appreciate the segmented nature of the market.

The world uranium market has fallen back substantially from the highs it sustained in the period around 2005-2010, when the spot price peaked at over $130 per pound in summer 2007. After the Fukushima accident in 2011, the price drifted down further and has been stable at the $35 per pound level since last summer. Although this is well above the $10 per pound that prevailed for the long period from the late 1980s up until 2003, it is universally agreed that very few (if any) new mines can be developed at today's price level. The suggestion is therefore made (particularly by uranium producers and their financial sector backers) that with rising demand, there will be shortages of supply in future unless we soon have much higher prices to encourage new production. On the demand side, a lot of attention is currently being to the upcoming Japanese reactor restart programme, in terms of timing and number of reactors.

[Cartoon by Alexey Koveynev]

A recent report from my company (East Cliff Consulting, 'The Fifth Age of Uranium') shows why the case made by the uranium bulls is in reality full of holes. We are now more likely to see a long period of relatively low prices, in which uranium producers will find it hard to make a living.

Substantial oversupply in the Fourth Age

The starting point is to understand the full history of uranium supply and demand. This is covered in the WNA's biennial fuel market report, which identifies four distinct ages running from 1945 until today. The fourth of these began in 2003, when prices started rising sharply to mark the end of the third age, which was the long period of inventory rundown and constrained production lasting from the late 1980s. Talk in 2003 was of a "renaissance" of nuclear power and lots of new mines were apparently needed to meet their fuel requirements, while previously abundant secondary supplies would gradually wither away. Not so different from what the optimists are saying about uranium today.

World production certainly responded strongly to the obvious price signal back then and it had risen by half by 2010. One curious feature, however, was that the increase was almost entirely concentrated in only one country, namely Kazakhstan. Apart from this, hundreds of "junior" uranium companies suddenly appeared but the only company successful in establishing new large-scale production facilities was Paladin, with Langer Heinrich in Namibia and Kayelekera in Malawi. The others succeeded in mining only the financial markets.

"Despite all the hype about nuclear growth plans, the level of underlying uranium demand did not rise at all during this period"

Another remarkable fact was that despite all the hype about nuclear growth plans, the level of underlying uranium demand did not rise at all during this period. This is even without the adverse impact of the accident at Fukushima in 2011. Shutdowns of ageing reactors in various countries were just balanced by the commissioning of new units (increasingly in China). Another crucial factor has been a fundamental realignment in the relationship between uranium and enrichment requirements. The closure of the inefficient gaseous diffusion enrichment plants removed the high marginal cost production which had propped up prices, while notably higher uranium prices in themselves encouraged the use of higher enrichment (through reducing the optimum "tails assay"). Enrichment is now expected to remain cheap and abundant as centrifuge plants are modular and capacity can be expanded relatively easily to meet demand, so this substitution of enrichment for uranium will continue to be important.

The impact of much higher production combined with static demand during this fourth uranium age is substantial over-supply in the world uranium market, with prices naturally falling back to lower levels. The other obvious corollary of this period has been a renewed upsurge in uranium inventory levels in the United States, Europe and (with the shutdown of reactors since Fukushima) Japan. Some of this has been entirely voluntary on the part of the fuel buyers, who want more security of supply. The biggest increase has been in China, which has been building huge inventory balances to provide security for the anticipated fuel requirements of its rapid reactor building programme. On the other hand, some of the accumulation (such as in Japan) has been involuntary and this material can be used to balance the market over the next period, effectively at the expense of fresh production.

In fact China can be seen as the mirror image of the production growth in Kazakhstan, as the majority of Chinese imports have been sourced from there. The rest of the world has continued much as before, with no overall nuclear growth and not much of any real substance happening in the development of new uranium mines, except a few key projects such as Cigar Lake in Canada.

Uranium demand to increase in China and Russia

"Uranium demand will almost certainly fall in the key markets in Western Europe and North America"

The uranium bulls continue to point to the prospects for nuclear growth to 2030. The problem is that most of this will be concentrated in China and Russia. Over half will likely be in China and the Chinese may also become important in supplying reactors to other countries in the 2020s. The Russian domestic nuclear programme is now progressing quite well, and they too will be a key supplier of reactors to other countries in the period to 2030. When the Russians supply a reactor, they invariably include long-term fuel contracts. What is important is that uranium demand will almost certainly fall in the key markets in Western Europe and North America, which are satisfied by the established uranium producers. Many Japanese reactors will undoubtedly restart but it will take a long time to unwind the inventory accumulation there.

Those who believe in higher uranium prices take an over-optimistic demand scenario. It can now be argued that the range of possibilities has actually narrowed considerably and it is appropriate to centre discussion on just one main case to 2030. Upper scenarios showing rapid nuclear growth in many countries including plants starting up in new countries now look very unlikely, certainly before the late 2020s. If there is to be a nuclear renaissance, it is now much more likely to happen later, and with a new generation of reactors. On the other hand, predictions that another major accident would shut down nuclear in lots of countries have been negated by the experience of Fukushima. Although there remain some uncertainties, the outlying upper and lower cases are much less credible than before.

Uranium market split into three

So we are entering a fifth era of uranium, where the market is split into three.

The Chinese will favour investing directly in mines to satisfy their requirements. These (like Husab in Namibia) will not necessarily be at the low end of the cost curve: there are important geopolitical considerations too and the Chinese are keen to get involved directly in the economic development of many countries, particularly in Africa. They are also not going to "play ball" with the established uranium market. Although they will maintain a presence in the spot market and sign further long-term supply contracts with producers, they have learned their lesson from the iron ore market. In that sector their heavy dependence on imports from BHP Billiton, Rio Tinto and Vale has given these producers fantastic profits.

The Russians will continue to be significant nuclear fuel exporters but their own market will remain essentially closed to outsiders. They still have secondary supplies to tap into (plenty of surplus HEU remains to be down-blended) and they will follow the Chinese and invest directly in uranium assets if their own domestic production remains constrained. Their recent acquisition of the producer Uranium One can be seen very much in this vein.

The established uranium producers will have the remainder of the market to satisfy and that will likely be declining in magnitude. There are bright spots are South Korea and the Middle East (where Saudi Arabia may join the UAE in having a nuclear programme) but the prospects in North America and Europe are not so good. In the United States, the number of operating reactors will fall by 2030, with a small number of new units not sufficient to compensate for closures due to cheap shale gas and the incursion of subsidised renewable energy into power markets. Although reactors may well be licensed for up to 80 years, they will not operate unless the economic fundamentals are right. In Canada too, it seems unlikely that all three nuclear stations in Ontario will be refurbished, and there is a strong possibility that Pickering will close. In Europe, even in France the future of the currently operating units is now in question. It is likely that there will be a gradual reduction in the nuclear share of electricity in France towards 50% and so older units (beyond Fessenheim) will likely close by 2030. New-build in the United Kingdom will only compensate for units shutting down, while further new units will only happen in a few countries such as Finland and (possibly) the Czech Republic. So with countries like Belgium and Switzerland following Germany into a nuclear phase-out, the overall European situation is one of gentle decline.

"China and Russia...will develop uranium assets wherever it best suits them. They have the confidence to bypass the conventional market, which could increasingly become merely a sideshow."

This market segmentation and the way the Chinese and Russians will operate means that the two prime analytical devices utilised in the uranium market are both now useless. First, calculated annual world supply-demand balances (miraculously often showing a shortage after 3-5 years) are irrelevant in a segmented market, where key actors with expanding demand choose to go it alone. For a time in the early 2000s, it looked as if a globalised world nuclear fuel market could emerge, but this has not happened and it is arguably now going into reverse. Secondly, uranium supply curves (based on mine cost data), demonstrating the need for higher prices as demand expands, are also invalidated. China and Russia (and probably India too, if it eventually gets its nuclear act together) will develop uranium assets wherever it best suits them. They have the confidence to bypass the conventional market, which could increasingly become merely a sideshow.

Another issue to watch is the persistence of secondary supplies beyond Russia. Only part of the 2.5 million tonnes of uranium mined since 1945 has been utilised. Almost 2 million tonnes of depleted uranium is an attractive resource while there is overcapacity in enrichment and cheaper prices. In the very long term, China, Russia and India are committed to reprocessing their used fuel and will probably eventually succeed in tempering their uranium use by building large reprocessing plants. Any substantial replacement of uranium, however, will have to await the next generation of reactors, which will be fuelled very differently from today's large light water designs.

Fifth Age price predictions

In this fifth age of uranium, prices will essentially be determined by the cash costs of production of operating mines (and not by the full costs of future mines). This means a reversion to the long period of low (but relatively stable) uranium prices of the late 1980s and 1990s (the third age), but at a higher level to reflect the greater level of production now, the escalation of mining costs and the movements in currency exchange rates. The shortages predicted by many analysts (leading to rapid price increases to provide good rates of return on their favourite projects) are purely a mirage.

The outlook is therefore not favourable for either current or prospective uranium producers. Only those with low-cost operations will prosper. Others will struggle to stay in business and further mine closures (beyond Paladin's Kayelekera which is now on "care and maintenance") are definitely on the horizon. A high-profile mine closure is one factor that could cause the price to spike, but historical experience is actually rather different: once mines get into operation, owners will usually withstand short-term financial losses so long as they are convinced that there are better times around the corner. And they tend to be incurable optimists.

Steve Kidd is an independent nuclear consultant and economist with 17 years of work in senior positions at the World Nuclear Association and its predecessor organization, the Uranium Institute.

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