By: The Mining Report
Source: Peter Byrne of The Mining Report
Take advantage of the temporary bear market in uranium juniors, David Sadowski tells The Mining Report. The Raymond James mining analyst explains why uranium prices are low and why they will rise in the medium term. Hint: It has something to do with how orange juice is produced. And he talks about why a gold lining makes the metals market a solid bet.
The Mining Report: In past interviews with Streetwise Reports, you predicted that the price of uranium will rise this year. But that has not panned out. Why not?
David Sadowski: Simply put, there is a short-term supply problem in the uranium industry. We believe, however, in the long term, supply will not be able to keep up with demand growth. The point at which we previously expected demand to outstrip supply has been pushed out by a couple of years. That development has impacted the price in recent months, as well as Raymond James' outlook for the price going forward.
The three main reasons for continued global growth of uranium mine production are the persistence of long-term fixed-price sales contracts, the intransigence of government producers who believe that security of supply is more important than mine economics, and byproduct uranium production. Secondary supply sources also remain robust.
TMR: Would you explain how these situations interrelate?
DS: Demand is lagging because Japan has been slower than expected to resume operations at its nuclear reactors. The Japanese reactors are not consuming uranium at the moment, but the Japanese utilities are continuing to take delivery on many of their supply agreements, causing their inventories to rise. A belief in the market that uranium might be dumped has, in part, kept other global utilities on the sidelines, resulting in lower levels of uranium buying and lower prices. And while uranium oxide "yellowcake" deliveries have continued to Japanese buyers, those buyers have slowed the movement of that material into the rest of the fuel cycle, which has decreased demand for conversion and enrichment products.
On the enrichment side, excess capacity has resulted in "underfeeding." The centrifuges at the enrichment plants are always spinning. The plants are paid to supply a certain level of enrichment to their customers. And during times of lower demand, they can utilize otherwise empty centrifuges to squeeze out more uranium product.
An apt metaphor for this process is orange juice. Imagine that you are running a juice bar with 10 juicing machines that are always spinning. Your customers bring you oranges and sign a contract to take delivery of a set amount of juice from those oranges. But suddenly you lose 20% of your customers. They stop bringing you oranges and they no longer pay you for the juice. What are your options to make up for that lost revenue? Given that all 10 juicing machines must continue to run, you can take the oranges that would under normal circumstances be squeezed by eight machines and instead run them through 10 machines, squeezing more juice out of each orange. The juice in excess to what the eight remaining customers have agreed to buy is available to the juice bar owner to sell to other customers.
That is the same type of activity that is going on in the uranium space. Enrichers with excess capacity especially during a period of relatively weak enrichment or "SWU" prices can squeeze more enriched product out of the material being provided to them, which generates excess uranium that the enrichers sell to others. Given the protracted outage of Japanese nuclear reactors, this squeezed source of supply has been greater than expected. In part due to our revised estimate that only one-third of Japan's nuclear fleet will return to operations, we expect underfeeding to continue to exacerbate oversupply for some time.
TMR: What about the uranium extracted from Russian nuclear warheads?
DS: Similarly, with respect to Russia, the end of the Megatons to Megawatts high-enriched uranium (HEU) deal was long anticipated to usher in a new period of higher uranium prices. But the same plants that were used to down-blend those warheads can now be used for underfeeding and tails re-enrichment. In this way, the Russian HEU-derived source of supply that provided about 24 million pounds (24 Mlb) to the market did not disappear completely; the supply level was just cut roughly in half. Meanwhile, uranium mines, in aggregate, have increased their output—even though prices are now well below average production costs. Kazakhstan, for example, has continued to grow its uranium industry, despite recent guidance from officials in Kazakhstan to the contrary.
Furthermore, since Fukushima, only one major uranium mining operation has closed down due to weak prices. The high-cost Ranger mine in Australia, which has been processing its stockpiles since 2012, has defied protests from locals and restarted production following a major accident in late 2013. And Cigar Lake in Canada and Husab in Namibia are charging into production, even in this oversupplied environment. The bottom line is that oversupply will persist until 2020.
TMR: How will that solemn reality affect future prices?
DS: Current prices are untenably low and some producers are refusing to sell at rock-bottom prices. Upward pressure on prices into the $35 per pound ($35/lb) range should occur as utilities buy more uranium in the marketplace, and as secondary trading activity among financial entities picks up. The biggest factor is the behavior of the end-users of uranium, the nuclear utilities. Given what we know from available data, global utilities are going to have to sign a lot of new supply contracts to meet their uncovered reactor requirements in the years 2017 and beyond.
But looking at current utility-held inventories and the global supply/demand picture over the next five years, we predict that the utilities will not be rushing to sign new deals. A major upswing in prices toward mine incentivizing levels of $70/lb is thus at least a couple of years down the road. The spot price is $28/lb today. It should average $35/lb in 2015—a 20% rise and we see US$70/lb in 2018. Furthermore, it should be noted that this outlook can change in a split second. A flood at Cigar Lake, sanctions against Russian nuclear fuel exports, a major mine shutdown—if any of these events occur, the equation changes and prices could rise a heck of a lot faster, comparable to the rise in 2006–2007 and in late 2010.
TMR: What do you look for in a uranium mining junior?
DS: The best junior opportunities are to be found in companies with best-in-class assets, access to capital, and the potential for value-added news flow. Solid management teams, clean capital structures and trading liquidity are also key.
TMR: Is there synergy in going after both uranium and gold?
DS: Uranium deposits can occur alongside other metals, improving mine economics. In South Africa and Australia, uranium is mined as a byproduct of gold with a positive impact at those mines. In other cases, gold, nickel, molybdenum, and other metals can be an encumbrance to primary uranium production and can negatively impact costs.
TMR: Thanks for your time, David.
DS: My pleasure, Peter.
David Sadowski is a mining equity research analyst at Raymond James Ltd., and has been covering the uranium and junior precious metals spaces for the past six years. Prior to joining the firm, Sadowski worked as a geologist in western Canada with multiple Vancouver-based junior exploration companies, focused on base and precious metals. Sadowski holds a Bachelor of Science in geological sciences from the University of British Columbia.
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-- Posted Tuesday, August 5 2014 | Digg This Article |
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