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Uranium industry slumps, nuclear power dead in the water

By Jim Green - posted Friday, 23 February 2018


As with other commodity markets, the uranium market is a curious beast at the best of times ‒ keen to spot a bargain, investors get more and more excited the further the uranium price and company stock prices fall. They've had plenty to get excited about in recent years.

These days, the market exhibits multiple levels of weirdness, all stemming from the growing acknowledgment that nuclear power and the uranium industry face a bleak future.

The uranium market has a "subdued outlook" and Cameco's uranium is now "more valuable in the ground" according to Warwick Grigor from Far East Capital, because the cost of production is higher than the prices currently being offered. Cameco CEO Tim Gitzel agrees, saying in January 2018 that at current prices "our supply is better left in the ground." So uranium industry executives and market analysts are finally coming around to rallying cry of the anti-uranium movement: Leave it in the ground!

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We've also had the odd situation over the past year of nuclear lobbyists arguing repeatedly that the nuclear power industry is in "crisis" and wondering what if anything can be salvaged from "the ashes of today's dying industry". Usually such claims come from the anti-nuclear movement ‒ sometimes more in hope that expectation.

And we've had the odd situation of industry bodies (such as the US Nuclear Energy Institute) and supporters (such as former US energy secretary Ernest Moniz) openly acknowledging the connections between nuclear power and weapons ‒ connections they have strenuously denied for decades.

Such arguments are now being used in an effort to secure preferential treatment for uranium mining companies in the US. Ur-Energy and Energy Fuels have lodged a petition with the Department of Commerce seeking a mandated requirement for US power utilities purchase a minimum 25% of their requirements from US mines. Uranium is "the backbone of the U.S. nuclear deterrent and fuels ships and submarines in the U.S. Navy", the companies state.

The arguments might appeal to President Trump and they would dovetail neatly with his silly conspiracy theory about Hillary Clinton threatening national security by allowing the sale of a uranium mining company with US interests to Russia's Rosatom.

But the arguments don't appear to enjoy any support from the US nuclear weapons complex and they certainly don't enjoy any support from power utilities. According to market analysts FNArena, the petition lodged by Ur-Energy and Energy Fuels "brought the uranium market to a screaming halt" and US power utilities warned that a quota would force the early shutdown of some nuclear plants.

Another miserable year for the uranium industry

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Nuclear power has been stagnant for the past 20 years. Although power reactors account for an overwhelming majority of uranium demand, uranium production ‒ and prices ‒ have been up and down and all over the place.

Uranium mine production increased by 50% from 2007 to 2016. The increase was driven, initially at least, by expectations of the nuclear renaissance that didn't eventuate. Mine production plus secondary sources (e.g. stockpiles and ex-military material) have consistently exceeded demand ‒ 2017 was the eleventh consecutive year of surplus according to the CEO of uranium company Bannerman Resources.

Stockpiles (inventories) have grown steadily over the past decade to reach enormous levels ‒ enough to keep the entire global reactor fleet operating for around eight years. Supply from mines and secondary sources in recent years has exceeded demand by about 18%.

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About the Author

Dr. Jim Green is the national anti-nuclear campaigner with Friends of the Earth Australia, and editor of the Nuclear Monitor newsletter produced by the World Information Service on Energy (Netherlands) and the Nuclear Information & Resource Service (USA).

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