The transition towards clean energy in combination with a shortfall in supply has seen the price of raw uranium, also known as ‘yellowcake’, rise almost 60 per cent in recent weeks. It is now trading at over $50 a pound – a nine-year high. The market has been described as being at a ‘tipping point’. Given the recent boom in the market, the current conditions could tip the balance towards an era of rising uranium prices.
What is uranium?
Uranium is a heavy metal which has been used as a source of concentrated energy for over 60 years. Uranium ore can be mined from underground, milled, and then sold. It is then used in a nuclear reactor for electricity generation. About 10% of the world’s electricity is generated from uranium in nuclear reactors. There are some 445 nuclear reactors operating in 32 countries. It is the most energy-dense and efficient fuel source we have, with just ten uranium pellets able to power the average household for an entire year.
In March 2011, Japan’s most powerful earthquake on record triggered a tsunami, which then caused a meltdown at a nuclear power plant in Fukushima. It forced residents from their homes as radiation leaked from the plant. Since the Fukushima accident, uranium prices had been on a downtrend trend – enough to force several miners to suspend or scale back operations.
However, there has been a 42 per cent increase in the price of the metal in the first nine months of 2021 alone.
Demand for uranium
Since launching in July, a new investment trust, run by Canadian asset manager Sprott, has snapped up about 6m pounds of physical uranium, worth about $240m. This aggressive buying has helped push prices of uranium to more than $40 per pound, up from $30 at the start of the year. In the first part of September alone, prices surged by around 40%, outperforming all other major commodities. In just a few weeks, millions of pounds of supply were scooped up by the Sprott Physical Uranium Trust. This puts pressure on utilities that need to secure supplies of the commodity for electricity generation.
This increased demand is occurring at precisely the same time as countries and companies around the world are committing to net-zero carbon targets. As a result, nuclear power companies are now facing competition for supplies of uranium from financial investors, who are betting on sharply higher prices and demand for the radioactive material used to fuel reactors. This boost in demand is said to be due to uranium being used as a low-carbon energy source, despite the radioactive waste problem that comes with it. Investors are betting that nuclear power will be a key part of the move away from fossil fuels.
Production from world uranium mines has in recent years supplied 90% of the requirements of power utilities for uranium, with the current global mine supply expected to be about 125m pounds for 2021. In addition, there are secondary sources such as commercial and military stockpiles. However, according to the World Nuclear Association, demand for uranium is expected to climb from about 162m pounds this year to 206m pounds in 2030, and to 292m pounds by 2040. This is largely driven by increased power generation in China. China is planning a big increase in its nuclear power capacity over the next decade as the country seeks to cut its emissions.
Supply of uranium
Although uranium is relatively abundant in the Earth’s crust, not all uranium deposits are economically recoverable. While some countries have uranium resources that can be mined profitably when prices are low, others do not. Kazakhstan is the largest producer of uranium and in 2019 produced more uranium than the second, third, and fourth-largest producers combined.
The big issue is that supply to the market is falling significantly. For deliveries that would start in 2022, Kazakh producer, Kazatomprom, is now discussing the possibility of supplying the metal directly to Sprott. However, it also warned of the risk that its mines would not reach their output target for 2021, and it said earlier this year that it would keep its production at reduced levels through 2023. In addition to this, the recent surge in buying is also reducing the inventories that accumulated after the Fukushima accident.
The supply of uranium is set to fall 15 per cent by 2025 and by 50 per cent by 2030. This is mainly due to a lack of investment in new mines. The lack of new uranium mines will mean the price has to move higher. Namibian mines, accounting for 8 per cent of world supply, are approaching the end of their lives. Cameco of Canada, another important source, has shut one large pit because of uneconomic prices. According to BMO Capital, a mine supply deficit since 2019 will continue.
Supply has also been affected by the pandemic. The boom in demand has coincided with historically low prices and pandemic-driven mine disruptions, prompting uranium producers to buy from the spot market to fulfil long-term contracts with consumers. Some of the largest mining operations in Canada and Kazakhstan had to suspend production temporarily due to a shortage of workers.
Adding to the security of supply concerns is the role of commercial and state-owned entities in the uranium market. Uranium is a highly trade-dependent commodity with international trade policies highlighting the disconnect between where uranium is produced and where it is consumed. About 80% of primary production comes from countries that consume little-to-no uranium, and nearly 90% of uranium consumption occurs in countries that have little-to-no primary production. As a result, government-driven trade policies can be particularly disruptive for the uranium market. It is argued that the risk to uranium supply may create a renewed focus on ensuring availability of long-term supply to fuel nuclear reactors.
The role of financial players
Financial players have been accelerating the recent recovery in the price of uranium, with large-scale speculative buying and withholding of supply. But it can be argued that this would not have occurred if there were not a fundamental and substantial shortage.
If investors keep buying uranium, analysts expect utility companies will come under pressure to replace long-term supply agreements before they expire. At the moment, long-term contracts cover 98 per cent of the uranium needed by US utility companies. But that figure drops to 84 per cent next year, and 55 per cent by 2025, according to uranium investment company, Yellow Cake.
As annual supply declines, demand for uranium from producers and financial players increases, and with trade policy potentially restricting access to some markets, it is believed the pounds available in the spot market will not be adequate to satisfy the growing backlog of long-term demand. As a result, companies expect there will be increased competition to secure uranium under long-term contracts on terms that will ensure the availability of reliable primary supply to meet growing demand.
What will the future look like?
Many countries are turning their attention to nuclear power in order to become net-zero economies. Even in Japan, nuclear generation has slowly been returning. It is argued that nuclear power is needed to some degree for the country to achieve its pollution-curbing goals. However, not all nations are re-embracing nuclear. Germany, for example, is set to shut its last reactor next year.
The concern is whether the recent gains in investor demand is enough to underpin the market. It can be argued that even before the recent price rally started, demand for uranium from the investment sector was already growing. However, observers of the market have suggested that just as quickly as uranium skyrocketed, prices may now be hitting the brakes. Producer stocks that got swept up in the frenzy seem to have peaked. In addition, the world’s top uranium miner Kazatomprom has warned that the recent price action was being fuelled by financial investors rather than the utilities that use the radioactive metal as fuel in their reactors. On the other hand, it is argued that this pickup in the spot market will be the catalyst to push more utilities to get involved in term contracting.
Despite the impact of the pandemic on global energy demand, it is now growing again. Gas and other energy shortages are being seen and the price of gas has been rising rapidly. This rise in energy prices plus a focus on carbon-free generation is likely to continue driving demand for nuclear power and hence for uranium. In addition, producers have warned of supply shortages in the long term as investors scoop up physical inventory and new mines are not starting quickly enough. Thus nuclear’s growing role in the clean energy transition, in addition to a supply shortfall, could turn the tide for the uranium industry.
- Uranium: what the explosion in prices means for the nuclear industry
- Uranium prices soar as investors scoop up nuclear power fuel
- Sprott’s aggressive uranium buying will not corner market, chief says
- The future of uranium: A story of supply and demand
- Supply & Demand
- Uranium Markets
- Uranium Rally Is a High-Stakes Bet on Future of Nuclear Power
The Conversation, Edward Thomas Jones, Danial Hemmings and Simon Middleburgh (24/9/21)
Financial Times, Henry Sanderson and Neil Hume (10/9/21)
Financial Times, Neil Hume (20/9/21)
Mining.com, Govind Bhutada – Visual Capitalist (22/9/21)
World Nuclear Association (9/21)
Bloomberg, Yvonne Yue Li, Will Wade and Stephen Stapczynski (22/9/21)
- Using the uranium market as an example, describe the relationship between an increase in demand and the market price.
- Explain whether the supply of uranium would be price elastic or inelastic in (a) the short run; (b) the long run.
- What is the role of speculation in determining the recent movements in the price of uranium and likely future price movements?
- Given your answers to the above questions, draw supply and demand diagrams to illustrate (a) the recent increase in the market price of uranium; (b) the likely price of uranium in five years from now.