China Doing to Uranium What It Has Done To Copper

Is there any metal or, indeed, commodity in which China is not making the running — where China’s rising demand is not creating a wholly new dynamic in the global supply market? After some thought, one might have ventured uranium, that metal long dependent on the established generating markets of the old order Russia, France, Japan, the US and, more recently, South Korea. But apparently even the uranium market is rapidly changing. According to an FT article, China is aiming to generate 5 percent of its electricity from nuclear power by 2020, in the process quadrupling its uranium consumption to 50 million-60 million pounds a year, according to UxC forecasts.

Source: UxC

That compares with annual global demand of about 190 million pounds today and has seen the Chinese embark on an ambitious and aggressive buying spree at prices some 30 percent over current spot and twice spot prices of a year ago, tying up long-term supply offtake agreements and joint ventures. With minimal domestic production, just 2 million pounds this year, China’s imports have been equivalent to 20-25 percent of global uranium consumption and yet reactor building is still in its early stages with 23 reactors under construction but 120 planned, according to another article.

Ralph Profiti, analyst at Credit Suisse in Toronto, believes China is getting ahead of other consumers and, as with copper and non-ferrous metals, is building up a strategic stockpile before the Americans, Japan or Korea need to do their restocking.

If that is so, the US is particularly vulnerable. The country has over 100 nuclear reactors generating nearly 20 percent of the country’s electrical energy, but the US imports over 80 percent of its uranium supply. If uranium supply goes the way of other commodities, the US could increasingly be a hostage to the fortunes of an increasingly limited supply base as spot prices are driven higher and sources are tied up under long-term supply agreements. Which may explain why US authorities were so willing to pass approval for a Russian state-owned mining company, ARMZ, part of Rosatom power group, to control up to half of US uranium output by the middle of the decade.   The FT this week reported ARMZ has been approved by the Committee on Foreign Investment in the US, the government agency that vets foreign takeovers of US companies for possible national security implications. In November, the US Nuclear Regulatory Commission, which controls the ownership and operation of nuclear power facilities, also gave their go-ahead for ARMZ to take a 51 percent stake in Uranium One. The firm owns resources in Wyoming and plans under ARMZ’s control to ramp up production to between 2 and 4 million pounds by 2015 against a total US production today of about 4 million pounds.

Interestingly, the changing supply landscape has not escaped the investment community. BlackRock, said to be one of the largest investors in commodities, is said to be bullish on uranium, and an exchange-traded fund launched by Global X Funds has increased its holdings to $70 million in just three weeks since launch.

–Stuart Burns


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