“Prediction is very difficult, especially if it’s about the future,” quipped Niels Bohr. And so it is with the uranium industry. Some uranium companies and several nations with an interest in the sector are bullish, while some analysts strike a more cautious note. Despite lacking a crystal ball, it is possible to offer a reasonably confident analysis of how the industry will fare going forward.
All such predictions are guided by one fact: The effects on the nuclear industry of the Fukushima accident in Japan-whose one-year anniversary is March 11-is less than some pundits had feared, and in turn this will have less of a negative impact on the uranium market overall. According to a report in the Washington Post last October, for example, the Czech Republic is planning to sharply increase its nuclear power production. That nation currently relies on six nuclear reactors for 33% of its total electricity, and the government hopes to at least double that output by the year 2050. In its decision to pursue nuclear power, the Czechs are not alone: Slovakia is currently building more nuclear facilities, and Poland has engaged in talks with companies in France, Japan and the U.S. about technology for its first nuclear plant to be completed by 2030.
Meanwhile, Brazil already produces three percent of its electricity output using nuclear power from two reactors, and is building a third; last year, the nation has plans to build eight additional nuclear power plants, plans that have remained in place despite Fukushima. Brazil is also gearing up for a sixfold increase in uranium production to keep pace with these developments. Brazil’s known uranium reserves could triple in size with further exploration, which would place the country on a par with Australia and Kazakhstan in terms of uranium deposits. Speaking of Australia, at the time of this writing, Prime Minister Julia Gillard is seeking to overturn a decades-long ban on selling the metal to India, a country whose energy demands could double by 2030 according to the IAEA. Construction on an open-pit uranium mine in central Jordan, if deemed feasible, is expected to begin in 2013, with mining activities to commence as early as 2015, according to officials. And then there is China, which has no less than 27 nuclear reactors under construction; more are planned pending the Chinese government’s post-Fukushima safety review. In all, 62 nuclear reactors remain under construction worldwide, about 3% of which are in G7 countries.
Among uranium companies, Canada’s Cameco, the world’s biggest uranium miner by market value, saw its share price drop in the months following Fukushima, and the company described the uranium market’s outlook as “uncertain” in its third-quarter report in November 2011. Their caution mirrors a statement by Uranium One of Toronto that Fukushima’s impact will continue to dog the sector until the end of 2013, as well as a forecast by UxC, a specialist uranium consultancy, that uranium production will drop by 19 million pounds per year globally between 2011 and 2020.
Others offer a rosier picture. Mark Lackey, investment strategist at Pope & Company, points to the fact that Russia is slated to stop exporting highly enriched uranium in 2013, and suggests that uranium prices will head up to $70 per pound in 2012 and will approach $100 the following year. (The so-called U.S.-Russian high-enriched uranium (HEU) agreement currently supplies 13% of the world’s and 45% of the U.S.’s annual uranium needs.) Canada-based Fission Energy Corp has announced that a 25,000-meter, $7.3 million winter exploration program will begin at its joint venture Waterbury Lake uranium project, located in the eastern part of Saskatchewan’s Athabasca Basin in early 2012. And Virginia Uranium is proposing to mine the 119-million-pound deposit at Coles Hill in Pittsylvania County, believed to be the largest known deposit in the U.S. and the seventh largest in the world.
Finally, Corpus Christi, Texas-based Uranium Energy Corp, which became a uranium producer in November 2010, has outlined an ambitious set of goals. In October 2011, Uranium Energy announced the completion of its first uranium sale of 60,000 pounds of U3O8; the contract for the sale calls for the delivery of a total of 300,000 pounds of U3O8 from the company’s Hobson, Texas processing facility over a three-year period beginning in fiscal 2012, with the price to be based on published market indicators at the time of delivery. Uranium Energy CEO Amir Adnani believes the industry faces a shortfall of uranium to power the approximately 434 nuclear reactors that are still operating post-Fukushima; annual global consumption of uranium is about 170-175 million pounds, he said, while mine production is roughly 130-135 million pounds annually.
Uranium Energy maintains a regional strategy in South Texas with a central in situ recovery (ISR) processing plant and four ISR projects; it also operated a 320,000-foot drill program to expanded its 13 million-pound U3O8 resource base in the region (the company controls another 23 projects in the U.S. with total resources of 36 million pounds of U3O8.) It is also expanding its project portfolio with a new ISR opportunity in Paraguay. The company’s prospecting permits cover 987,000 acres located in the area of Coronel Oviedo, Paraguay. Earlier in the year, the company acquired the 7,581-acre Anderson Mine project in Yavapai County, Arizona.
As acknowledged earlier, nobody knows what the future holds. Yet despite the uncertainties stressed by some observers, many of those working within the uranium industry are looking forward to a productive and successful future.
Sebastian Thaler is a freelance science and technology writer based in New York City. His work has appeared in USA TODAY Magazine and various trade journals as well as a range of online publications. He holds a bachelor’s degree in astronomy from Columbia University and a master’s degree in journalism from Indiana University.
Sebastian’s comment appears here via IRG, which represents Uranium Energy.