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Fukushima still haunts uranium producers


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International prices of uranium, the major feedstock in nuclear reactors, have remained flat; averaging US$53 per pound as the market struggles to shrug off the effects of Japan’s nuclear crisis earlier this year.

Market analysts are warning that shrinking order books, a flat spot price and production cutbacks - largely attributable to the Fukushima disaster - will haunt uranium producers well into 2012.

A sluggish US economy and sovereign debt problems in advanced economies will continue to severely impact the uranium spot price.

Global uranium stocks have significantly underperformed during 2011 and analysts attribute this to the diminishing appetite for nuclear energy after the horror of Fukushima.

“The sector has faced near-term uranium price uncertainty since the March nuclear crisis in Japan.

“The uranium sector’s performance has also been impacted by broader global equity market volatility resulting from slow economic activity and ongoing sovereign debt issues in the advanced economies,” Australian based Resource Capital Research (RCR) said in its quarterly market report.

Uranium prices spiked to a record US$138 a pound in 2007 over excitement on the future of nuclear energy, which is considered one of the cleanest forms of energy.

Before the Japanese nuclear disaster the price was averaging US$67.75 a pound but after Fukushima it throttled down to US$60 and has averaged US$53 a pound since.

Namibia, the latest frontier for uranium hunters, has pinned its future growth on uranium mining as a substitute for declining diamond production.

Bank of Namibia (BoN) governor Ipumbu Shiimi last week said mining output declined in 2011, a reflection of the slowdown in demand for the country’s major minerals such as diamonds, uranium and zinc among others.

Analysts say the uranium price is largely expected to remain flat in 2012, and demand will shrunk further if Germany pushes ahead with its intentions to completely mothball all its nuclear reactors due to safety concerns. With countries slowing down their nuclear power growth, the future for uranium is not as bright as it was in 2007 when talk of “nuclear renaissance” hogged the commodities market limelight.

“The dynamics driving the near-term sector outlook continue to be dominated by the aftermath of Fukushima, including Germany’s decision to close reactors and the potential disposal of surplus utility inventory.

“The spot market has been trading in the range of US$51-US$53 a pound recently, except for a short breakout in November.

“Traders indicate that they remain cautious going into the first half of 2012,” RCR market analysts said.

Most uranium producers sell the product, also known as yellow cake, on contract prices, which had fallen to US$62.50 a pound by around November.

The price has shed US$0.50 a month since August this year.

Analysts say that they expect the uranium fundamentals to improve in the long-term but in the medium-term, the contract price will hover between US$60 and US$70 a pound, supporting developmental decisions at a number of advanced projects such as Extract Resources’ Husab uranium project in Namibia.

Mirroring the underformance of the uranium mining sector, French nuclear giant Areva, has over the past three years pushed forward bringing its Trekkopje uranium project in Namibia.

The signals of a troubled uranium sector are manifest. On Tuesday Areva wrote down the performance of its African mines, including Trekkopje and suspended further development.

Areva also announced that it would make a 1.6 billion euro operational loss, cut up to 1 500 jobs in Germany, and has frozen salary increases for its France-based staff for 2012.

Areva bought Trekkopje in 2007 for US$2.5 billion, a premium price for a deposit the French nuclear group had hardly studied.

Since then Areva has struggled to transform it into commercial production.

This week Areva also cut Trekkopje’s uranium reserves to 26 000 tonnes from 45.200 tonnes, a staggering 42 percent reduction in the estimated ore deposit.

Areva also owns Bakouma Mine in Central African Republic and Ryst Kuil Mine in South Africa.

Output at Rio Tinto-owned Rossing Uranium in Namibia has also shrunk to 3 100 tonnes in 2011 from a record 4 147 tonnes in 2009.

Known as the Grand Old Lady of uranium mine, Rossing operates one of the world’s largest and deepest open pit mines.

Rio Tinto has 69 percent interest in Rossing, which has been operating since 1976 and ships about seven percent of global uranium supplies.

Mid-tier uranium producer, Paladin Energy operates Langer Heinrich Mine in Namibia.

The spot price of the mineral has suffered since the March 11 earthquake and tsunami that wrecked Tokyo Electric Power’s Fukushima Dai-Ichi Power Station and triggered the biggest atomic disaster since Chernobyl in 1986.

The developments prompted some countries to place nuclear plans on hold.

RCR however says that even with the disaster still fresh, the long-term fundamentals are still strong.




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