Uranium prices finally saw some positivity in 2021 after a decade-long trough. Where will they go from here?
Uranium is an important fuel source for the nuclear energy industry. But prices have bottomed out in the past decade, with many investors wondering when the market will rebound.
Driven by rising demand and massive supply disruptions, uranium prices shot up in 2007 from US$72 per pound at the start of the year to an all-time high of US$136.22 by early June.
However, in the years since then, the spot price for uranium has mainly tracked downward on a steady slope. Since 2012 and through much of 2021, uranium prices traded under the key US$50 level, falling as low as US$18. However, in September 2021, the spot price for uranium shot up to a nine year high of US$50.80.
The consequences of an enduring low-price environment in the uranium industry have been significant, leading to curtailments in uranium production as well as a dearth of new discoveries. For years, analysts and industry leaders have proclaimed that the uranium spot price needs to rise above US$50 to US$60 — and stay above that point — before such activity becomes economical again.
This most recent uranium price rally came after supply cuts from major producers, including Kazakhstan's Kazatomprom and Canada's Cameco (TSX:CCO,NYSE:CCJ), alongside the emergence of the Sprott Physical Uranium Trust (TSX:U.UN). However, uranium’s leap over the critical US$50 level was only a brief blip on the price chart.
The uranium market's years-long trough has investors asking, "When will uranium prices go up?" Before we try to answer that question, we'll have a look at what's moved uranium spot prices in the past, including the energy metal's supply and demand dynamics.
When will uranium prices go up? Historical price action
Uranium's price history over the last 25 years.
Uranium price chart via Trading Economics.
Uranium has experienced a wide price range this past century — while its highest level was nearly US$140, the lowest U3O8 spot price came in at just US$7.
In 2003, the price of uranium began an upward trend as demand for nuclear power rose alongside the world's need for energy, especially in growth economies such as China and India.
These increasing energy demands came at the same time as significant supply-side disruptions. In 2006, Cameco's massive Cigar Lake mine in Saskatchewan flooded, stalling production for several years at one of the largest undeveloped uranium deposits in the world.
The inability to move this uranium ore to market was a huge setback for the uranium industry, and translated into explosive price growth for the metal in 2007. However, those impressive gains were soon undone by the 2008 economic crisis, which sent the uranium price on a downward spiral, slipping below the key US$50 level in early 2009. In 2010, uranium prices slipped further into the US$40 range.
In 2011, the price of uranium got a serious push to the upside along with other energy metals as the global economy began to recover. The tight supply situation, heightened by years of low prices, also played a part in pushing the spot price past the US$70 level.
After the 2011 Fukushima disaster, the uranium spot price began a slow slide to lows not seen since the start of the century, ultimately bottoming out at US$18 in November 2017. In the decade or so since then, uranium prices have struggled to breach the US$29 level.
In 2020, COVID-19-induced supply disruptions at the world's top uranium mines briefly supported spot price gains of more than 30 percent in the first half of the year, and the uranium price hit a four year high of US$33.93 in May. However, by mid-September, prices had pulled back to the US$29 level.
The launch of the Sprott Physical Uranium Trust and ongoing concerns over potential future uranium supply shortages pushed the uranium spot price across the US$50 threshold in September 2021. But soon, uranium prices were see-sawing between US$38 and US$48 in October and November.
When will uranium prices go up? Supply and demand
Uranium prices are mainly influenced by aboveground mine supply and demand for nuclear energy. To understand where those stand, investors in this sector typically look to:
- output from uranium mines
- the number of nuclear reactors online, under construction or planned
- the signing of long-term contracts between uranium suppliers and utilities companies
Analysts with a bullish lean believe the uranium market cycle has reached its bottom and that a break to the upside for uranium prices is supported by positive supply and demand fundamentals.
On the demand side, nuclear energy generated from 445 reactors around the globe supplies about 10 percent of the world's energy requirements. China alone is constructing 16 new reactors, Russia is constructing three with another 11 planned and India has seven nuclear reactors under construction.
The World Nuclear Association (WNA)'s “Nuclear Fuel Report: Global Scenarios for Demand and Supply Availability 2021-2040” forecasts 2.6 percent annual growth in nuclear generation capacity over the next two decades to reach 615 gigawatts electrical in 2040. About 79,400 tonnes of uranium will be required to feed these reactors in 2030, up from 62,500 tonnes in 2021. This figure is expected to grow to 112,300 tonnes of uranium in 2040.
On the supply side, major uranium producers are still cutting back on their output levels, while new uranium exploration projects are few and far between. The WNA points out that world uranium production dropped from 63,207 tonnes of uranium in 2016 to 47,731 tonnes of uranium in 2020. The organization also notes that “only 74 (percent) of 2020's reactor requirements were covered by primary uranium supply.”
Huge cuts to global uranium production have come from Kazakhstan, the world's largest uranium-producing country. Responsible for 41 percent of global uranium production, the Central Asian nation began reducing its annual production levels in 2018 and plans to continue "flexing down" its uranium output through 2022.
Australia, Namibia, Canada and Uzbekistan are also among the world's biggest uranium producers. In Canada, Cameco shuttered the Saskatchewan-based McArthur River mine in 2018 and temporarily closed Cigar Lake — the world's top uranium mine — in response to the COVID-19 pandemic.
These supply deficits are likely to continue impacting the uranium market in the years ahead. "Uranium production volumes at existing mines are projected to remain fairly stable until the late 2020s, then decreasing by more than half from 2030 to 2040," the WNA report states. This is also due in part to the lack of uranium exploration in recent years. The organization’s research shows that uranium exploration spending fell by 77 percent, from US$2.12 billion in 2014 to as little as US$483 million in 2018.
When will uranium prices go up? Future forecasts
So when can investors expect to see uranium prices go up? And when will the spot price for the metal once again move above — and stay above — the key US$50 to US$60 level?
In January 2020, Rick Rule, who was then part of Sprott (TSX:SII,NYSE:SII) told the Investing News Network (INN) that investors interested in uranium should be prepared to take the long position — in his opinion, it could be awhile before we see a rebound in the uranium market.
Rule reiterated his stance in a July 2021 interview with INN, pointing to Japanese restarts as the last catalyst needed to launch a new era of strength in the uranium market. “Everything else is in place,” he said at the time.
A true renaissance for uranium might be a few years off, but market participants are likely to see a series of incremental price increases along the way. John Ciampaglia, CEO of Sprott Asset Management, told INN: “The uranium market is not a very big market compared to, say, the oil and gas market and other commodity markets. It doesn't take a lot of capital to come from the generalist pool of capital to make a ripple in the uranium market."
A good gauge for where the winds are blowing is utilities contracts, as these entities are traditionally the greatest sources of uranium demand. Only about 10 to 15 percent of uranium trades happen on the spot market. The vast majority of uranium is sold through large long-term contracts between producers and utilities.
"Everyone is looking for this new contract cycle — when is it going to pick up, where are these deals going to get done in terms of term and price?" Ciampaglia said. "Everyone's looking for these signals in terms of where the longer-term price of uranium is going to drift to."
UxC estimates that by 2030 about two-thirds of utility nuclear fuel requirements will not be covered by contracts, and this will reach 81 percent in 2035. The lack of new uranium projects coming online is a considerable part of this equation. As utility inventories decline, they will come to market willing to accept higher contract prices to replenish their energy fuel stock, and secure future supply lines may happen sooner than later. Much higher long-term contract prices will in turn bring uranium spot prices along for the ride.
There are a wide range of views on uranium's future. Gerado Del Real, co-owner of Digest Publishing, told INN in a November 2021 interview that he believes uranium could hit new record highs in the next 12 to 18 months. His bullish outlook includes the potential for uranium prices to reach the US$200 level within that time period.
In September, Bank of America analyst Lawson Winder set his uranium spot price target for 2022 at US$53.50, and his 2023 target at US$48.50. As of December 1, analysts at Trading Economics were forecasting that uranium would trade at US$42.82 in 12 months time.
Still other uranium market watchers have cautioned that a near-term rebound in the uranium market is a tough call to make. Mercenary Geologist Mickey Fulp has advised, "Not even insiders have an idea of when this is going to turn because the market is so opaque."
This is an updated version of an article first published by the Investing News Network in 2020.
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Securities Disclosure: I, Melissa Pistilli, hold no direct investment interest in any company mentioned in this article.
Editorial Disclosure: The Investing News Network does not guarantee the accuracy or thoroughness of the information reported in the interviews it conducts. The opinions expressed in these interviews do not reflect the opinions of the Investing News Network and do not constitute investment advice. All readers are encouraged to perform their own due diligence.
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