Wednesday, June 13, 2007

Uranium overview - mid 2007

What more do we know about the junior uranium companies? Firstly, it is clear that nearly all of them are involved at die early stage of exploration. It is believed that world expenditure on uranium exploration quadrupled between 2001 and 2005 and now stands at over 9200 million per year. The juniors are responsible for over half of this, the remainder being carried out by the current major producing companies. Altogether, this can be called the beginning of a second major exploration cycle for uranium, following the first in the 1970s and 1980s, when many of the current operating mines were discovered. Maybe a third of the companies are also buying up previously known deposits indeed there has been a rush to acquire the data from previous exploration activities, while share swaps and other similar corporate activity is very much part of life for such companies. Very few of the companies, no more than 20, have yet reached the next stage, which can be termed active mine development, in other words going through the regulatory process, preparing environmental impact assessments and bankable feasibility studies and beginning to invest in the mine infrastructure. What is clear is that it will still take many years for new discoveries to result in active mine production - this is true for all metals and minerals, but in uranium it tends to be prolonged. In some cases, this may be 20 years or so - it has taken that long to get current mines into operation. Of the junior companies, only a small number are now producing, such as URI and Mestena in the USA, Paladin Resources in Namibia and UrAsia in Kazakhstan.

As time goes on, however, more and more junior companies will reach the production stage. It's interesting to consider the countries where this is likely to take place. About half the junior companies have their headquarters and stock exchange listing in Canada, with about one third in Australia. Yet the geographical spread of their activities is much greater. Although Canada and Australia are both prominent at the exploration and known deposit acquisition stages, many of the companies are active in both the USA and Africa, with smaller numbers working in Asia, Latin America and Europe. So new production could come from any of these locations - indeed there are good grounds to believe that Africa and the USA may well outpace Canada and Australia, at least over the next 5-10 years.

With the exception of the Honeymoon in situ leaching mine in South Australia (which SXR Uranium One should commission by 2008), there is nothing immediately coming up from the juniors in the two big producing countries, which currently account for half of world output. One reason for this may be that the regulatory process seems to be rather more lengthy in these countries (and Australia is only now escaping from anti-uranium public policy and sentiment}. It is notable that Paladin has got the Langer Heinrich mine in Namibia up and running in a relatively short period of time, encouraged by supportive public authorities. Other African mines, in South Africa and other countries, are likely to get into production well before all the projects in Canada and Australia, currently only being talked about. The position in the USA is less clear, as the regulatory process there can also be lengthy, but there is every prospect of some of the juniors getting production moving strongly upwards in the 5-10 year timeframe, American utilities, who have been most exposed to the uranium price spike, will no doubt support this. Yet the big increase in world production before 2010 is likely to come from Kazakhstan, where operations are largely controlled by Kazatomprom, clearly a major established player in the market.

Another feature to watch with the junior uranium companies is that they are often very dependent on the uranium price staying high. The average grades of many of their deposits are quite low, suggesting they may be quite high up the cost curve. While buyers are keen to diversify their sources of supply, particularly at present when they feel weak against the established producers, price is vitally important and they won't generally support those with high cost profiles.

It is clear that there will inevitably be a huge amount of consolidation in the junior uranium sector. The better companies will inevitably become acquisition targets for the major producers, particularly if these find themselves short of material to satisfy contracts. Indeed, cynics about the sector would claim that this is all most of the juniors really want to do - they have no intention of ever producing a pound of uranium themselves and are just seeking to sell out at a good profit to whoever comes along. This may be true of many, but there are clearly those who are dedicated to getting mines up and running. But of course, everything has its price. What is likely is that over the longer term, there will likely be only 10-20 survivors out of the current pool of 400 who are still involved in uranium, independently and at the mine production stage. Possibly even fewer. So a wave of takeovers, mergers and even corporate failures is now likely to ensue.

Finally, it must be said that the junior companies have brought a fresh air to a sector that, with a few exceptions, appeared to be on its last legs only a few years ago. Some would say that a lot of the fresh air is also hot air, but this U inevitable in a business such as mining, with its sharp up and down swings. Industry meetings have certainly been enlivened by the appearance of many 'characters' from the past and by the arrival of financial types, only really out to make money (and not apologetic about this). And as said earlier, the rising interest in uranium has presaged the increased focus on nuclear power as a whole, which must be a good thing.

No comments:

World Nuclear News