Uranium prices have fallen each year from 2011 to 2016, owing to the current supply glut caused by delayed Japanese reactor restarts. This situation shouldn’t last much longer. We expect global uranium demand to rise roughly 40% by 2025, a staggering amount for a commodity that saw next to zero demand growth in the past 10 years.
We expect new reactor capacity to drive the strongest uranium demand growth in decades. A quadrupling of China’s reactor fleet headlines this growth. China’s modest nuclear reactor fleet uses little uranium today. That’s set to change in a major way. Beijing is pivoting to nuclear in order to reduce the country’s heavy reliance on coal. New reactors in India, South Korea, and Russia as well as restarts in Japan lend additional support.
The mined supply of uranium will struggle to keep pace amid rising demand and falling secondary supplies. Low uranium prices since Fukushima have left the project cupboard bare, and we expect a cumulative supply deficit to emerge by 2023. These shortfalls should begin to affect price negotiations in 2019, since utilities tend to secure supplies three to four years before actual use. We estimate contract market prices must rise to $65 per pound to encourage enough new supply.
As one of the largest and lowest-cost producers globally with expansion potential, Cameco should benefit meaningfully from higher uranium prices. The company benefits from stellar ore grades, large scale, long life, and an attractive operating cost profile.
Among the Lowest-Cost Uranium Miners
Production costs are the primary litmus test for measuring competitive advantage in the highly cyclical mining industry. All producers can generate fat returns on capital when commodity prices are high, but only the lowest-cost producers can be expected to generate excess returns on capital through the cycle. Measured by cash cost of production, Cameco ranks among the lower-cost uranium miners at CAD 21 per pound in 2015 (before royalties) by virtue of an enviable asset base anchored by the extremely high-grade McArthur River mine in Saskatchewan. Generally, this is a recipe for strong returns on capital.
However, owing to long-term contracts struck with utilities before the post-2003 surge in uranium prices, the company has been unable to fully capture the economic benefits due its cost profile. As a result, by our measurements, Cameco hasn’t consistently generated returns in excess of its capital cost (about 10% in our model) over the past several years.
We expect this to change in the coming years. We expect that Cameco’s price realizations will naturally improve as contracts struck in periods of weaker uranium prices continue to roll off its books. A concurrent improvement in contract prices (toward our $65 midcycle estimate) and new low-cost production from Cigar Lake should help Cameco clear its cost of capital over the long term.
We also view the expiration of the Megatons to Megawatts program at the end of 2013 and, more broadly, the continued drawdown of secondary supplies as favorable for Cameco’s competitive position, as it will put increased onus on mine supplies to meet worldwide reactor demand, effectively improving the cost position for all uranium miners.
Uranium Price Is Biggest Uncertainty
Over the past five years, uranium prices in the contract market have been as high as $72 per pound (in 2011, immediately before Fukushima) and as low as $30 per pound (December 2016)--volatile, but not especially so by commodity standards. We expect a combination of robust demand and weak supply to push prices to $65 per pound (real 2016 dollars) by 2021, although there is considerable uncertainty around that forecast. For instance, Japanese reactor restarts could be less numerous and slower than we anticipate. Or China could stumble in its ambitious reactor buildout efforts. On the supply side, Kazakh production, always tough to project, could prove stronger than we anticipate.