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Kazakhstan uranium output unaffected by unrest

(Image courtesy of Kazatomprom)

The world’s largest uranium producer, Kazatomprom, remains unaffected by the ongoing turmoil in the Central Asian state of Kazakhstan.

“Uranium mining is going according to plan, there have been no stoppages,” a Kazatomprom spokesperson said. “The company is fulfilling its export contracts.”

Uranium prices have spiked to $45.50 per pound, the highest since November 30, as protests and security crackdowns spread across the country.

Uranium prices have risen after unrest in Kazakhstan which was spurred initially by protests against fuel price hikes.

But the central Asian country’s political turmoil does not seem to have so far affected key industries.

“Uranium mining is going according to plan there have been no stoppages. The company is fulfilling its export contracts,” a Kazatomprom spokesperson said.

The widespread protests initially started in the oil-rich west of the country in response to rising prices of liquefied petroleum gas (LPG), which many Kazakhs use to power their cars. The protests have now grown to include critics of Kazakhstan’s long autocratic rule.

Kazakhstan has a history of social upheaval. Nursultan Nazarbayev ruled a former Soviet state, Kazakhstan, from 1991 until 2019. Nazarbayev ally Kassym-Jomart Toqayev was elected president in a vote condemned by observers as unfree in 2019. Nazarbayev remained in government in a national security position.

To subdue the protests, Toqayev dismissed his cabinet and Nazarbayev, BBC News reported. Toqayev has also called on Russian-led regional security organization CSTO to restore order to the country.

Around 1,000 have been injured, while dozens of anti-government protesters have reportedly been killed in Kazakhstan’s largest city Almaty.

The continued unrest on January 6 prompted a selloff of uranium stocks quoted in Toronto, halting uranium equities rallying up until Wednesday.

Canadian uranium companies such as Cameco (TSX: CCO), Denison Mines (TSX: DML), and NexGen Energy (TSX: NXE) retreated from their gains, each falling between 5% to 7% in early morning trading Thursday.

Kazatomprom’s London-listed shares were down almost 5% on Thursday, to the lowest since end-September and adding to Wednesday’s 8% drop. But shares in other uranium producers, such as Cameco, were up till Wednesday, trending up nearly 12% in the year to date.

‘Minor discomfort’

Kazakh uranium accounts for about 40% of global uranium production. Kazatomprom’s attributable production represented about 23% of global primary uranium output in 2020, according to the company’s website.

Uranium mines are placed in remote regions of Turkestan oblast, largely unaffected by ongoing protests and clashes within the country. As of January 6, there were no reports of the uranium workers joining the disruptions.

CRU Group’s EMEA consultant, Toktar Turbay, said that while there might be some logistical hurdles with delivering products to the borders, since significant routes pass through the Almaty region where all the significant clashes are ongoing, the read-through for uranium producers might cause “some logistical discomfort, rather than anything else.”

“More than half of Kazakh uranium exports goes to China. It is just likely to create minor discomfort rather than anything else,” Turbay said in a statement to The Northern Miner.

“In the last decade, China has accumulated vast uranium inventories that can cover 11 to 12 years of uranium demand needs. Any short-term disruptions will leave enough uranium in the inventories to cover the immediate needs of the market.”

Uranium prices have risen after unrest in Kazakhstan which was spurred initially by protests against fuel price hikes.

Reuters Graphics

According to UxC, the spot uranium price crossed above the $30 per pound level in August, after a year-long sideways crawl. It ended 2021 on a high note, touching above $45 per pound in November before falling to $42 per pound by December.

Spot prices have already risen on the back of increased supply uncertainty. Analysts at Canaccord Genuity expect the market could see further upward pressure on uranium prices and equities until more clarity is provided on the situation in Kazakhstan.

Cannacord Genuity analysts note that the Sprott Physical Uranium Trust is now trading back at a premium to its NAV.  “This allows the trust to purchase more physical, adding additional upward pressure on the spot market.”

The situation in Kazakhstan, in their view, serves as a reminder of how concentrated uranium supply is and how important security of supply is.  They expect utilities to be on high alert as the situation evolves,” said analyst Greg Huffman in a research note.

(With files from Reuters and Bloomberg)