Top uranium producer is gloomy about nuclear power, for now
Don’t expect an upswing in the global uranium market anytime soon.
“In our models, we don’t get excited on the demand side,” said Galymzhan Pirmatov, chief executive officer of Kazatomprom, Kazakhstan’s state-owned mining company that’s the world’s biggest supplier.
With construction of nuclear power plants at a 10-year low, uranium demand remains weak. That’s holding prices so low that mining companies have been wary of increasing production. Kazatomprom’s output will increase about 5% this year, to as much as 22,800 tons, and then will be flat in 2020, Pirmatov said Wednesday in an interview in New York. While he hasn’t yet made a decision on 2021, he doesn’t see much to get excited about, at least in the short term.
“I do believe prices are too low,” he said. Uranium has slumped 15% this year to $24.35 a pound as of Wednesday. Kazakhstan controls about 40% of the world’s supply of the metal, and Kazatomprom accounts for half of that, making it the biggest producer.
There were 55 nuclear plants under construction in the first quarter, the lowest number in a decade, according to BloombergNEF. While China is booming, with 11 of those projects, developed countries remain wary. That’s partly due to lingering concern from the 2011 Fukushima nuclear catastrophe in Japan, and partly due to high costs, Pirmatov said.
“Growth is coming from developing markets these days,” where access to electricity remains a key barrier to growth, he said. Seven of the reactors under construction are in India.
In the U.S., flush with abundant and cheap natural gas, utilities are closing nuclear plants. The U.S. is also considering whether to impose tariffs on uranium, after two small domestic mining companies filed a trade case last year, arguing that imports are a threat to national security. The Commerce Department concluded its investigation in April, but the results haven’t been made public.
Kazatomprom doesn’t think tariffs would aid the global industry, but Pirmatov doesn’t have a sense of what the Trump administration is planning.
“There’s no logic” to imposing trade barriers, he said. “Everyone is aware with this White House, you can’t predict.”
While the next few years may remain turbulent, Pirmatov said that increasing interest in carbon-free nuclear power is going to be a key driver for demand.
“He’s planning for the long term,” said Chris Gadomski, BNEF’s nuclear analyst. “There’s definitely long-term interest because of increased concern about climate.”
(By Will Wade)