Raymond James Analyst's Four Top Picks For The Coming Uranium Upswing

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Uranium spot prices have shown more life recently, says David Sadowski, mining equity research analyst at Raymond James, and he expects upward pressure to continue as utilities resume buying to meet future needs. In this interview, he tells The Energy Report the time is ripe to invest in uranium company stocks. In addition to his four top picks in the space, Sadowski identifies other companies whose takeout potential will be enhanced by the rising value of their properties, including one he thinks the market has undervalued.


The Energy Report: David, the price of uranium has been volatile recently. What's behind that?

David Sadowski: Spot prices ran in late 2014, touching $44/pound ($44/lb) as a handful of utilities entered the market, either expressing buying interest or buying material outright. At the time, supplies available to the market for spot delivery were quite thin, leading to upward pressure on prices.

But the price ran pretty quickly, and as the calendar and financial end-of-year approached, we saw a big drop-off in volume as buyers retreated to the sidelines. The timing caused the price to move around drastically. This type of thing isn't entirely unusual, if you pull up a 10-year price chart. Right now, the spot price is about $37/lb, and the long-term contract price, which has been a lot less volatile, is $49–50/lb.

TER: Do the sanctions on Russia have any effect on the price?

DS: Right now I would say no, but they could. Russia controls a huge chunk of global uranium supply. Not all of it leaves the country, because Russia has a decent-size, 25 gigawatt (25 GW) domestic nuclear fleet. That's about 7% of global operating capacity. But a lot of that material does get exported both to other countries and to client states, where Russia has constructed reactors and is under contract to supply fuel for the life of a unit under the build/own/operate model.

"We see a very high takeout potential; that's one of the key reasons we rate Fission Uranium Corp. a top pick."

Quantifying the uranium supply from Russia, we estimate about 8 million pounds per year (8 Mlb/year) is mined annually within Russia, 60 Mlb is mined in Kazakhstan, which has very close ties to Russia, and the country has another 15–20 Mlb from underfeeding and coming out of stockpiles. That's about 45% of the global supply of natural uranium right there. On the enrichment side, a key part of the fuel cycle, Russia controls about half the world's operating capacity. It contributes roughly 20% of the U.S. requirements for enriched uranium product, and about a third of the European Union's. Remember, about 11% of the world's power comes from nuclear. Russia's dominant position in the nuclear fuel cycle could be key if it chooses to exert pressure on the West. If it chooses to cut back on exports, that would have a very positive impact on prices, in our view.

TER: I read that Rosatom is talking about renewing cooperation with the U.S. on nuclear material. Is that anything substantial?

DS: I would say, with the state of Russia–U.S. relations at the moment, we're very unlikely to see another agreement such as the U.S.–Russian Highly Enriched Uranium (HEU) deal, which saw the downblending of about 20,000 warheads and supplied U.S. reactors with fuel from those warheads for about two decades. It was good to see the two major nuclear powers cooperating. But I wouldn't expect another major nuclear or uranium-related deal any time soon because of the relationship today. There are also other geopolitical and economic disincentives that should cause Russia to hesitate from starting a similar HEU program.

TER: Is the price volatility going to continue? What is your forecast for 2015?

DS: 2015 should be a good year. We think we're off the bottom, and we expect utilities to pick up buying activity with renewed annual budgets in the first part of this year. We've already seen increased interest, with Duke Energy Corp. (DUK:NYSE) notably buying 150,000 pounds (150 Klb) and others talking about midterm deals. We're looking for both term and spot buying activity to increase. With spot supplies thinned, buyers will be less likely to dump material at fire sale prices, so we should see the price move upward. The utilities, after all, have been pretty quiet the past couple of years. They need to buy to cover future needs—particularly to meet requirements into 2018 and beyond. Given that the contracting window starts three to four years in advance, we're into that period now.

We project spot prices to average $38/lb in 2015. But I think there's real potential for spot to rocket through the $40/lb level before the year is out. We've all seen how quickly spot can move. With utilities poised to jump back in and supplies thinned by throttle-backs at mines, the spring is coiled pretty tightly. It's just hard to time the move. With another supply side shock—like a win by ConverDyn Corp. (private) in its suit against the U.S. Department of Energy, which is dumping into the market, reduced supply out of Russia in response to Western sanctions, or a disappointment in the planned ramp-up at Cigar Lake, which we think is a 50/50 bet—spot prices could skyrocket.

TER: Nuclear power plants in the U.S. seem to be closing down gradually. What effect is that having on companies in the uranium space?

DS: In the U.S., we've seen some half-dozen reactors announce shutdowns. More are possible, but not many. The most vulnerable are small, old, single-reactor plants with high operating expenses relative to typical U.S. plants, and reactors located in unregulated merchant electricity markets where they get outcompeted by cheap natural gas power plants. Post-Fukushima safety upgrades are also playing a small role at reactors with slim operating margins and short remaining operating lives. The closures will be offset by five new reactors under construction at Watts Bar, V.C. Summer and Vogtle.

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1) Tom Armistead conducted this interview for Streetwise Reports LLC, publisher of The Gold Report, The Energy Report, The Life Sciences Report and The Mining Report, and ...

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