Despite reactor closures in Europe and the US, the global outlook for uranium looks bright, with Asia’s burgeoning nuclear energy industry fueling demand for the radioactive metal. 
Australia’s uranium market is also set for a bright future, with a strong possibility of new mines opening in Western Australia provided global demand strengthens as forecast.
And, as with so many of the world’s minerals, Chinese demand is a key driver.
A recent commodities research note from Macquarie Bank called uranium the “best mined commodity of 2015”.
After a collapse in generation following the 2011 Fukushima disaster in Japan, “nuclear power has been making a quiet comeback,” said Macquarie. “We have now seen more than two years of consistent year-on-year growth. Total output this year is set to be the strongest since 2011.”
China, India, Korea and Russia were the engines of growth in the industry, said Macquarie, expected to contribute 70 per cent of new reactors by 2030. Furthermore, Japanese reactors were returning to the fleet, with 20 Japanese reactors back online by 2020.
However, cheap gas and coal, the rise of politically-friendly renewable energy and the costly need to extend the life of reactors had hit the industry in the West, the paper said.
In the US five reactors had closed since 2012, “with potentially as many to follow”; Germany will phase out all reactors by the early 2020s; while Sweden will cut back its reactor fleet by 40 per cent.

New capacity in Asia

However, said Macquarie, “the combined size of these reductions is less than half of the scheduled new capacity additions” in Asia. Widespread closures in the US, despite record-low energy prices, were “unlikely”: US nuclear energy use was its highest since 2009, nuclear power was still cheaper than fossil fuel, and the focus on reducing coal usage meant uranium had become a relatively more popular source of baseload power generation.
“We still see nuclear power as a growth industry,” said Macquarie. “We still expect solid demand growth on a five-year view.”
China has 26 nuclear reactors in operation and 25 under construction. But long-term plans call for 92 reactors operating by 2025 and 129 by 2030.
In 2015, China approved new reactors for the first time since the Fukushima nuclear disaster in Japan in 2009, with the China General Nuclear Power Corporation receiving the go-ahead for two gigawatt reactors.
China was “the only part of the world that’s really increasing reactor capacity by any large margin”, said ‎Mining and Metals Senior Associate at Citi, Matthew Schembri.
But Chinese demand for the radioactive metal far outstripped supply. China only produced 1450 tonnes of uranium in 2015, far less than its 8160-tonne consumption rate. 
Consequently, the Chinese were trying to create “uranium independence,” said Mr Schembri, not only by producing more but also by stockpiling and buying equity shares in foreign projects.
“They’re aiming for one-third to be domestically produced, one-third from foreign equity ownership in foreign mines, and one-third to be imports,” said Mr Schembri.
But the world was not likely to face a shortage of uranium despite the uptick in demand, he said.
“It is going to be an important power source in the future and the most recent Chinese five-year plan has said that, but even so, the world has enough uranium that’s it’s not going to create a particularly tight market.”
Uranium has fallen from around $US152 per pound in 2007 to well under $US60 since the global financial crisis, with a low just above $US28 in May 2014. This year, it peaked around $US40 in March. It is currently trading at $US35.35, which is just off the year’s lows.
Mr Schembri said that the price would return to $US40, rising to $US50 in the longer term. At these price levels, existing mines would remain viable and new ones would open, he said.
Macquarie agreed, stating that “almost all mine output is cash-positive at current price levels”.
Mr Schembri added that the recent Paris Climate Summit – which pledged to restrict global warming to “well below 2℃ above pre-industrial levels”, a goal that is expected to increase demand for nuclear power as countries shift away from carbon-dioxide-producing coal power – had had no effect on the uranium market or prices.

Increasing demand

Toro Energy, which hopes to develop the Wiluna uranium desposit in Western Australia, was upbeat about the future in its 2015 annual report
“Market sentiment continues to improve as emerging economies embrace low-emission nuclear power,” said Toro.
“Demand increases of between 15 per cent and 22 per cent by 2020 and 37 per cent to 58 per cent by 2025 are expected.”
Long-term prices for a pound of uranium were around $US44-$US45, the company said, with China, India and Japan the key drivers of demand.
Globally, said Toro, there were 442 reactors around the world producing 380 gigawatts of power.
In 2025, this is expected to increase to 512 reactors producing 471 gigawatts. In 2030, there are expected to be 576 reactors producing 560 gigawatts.
Australia, which produces 11 per cent of the world’s uranium and is the world’s third-largest producer after Canada and Kazakhstan, currently has three operating uranium mines:Ranger in the Northern Territory, Olympic Dam (the world’s largest uranium deposit) in South Australia and Four Mile in South Australia. Australian-listed uranium miners and explorers include Energy Resources of Australia, BHP Billiton, Rio Tinto, Paladin Energy, and Mintails.
There are a numerous proposals for new Australian mines, including four well-advanced proposals in Western Australia alone: Lake Way (Wiluna), which Toro Energy hopes to mine; Yeelirrie and Kintyre, which Canadian uranium miner Cameco wishes to develop; and Mulga Rock, which Vimy Resources has an interest in.
However, the new mines – which could create up to 1300 long-term jobs and be worth $1 billion a year to Western Australia by 2020 – have still not been formally approved and are dependent on the uranium price improving as forecast.
They are also the subject of fierce opposition from environmental groups such as the Australian Conservation Foundation, while the Western Australia’s ALP opposition opposes uranium mining and export. The next Western Australian election is in March 2017.