This article was originally published by TheStreet, and also appeared on Yahoo! Finance, on September 9, 2014
By Sarfaraz A. Khan
By Sarfaraz A. Khan
NEW YORK (TheStreet) -- Cameco (CCJ_) is an unloved uranium stock that is down more than 9% this year to $18.83, but investors might want to keep a helmet light on this miner amid a rebound in uranium prices.
More than three years ago, an earthquake and tsunami in Japan triggered a nuclear crisis in that country with the meltdowns at Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant. The subsequent nuclear plant closures in Japan, as well as in other European countries, caused an oversupply of uranium in the international markets. As a result, the commodity's prices dropped by 57% from early-2011 to $28 per pound in May.
However, uranium prices have slowly recovered to more than $32 per pound by Friday, with most of the growth coming in the last two weeks following the closure of the world's leading uranium mine in Canada. Spot supplies of uranium were coming down as producers from other regions, such as Kazakhstan and Australia, cut back their operations.
Meanwhile, Rob Gereghty, the manager of media relations at Cameco, the biggest U.S. listed uranium miner in terms of market cap and production, pointed towards several demand-side drivers -- new reactors in Asia and restarting reactors in Japan -- that could push prices higher over the next ten years.
Prices are currently considerably lower than the 2011 levels of $65 per pound, and a far cry from $136 per pound in mid-2006. The golden age of uranium is likely over. In order to rebound to pre-Fukushima-disaster levels, the current prices will have to double, which is going to take a lot of time. That said, the recent recovery might will give respite to investors.
Cameco alone is responsible for around 15% of global uranium production from its mines in Canada, the U.S. and Kazakhstan. The company is the leading uranium producer of the world, ahead of Kazakhstan's KazAtomProm and France's Areva (ARVCF_) .
Cameco boasts 43 million pounds of proven and probable reserves spread across 4.9 million acres of land. Cameco also has a distinct advantage of being a low-cost producer which has allowed it to withstand the turbulent business environment. The company posted annual profits throughout the crisis.
Two weeks ago, Cameco started shutting down its flagship McArthur River mine and the Key Lake mill in the Canadian province of Saskatchewan due to a labor dispute. McArthur River is the biggest uranium mine in the world responsible for around 10% of the global supply.
Since Cameco's announcement, uranium prices are up by around 14% to $32.75 per pound after lingering below $30 per pound during the last four months.
However, in an email, Gereghty said that it is still too early to tell whether the improvement in prices is a direct result of the McArthur River mine closure. However, prolonged stoppage "will contribute to upward pressure on uranium prices."
On the demand side, Gereghty said that annual uranium consumption is expected to increase to 240 million pounds in 2023 from current levels of 170 million pounds, showing an annual growth rate of around 4%. "This is not just a forecast," Gereghty explained, "it's real demand that will come from the 70 new reactors currently under construction in countries like China, India, Russia and South Korea."
China, in particular, is currently developing 30 new reactors and plans to develop 100 more over the next 20 years.
Meanwhile Japan, after tightening its nuclear safety regulations, is gearing up to restart the firsttwo of its nearly 50 closed nuclear reactors in 2015. "As Japanese reactors begin to come back on line," Gereghty said, "we expect to see a return to long-term contracting by utilities and an improvement in the price of uranium."
Japan reduced its exposure to nuclear energy in the wake of the Fukushima incident by switching to imported fossil fuel, but this caused 19.4% and 28.4% increase in electricity rates for households and industries. The new pro-nuclear power government, however, has been trying to bring most of the reactors online.
Should the rebound in prices continue, investors should also watch out for other uranium stocks such as Denison Mines (DNN_) and Uranium Participation (UEC_) . These companies, as well as Cameco, are also the biggest holdings in the Global X Uranium ETF (URA) , the uranium industry's biggest exchange-traded fund in terms of market capitalization.
At the time of publication, the author held no positions in any of the stocks mentioned.
This article is commentary by an independent contributor, separate from TheStreet's regular news coverage.