Climate change, the environment, renewables and the oil price tend to dominate the conversation about energy markets these days. However, other areas of interest don't get as much coverage and consideration as they deserve.
One commodity that fits that bill is Uranium which is the principal source of fuel for the world's nuclear reactors. It might surprise you to learn that Uranium is a tradable commodity and that there is an investable infrastructure that surrounds its production and use. In this guide we will take a look at the world of Uranium investing and trading as well as exploring some of the reasons that its price has been rising over the early part of 2020.
The Nuclear marketplace & Uranium Trading
Nuclear energy generates around +10.0% of the world’s electricity, according to data from the World Nuclear Association (WNA) that figure rises to +29.0% if we just consider the generation of low carbon electricity, globally. Nuclear power plants are operational in 30 countries worldwide and the power they generate is often transmitted abroad to other countries via modern power grids and connectors. According to WNA data, there are 440 active nuclear power plants in the world, with another 50 at various stages of construction.
In addition to these operational power stations, there are some 220 research reactors spread across more than 50 countries. These are used for the production of isotopes that are used in medical procedures, for testing and in industry. The reactors are also used for research and training purposes.
Uranium production and investing
Uranium ore, or yellowcake, as it’s known in the trade, is extracted by using mining techniques whether that be in opencast pits or from subsurface mines. More recently a new method of extraction has been introduced that of leaching. Leaching is a process that is similar to fracking under which water mixed with alkalis or acids, is pumped into uranium deposits, which dissolve and can then be pumped to the surface with the water and solvents. The uranium ore is then extracted from the water, dried and milled into fine yellow grains that are not dissimilar in appearance to mustard powder.
This is only the start of the process however, and before the uranium to be used in reactors it needs to be enriched. Which in practice means raising the levels of the isotope Uranium 235 in the yellowcake from around +0.70% to +3.0 or +4.0%.
To achieve this the uranium ore is combined with fluoride and turned into a gas, Uranium Hexafluoride, which is then spun in special centrifuges that separate the Uranium 235 isotopes, from the heavier, and more common Uranium 238 particles in the mix. After the centrifuge, the enriched Uranium is converted back to a solid, in the form of Uranium Dioxide, a black pepper-like powder which in turn is pressed into fuel pellets, that are injected into rods for use inside nuclear reactors.
Around 27 tonnes of Uranium or 18 million fuel pellets are needed each year to power a typical1000 megawatt pressurised reactor. By comparison, a coal-fired power station with a similar generating capacity would consume around 2.50 million tonnes of fuel per annum.
Production and how if affects Uranium trading prices
Uranium ore is found and extracted in 20 countries across the globe, but large-scale production is focused on a limited number of mines. In fact, just 10 mines accounted for +51.0% of global production in 2018, as we can see in the table below.
Around +13.0% of global production comes from one site in Canada and +16.0% comes from just 4 mines in Kazakhstan. Though overall, Kazakhstan accounts for as much as 40% of global uranium ore supplies. That concentration of supply has some interesting ramifications in the way that uranium is priced and traded.
Trading Uranium and how it compares to other commodities
The chart below plots the price of uranium ore against that of US crude oil or WTI over the last 5 year.
As we can see uranium prices are starting to pick up as crude oil prices fall sharply this most likely coincidental rather than correlation or cause and effect but it's certainly an interesting talking point.
Source Trading Economics
Uranium is largely traded Over The Counter or OTC with deals being struck by suppliers and end consumers. There are futures markets in uranium ore, but they are relatively lightly traded for example at the time of writing there were just 28 open contracts on the CME May 2020 delivery with another 300 lots split between the August and September contracts in 2021.
Uranium is priced in US dollars and cents per pound and each CME futures contract represents 250 pounds of uranium 308 a popular form of “yellowcake”
The futures contracts are not deliverable but instead are traded as cash-settled CFDs. The minimum tick size is 5 cents per pound or $12.50 per lot if you prefer
Uranium prices peaked in the spring and summer of 2007 reaching $140.00 per pound but fell off quickly from there. Taking a further leg lower after the flooding and explosions at Japan's Fukushima nuclear plant, in 2011. The ore currently trades around $32.00 per pound (at the time of writing) that’s up by around +28.0% since the start of 2020.
Given the limitations and lack of liquidity in uranium ore futures, traders and investors need to find another route to market and that will take one of two solutions: trading or investing in quoted uranium miners and processors. Or buying or selling a dedicated ETF or fund on the sector.
There are many quoted Uranium companies including names such as Cameco, Paladin Energy, Energy Resources of Australia and Denison Mining. Canadian miner Cameco (ticker CCJ) is one of the largest quoted miners with a market cap of US$3.73 bln. Whilst the Global X Uranium ETF (ticker URA) is the principal collective investment tool. The fund has a holding in Cameco alongside Kazak miner NAK Kazatomprom AO, as well as more familiar names such as Samsung, Rio Tinto, Mitsubishi and Macquarie Group.
Source Investors Intelligence
We can see in the chart above, that plots the price of the Global X ETF, against that of Cameco, that the two items are very closely correlated. The ETF has a +23.0% weighting to Cameco among its holdings, making this the largest investment within the fund.
Our third chart plots Cameco share price against the price of uranium over the last 5 years once again there is the suggestion of a correlation between the two values.
How and where can you trade uranium?
In terms of actually trading and investing in uranium, there are three options traders can choose between CFD or Spread Betting both are forms of margin or leveraged trading. The principal difference between the two is the tax treatment of profits.
Any profits generated through spread betting by individual UK taxpayers are not subject to UK capital gains tax, under the current legislation. On the other hand, any losses generated through spread betting cannot be offset against gains made elsewhere.
Profits made from CFD trading are taxable, though losses incurred from CFD trading can be offset against capital gains made elsewhere.
In either case, whether betting on or trading in the Uranium companies and ETFs you will never be the beneficial owner of the underlying instruments. Instead, you have an economic interest in the rise and fall of their share prices.
Alternatively, those looking to make a longer-term investment in uranium can opt to buy physical shares in the uranium miners through their stockbroker.
More recently a new investment vehicle has come onto the market in the shape of UK quoted Yellow Cake PLC (Ticker YCA). Founded in 2018 the company is effectively a securitised fund solely invested in U308. In its words, the company offers pure exposure to Yellowcake ore without the operational risk of mining processing and production. Yellow Cake holds slightly more than 9.50 million pounds of U308 giving it a NAV or Net Asset Value of some £240 million at current prices.
Influences on the uranium price for traders
Uranium prices are influenced by two major factors: supply and demand and global geopolitics and the interactions between the two.
As we saw earlier supplies of uranium are concentrated in fact just 4 countries account for 75% of the world's supply: Kazakhstan (40%), followed by Canada (13%), Australia (12%) and Namibia (10%) what's more more than half of global uranium ore production comes just from a handful of mines and that makes the supply chain very vulnerable indeed.
All the more surprising then that Donald Trump chose not to protect US uranium suppliers, by placing a +25.0% tariff on imports into the USA, despite extensive lobbying by US interests last year.
More recently Kazatomprom, the Kazakhstani state uranium miner, and the world's largest producer of ore, announced that it was to shutter all of its mines to halt the spread of the COVID-19 virus. And that the shutdown would last for three months.
Namibia has also taken similar action closing its uranium mines until the virus is brought under control. Given that uranium mining accounts for as much as +25.0% of Namibia's income this can't have been an easy decision to make.
This means that as much as +50.0% of global uranium supplies have been removed from the market for the second quarter of 2020, if not longer.
Smaller suppliers such as those in Australia are now under intense pressure to make up for the shortfall, though that will be something of a struggle, to say the least.
Demand and trading strategies
China is one of the world's largest consumers of uranium ore and is heavily reliant on Namibia for its supplies. Indeed it even operates mines in the country on behalf of the Namibian government as China’s economy gets back to normality after shuttering for almost two months. The country's 46 generating reactors will be called upon once more. In combination, they generate around +5.0% of the country's electricity needs.
Whilst in France nuclear power accounts for more than +70.0% of electricity generation in the country. France is also an exporter of nuclear power supplying other countries in Europe, including the UK, with its excess electricity and even a supposed “green economy” such as Denmark is said to draw +10.0% of its electricity needs from external nuclear sources. French and Chinese power companies may not be the only uranium consumers looking for alternative short-term supplies.
A word on risk when trading uranium
Trading commodity and mineral resources markets can be a risky business, supply chains can easily be interrupted, and new supply can come on stream quickly. As we have noted already, environmental concerns around nuclear accidents, such as those at Fukushima can have negative and long-lasting effects on Uranium prices.
The proliferation of nuclear technology is highly sensitive and one only needs to look at relations between the USA and Iran to see where this can lead. Trading a volatile and sensitive commodity such as uranium, on a margined basis, adds another layer of risk and complexity. None of this means that you shouldn't trade or invest in uranium, but it does mean that you need to do your research first and should enter any trades with your eyes wide open.