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14/04/2007 | Brief - Uranium's Increasing Popularity -- and Price

Stratfor Staff

Uranium prices rose 19 percent April 6 to $113 per pound (up from $95 per pound a week earlier), the largest single percentage increase on record since price monitoring began in 1968.

 

Though this could point to a short-term supply shortage, the longer trend of rising uranium prices (they have risen 57 percent since the beginning of 2007) will not abate. Behind this surge are myriad developments attributable to increasing concern about rising petroleum prices; a belief that nuclear energy development can aid domestic energy security as natural gas and oil supplies from unstable countries increasingly are seen as risky; and current and expected regulations on fossil fuel energy sources. Those regulations on fuels that emit greenhouse gases (GHG), which contribute to climate change, will make fossil fuel more expensive compared to nuclear energy, which emits no GHG.

These factors are contributing to an increase in nuclear energy development and demand for nuclear materials -- primarily uranium. Industrialized countries currently dependent on nuclear energy want to secure uranium supplies in the face of rising global demand, particularly from developing countries such as India and China. Meanwhile, a renewed push for nuclear energy in the United States could lead to even more global competition for uranium and a boom in nuclear energy investment worldwide.

A Needed U.S. Breakthrough

While the rest of the world pushes ahead with nuclear energy, its future in the United States is less certain. Over the past 20 years, safety concerns arising from incidents like Three Mile Island and Chernobyl halted nuclear industry growth while a relative abundance of coal and natural gas made nuclear energy both politically and economically unpopular. More recently, fears of a militant attack on a nuclear energy facility have abounded.

Moreover, the U.S. government is still unable to develop a popular plan for nuclear waste storage. A proposed national depository near Yucca Mountain in Nevada remains stalled due to state opposition and concerns surrounding waste transport. U.S. Sen. Harry Reid (D-Nev.), who is also the Democratic majority leader, steadfastly opposes the plan. In response, the Bush administration initiated the Global Nuclear Energy Partnership (GNEP) in 2006, which promotes the reprocessing of nuclear fuel (a common practice in Japan and France) and its export to other nations, primarily developing countries. GNEP could significantly reduce the amount of spent fuel headed to depositories, but there are abundant concerns that the reprocessed fuel shipments could be vulnerable to militants. Another option -- on-site storage of nuclear waste at nuclear facilities -- is technologically feasible but faces large local opposition.

The United States has not had to rely significantly on nuclear power because energy from the abundant U.S. domestic coal supply (reserves are estimated at 520,494 million tons) is much cheaper than nuclear energy, which requires significant initial capital investment. However, from an economic perspective, energy suppliers are taking a second look at nuclear energy, since expected GHG regulations and requirements for coal plants to use cleaner technology will make coal-powered energy more expensive.

Other factors will add to the growing support for nuclear energy development in the United States. First, Americans too young to have seen the effects of nuclear plant disasters are much more open to nuclear development than the previous generation, particularly as younger citizens grow more concerned about climate change. Second, the notion of energy independence and security is popular with politicians and the public who view nuclear development as a way to make the country less dependent on petroleum from politically unstable regions. Further, environmental groups are beginning to come around to nuclear energy because of its potential role in slowing climate change; some environmentalists have come out in support of nuclear energy as a viable option (though most still prefer alternative energy and energy efficiency measures). A convincing argument for a repository like Yucca Mountain or a successful implementation of GNEP could certainly add to the growing support for nuclear energy development in the United States.

Merely replacing the existing U.S. fleet of nuclear reactors could be worth as much money as all of the planned expansions in France, Russia and China combined. Such a development would not only revolutionize the U.S. domestic nuclear industry but would also lead to expanded nuclear technology research and development worldwide. Also, U.S. acceptance of nuclear energy likely will lead to a quick increase in nuclear operations in other industrialized countries that have been hesitant to pursue further nuclear activity because of safety concerns. In the long term, geopolitical struggles for uranium supplies could emerge, with Central Asian countries and Russia becoming increasingly important players in world energy markets.

Global Uranium Surge

There is a worldwide boom in uranium exploration, from Canada to Kazakhstan, while countries with few domestic energy supplies -- such as France and Japan, who are economically dependent on nuclear energy -- scramble to secure access to uranium reserves before global competition heats up precipitously.

Japan, the third-largest nuclear power generator, negotiated April 10 with Kazakhstan and Russia (which have the second- and third-largest uranium reserves, respectively) to discuss securing uranium supplies. As China and India increase their uranium demands, Japan wants more control over and access to uranium mines in Russia and Kazakhstan.

Last year, Kansai Electric Power Co. and Sumitomo Corp. became the first Japanese companies to invest in uranium mines in Kazakhstan, and Japan's Mitsui & Co. plans to explore in Russia with Russian state-owned nuclear company OAO Techsnabexport. Further, Japan will send approximately 100 government officials and business representatives to Kazakhstan on April 29 in an attempt to further solidify Tokyo's relationship with this increasingly geopolitically significant nation.

Nations with abundant supplies of fossil fuels and uranium -- most notably, Australia and Russia -- can export uranium, develop their own nuclear industries or pursue a combination of both. Russia is choosing the third option, looking to export more uranium while increasing its own reliance on nuclear energy. In March, Russian First Deputy Prime Minister Sergei Ivanov said Russia plans to create a new government enterprise, Atomenergoprom, to increase uranium extraction and nuclear power plant construction. Russia plans to build 40 nuclear power plants, adding to its 31 existing facilities, with a goal of boosting its nuclear power production to 25 percent of energy consumption by 2030. Russia's motive is not to increase its energy security through nuclear development but to decrease domestic consumption of other energy sources, particularly natural gas. Russia views nuclear development as an effective means of diversifying its inefficient domestic energy use so that its natural gas supply for export remains robust.

Pressure is mounting inside Australia, which does not have a nuclear industry but likely has the world's largest uranium reserves, to develop a nuclear industry (which could include power generation) within the next 10 years. Australia, which has massive coal supplies, is more likely to develop nuclear energy in response to carbon regulations, rather than out of a desire to bolster its exports of other energy supplies.

In Europe, the strong environmental lobby and green parties continue to campaign against increased nuclear facility construction. However, most governments realize that in order to meet their Kyoto and likely post-Kyoto emissions-reduction targets, and to reduce their dependence on Russian energy supplies, they cannot avoid discussing increasing nuclear development.

U.S. Developments

In the United States, no development better exemplifies the coal-to-nuclear paradigm shift than the TXU Corp.'s plan to scrap the majority of its proposed coal plants and continue instead with plans to construct two to five new nuclear facilities in Texas. The highly publicized private equity takeover of the energy utility company and its deal with national environmental groups, which dropped their lawsuits against the TXU's proposals to build 11 coal plants, was a major symbolic turning point. Whether TXU decided to stop coal expansion in response to environmental campaigns or for purely economic reasons, it bolstered environmentalists' belief that attacking coal expansion is an effective way to force companies to pursue cleaner energies. As coal plants continue to come under attack, nuclear energy will only grow more attractive.

There are more than 20 proposed nuclear facilities in various stages of regulatory review, and many in the industry and the Bush administration act as if increased nuclear development is a reality. However, even though TXU and other U.S. energy companies hope to build reactors, they must still contend with disposal problems. As long as Yucca Mountain is sidelined, with no immediate solution in sight, the risks involved in developing nuclear facilities will prevent a significant boom in the industry.

The industry hopes that if one new facility is built in the United States -- perhaps by TXU in Texas, or perhaps on the site of an existing facility, which would be politically easier since reactors are there anyway -- other nuclear facilities will quickly follow. Most U.S. reactors are nearing the point of abandonment; if the industry can get at least one new plant built, that will break the ice and many old plants will likely be replaced.

RUSSIA: Russia's largest steel producer, Evraz Group, could put up $6 billion to purchase Canadian IPSCO, one of the world's top producers of pipes and steel plates, Russian business daily Vedomosti reported April 12, citing unnamed sources. Both Evraz and IPSCO have declined to comment. Russian billionaire oligarch Roman Abramovich holds a 41 percent stake in Evraz. Considering that IPSCO recently acquired U.S.-based NS Group, the acquisition would give Russia -- and one of its most powerful oligarchs -- a foot in the Canadian industry and the U.S. market.

RUSSIA: PricewaterhouseCoopers (PwC) has won the contract to conduct Gazprom's 2007 audit. The actual contract will be written once Gazprom shareholders approve the decision at the June 29 annual general meeting. PwC has faced a series of problems involving its audit of bankrupt Russian firm Yukos. After a Moscow arbitration court's verdict that the company covered up tax fraud for Yukos, PwC lost a key client -- Russian carmaker AvtoVAZ -- after 13 years of cooperation. Gazprom's choice of auditor was expected to prove decisive in PwC's future in Russia. PwC is caught in the middle of a power struggle within Russian President Vladimir Putin's inner circle, as top political heavyweights control the rival Russian energy firms Gazprom and Rosneft -- the two firms with arguably the heaviest interests in Yukos. Rosneft and its political backers will use the Yukos case as ammunition against PwC and, by questioning PwC's practices, could call Gazprom's finances into question as well.

CHINA: China's General Administration of Customs reported a 38 percent year-on-year decrease in China's trade surplus in March, state-owned English-language China Daily reported April 11. China continues to experience increasing pressure from the United States and other trading partners because of a rapidly expanding trade surplus (a rise of some 74 percent from 2005 to 2006). The report indicated the trade surplus dropped to $6.87 billion -- the first time in 13 months that the monthly figure had dropped below $10 billion. Yet, while China Daily touts the March figures as a success, such a conclusion is both misleading and premature. The General Administration of Customs highlighted the monthly figure, yet the cumulative trade surplus for the first quarter of 2007 amounted to $46.4 billion, almost double that of the same quarter last year. As Beijing tries to spend its way to a lower trade gap, optimistic Chinese projections still see a rise in the trade surplus of 30 percent in 2007, leaving an estimated trade surplus of $230 billion for the year.

CHINA/U.S.: The United States filed two formal requests for dispute settlement consultations against China under the World Trade Organization (WTO) on April 10. The cases dealt with piracy of U.S. media products and limited market access in China for U.S. products. The U.S. Commerce Department estimated pirated goods in China costs the United States $24 billion per year. Predictably, the Chinese government responded to the complaints with expressions of great dissatisfaction and regret over the complaints. If the United States and China do not resolve the dispute within 60 days, they can request the formation of a dispute settlement panel, which would result in full legal proceedings, potentially dragging the cases out for two years. Both the U.S. administration and China have used the issue of intellectual property rights multiple times to win points with the U.S. Congress and electorate without having to confront the more sensitive currency issue between the countries.

ANGOLA: Angola and Saudi Arabia will account for half of OPEC's growth in the next two years, the International Energy Agency reported April 12. OPEC is projecting oil output to rise from 33.9 million barrels per day (bpd) in 2006 to 34.8 million bpd in 2007 and then to 36.5 million bpd by 2008. Angola, whose oil output is expected to rise to 2 million bpd in 2008 from 1.2 million bpd in 2005, will contribute almost 30 percent of OPEC's growth. Saudi Arabia is projected to account for almost 22 percent of the oil cartel's growth. Angola is experiencing a resurgence in its economy since a truce with rebels in its oil-rich Cabinda province means that Luanda no longer faces any internal threat to its control. Luanda is expected to take advantage of the relative peace in the country to boost not only oil production but diamond exploration, its other significant economic activity.

ZIMBABWE: Zimbabwe's Central Statistical Office (CSO) on April 11 indefinitely postponed the release of March inflation figures. Inflation soared above 1,730 percent in February and was expected to reach a record high of 2,500 percent in March despite President Robert Mugabe's statements to the contrary. The CSO said it was "still compiling the numbers," causing the delay. Greatly relying on Zimbabwe's security forces, Mugabe has withstood considerable domestic and international pressure to redress the country's political and economic crisis. The unpopular Mugabe has deflected attempts by members of the ruling Zimbabwe African National Union-Patriotic Front party to force him from office, and recently announced his plans to stand for president again when elections are next held -- possibly in 2008, to coincide with scheduled parliamentary elections.

MEXICO: Mexican President Felipe Calderon decreased Mexico's base commitment to supply oil to a proposed Central American oil refinery during the Plan Puebla Panama (PPP) meeting in Campeche, Mexico, on April 9-10. PPP is a regional integration and development initiative started by Calderon's predecessor, involving Mexico's nine southern states and Central American countries. Although the PPP meeting aimed to revitalize regional development, Calderon reduced Mexico's commitment from 230,000 to 80,000 barrels per day (bpd) due to declining production at Cantarell, the country's largest oil field. Panama, Costa Rica and Guatemala are vying to be selected as the site for the proposed refinery, which is to have a 360,000 bpd capacity; firms from China, India and Japan are bidding to build it. Calderon's reappraisal is a further indication that Mexican oil output is headed for a serious collapse if legal barriers to foreign cooperation in offshore exploration are not addressed soon. Furthermore, if Mexico cannot provide sufficient crude for the Central American refinery project, the project could become unviable.

Stratfor (Estados Unidos)

 



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Center for the Study of the Presidency
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