George Topping: Sovereign Stockpiling of Uranium Underway

by: The Energy Report

With the prospect of 30 million pounds of uranium evaporating from the supply lines four years hence, Blackmont Capital research analyst George Topping sees sovereign stockpiling already beginning to make itself felt on the demand side of the equation. In this exclusive interview with The Energy Report, George says he sees the price nudging up to $65 by the end of this year, then to $70 in 2010, $80 in 2011 and $100 within five years.

The Energy Report: Let’s begin with some of your thoughts about uranium. Almost two years ago, spot prices hit a record $137 per pound. A year ago—well before the bottom fell out of virtually all the markets—the spot price dropped by nearly half, to the neighborhood of $70. You focus a lot of your attention on uranium. How do you see its future shaping up?

George Topping: The situation right now is you’ve got the spot price down at about $43 a pound and the term price up at $69. Historically, the spot and the term price have traded very close together, within a couple of dollars. The hedge funds being forced to sell material in the spot market, which is typically a fairly small market for uranium, have depressed the spot price. But I expect that’s starting to dry up and over the next several months we should see the spot price come up to meet the term price round about the $60 to $65 per pound level.

From there I would expect it to increase further over the next several years, the main new source of demand being sovereign stockpiling. In the last five months, India has rejoined the nuclear club. India had been excluded for decades for political reasons. So with the Indians now having access to the uranium markets, I think they’ll be stockpiling a very large dump of U3O8 to power their nuclear programs, both atomic weapons and domestic power.

TER: What sort of balance is there between nuclear weapons and power plants? It seems it would be somewhat small for weapons.

GT: It depends upon how much test work is undertaken and how large a stockpile of nuclear weapons one requires. For example, over the last 10 years about 30% of the world nuclear power demand has been met by dismantling nuclear weapons and from Russia’s stockpiles. There’s only a small amount of radioactive material—and it’s not commonly uranium—in atomic weapons. But it’s so pure and highly concentrated that you can blend it down to make an awful lot of fuel for power generation. Power reactors use pretty low-grade uranium; whereas a nuclear weapon is 99% pure.

TER: You used the term “sovereign stockpiling” of uranium. So India isn’t the only country doing the stockpiling.

GT: No. And it isn’t only uranium. The Chinese, for example, have said that they’re obviously stockpiling oil right now. They’re actually just commissioning one of the world’s largest storage facilities for oil. In the same announcement, though, the Chinese said that they’d be stockpiling oil as well as other forms of energy. They have coal already and natural gas is not easy to store, but uranium is one of the easier ones to go out and buy and stick away in a strategic stockpile. Given that China has quite an aggressive build of power plants over the next several years, I wouldn’t be at all surprised to see China build up a significant stockpile.

TER: What about the U.S. or Canada?

GT: The U.S. and Canada both have plans to build more nuclear plants, more for environmental reasons that anything else. But I’m not convinced that they will follow through with many of those planned reactors because, in my mind, this terrible recession will drag on for North America. Nothing cures your power demand requirements as quickly as a protracted recession.

So I don’t see the U.S. and Canada being areas of great growth. I think you really have to look toward the developing countries such as India and China as the mainstay for demand.

TER: Will China still be building a stockpile if they’re in recession? Or would we have to wait to see China come out of the recession to start stockpiling?

GT: I believe that, as with oil, they’re not pausing at all due to their own slower growth. They’re carrying on with plans to stockpile metals, particularly metals they produce, actually, to support domestic industry, keep their own mines operating and lower the number of miners who are flung out of work domestically. They don’t want riots and people protesting. A lot of China’s actions address the desire to maintain jobs.

For example, within China, state intervention supports molybdenum prices. They’re buying molybdenum. They’re buying copper. They’ve been buying aluminum; they’ve been buying zinc, trying to keep prices a little bit higher on the one hand, to keep the miners in jobs, but on the other hand also creating strategic stockpiles. They view that as a win-win situation.

TER: So they are mining all these industrial metals that you just mentioned in China. Are they also importing to build the stockpiles or can they do that solely from domestic resources?

GT: The imports are increasing as the Chinese are paying a premium to the LME prices. You’re seeing imports come into the country. With copper, for example, an arbitrage situation closed in the last week or two, but you could have been buying copper in London, putting it on a ship, and sending it over to China for an arbitrage profit.

TER: That swings both ways. You have to be on the right side of the trade. Quadra Mining Ltd. (OTC:QADMF) just had to write a big refund check because by the time the copper reached its destination, the price had dropped dramatically.

GT: Yes, you have to be on the right side of the trade or else mitigate the risk by buying puts or entering into fixed-price contracts. If you don’t mitigate the risk, you may get caught.

TER: But back to uranium, currently we’re seeing this spread between spot and the term price that a utility would pay. Spot is low because of the hedge fund selling, but you think that’s drying up. So where do you see the spot price and term price ending this year? What direction? What magnitude? And what are you looking at for 2010?

GT: For this year I expect the term price to drift down to $65 per pound or thereabouts, but the spot price to move upwards and end the year very close to the term price. So right about $65 by the end of the year. And then going into 2010, I’m looking at $70, then $80 the year after that.

I think prices will move back up to $100 per pound over the next five years. Come 2013, the agreement to dismantle nuclear weapons expires.

TER: That’s between Russia and the U.S?

GT: Correct. It’s called the HEU Agreement, the Highly Enriched Uranium Agreement, and when that expires, it will leave a 30-million-pound gap in supply. A nuclear power generator that’s just spent several billion dollars adding another couple of reactors will want to be sure of a uranium supply, so it’s in their interest to foster new supply before 2013.

TER: A couple of weeks ago, a Japanese consortium and Mega Uranium Ltd. announced an agreement to joint venture on Mega’s Lake Maitland project in Australia. Will we see more deals like that?

GT: Yes. Another one is Korea Resources.

TER: So might we see sovereign governments themselves, particularly the ones we’ve talked about, buying uranium? Would you expect an increase in countries actually buying in this sector of the market?

GT: Yes, and I think it’s a wise thing for them to do. If they can’t rely on their own corporations to ensure supply, they’ll probably step in.

Most countries, though, leave it up to the private corporations to ensure supply. For example, the Ontario government’s unlikely to intervene to ensure that Bruce Power, which is a private partnership, has supply. The partnership owns the power station; it’s up to them to make sure they have the fuel necessary to run it.

TER: Is enough mining underway currently to fill that 30 million pound supply gap? Or will there be a shortfall of supply for a certain number of years?

GT: Right now it looks like there’ll be quite a shortfall. Cameco Corporation’s (NYSE:CCJ) Cigar Lake was the big hope for a lot of power stations or utilities. That mine, though, has been beset by flooding and now I doubt it will be in production by 2013. In fact, it may be even 2015. In my models, I’ve got it in 2015, but you’re really sucking on your thumb there, because it could take longer to seal those leaks. It will be far out. It’s hard to say at the moment because they’re still trying to plug the fractures from which the water is inflowing.

TER: Or is it possible that they can’t seal them?

GT: They’ve been trying. It’s a very difficult situation. They’re in waterlogged sandstone and it’s very difficult to stop these leaks. Even if they were to stop the leaks tomorrow and pump it dry, it probably would still be 2012 before the first uranium would come out anyway.

TER: Would any another potential property be able to come into production before 2013 to yield the Cigar Lake amount of uranium?

GT: Not really. The forecast production rate for Cigar Lake is 18 million pounds of uranium per annum, so that would have taken away a little more than half the gap. The last frontier for a major jump in supply is Australia. We really need Australian governments at the state level to open up their mining permits to allow more uranium mines.

TER: Wasn’t that voted in last year?

GT: The federal government has voted it in, but some of the states are taking their time. So the federal government wants it; they basically said we’re in favor, but it’s really up to the states.

TER: Isn’t a vote in Queensland scheduled soon?

GT: Yes, there is. I spoke with Paladin Resources Ltd. (OTCPK:PALAF) recently—they’re over there in Australia—and they expect both the Liberal Party and Labor Party are in favor of it. It’s a question of time. Even with permission to go ahead and develop uranium deposits, though, it’s still very tight to get something in by 2011.

TER: Given this picture you’re painting of this massive shortfall in supply, it’s somewhat surprising to hear that you aren’t projecting the price to go up more rapidly as we move toward 2013. Energy is strategic to most countries and many of them, such as France, China and India use a lot of nuclear power.

GT: It’s quite a jump. I’ve got it going up to $100 per pound. It could go a lot further if there’s no visibility of filling that hole in supply. But right now I think $100 a pound is fine.

TER: What are some stocks that you like in the uranium space?

GT: I like Paladin Resources, it’s a growth company. They’re going to be building production up quite rapidly over the next several years. They really just started, and this year they should do about 2.9 million pounds of uranium production. It should be 6.8 million pounds by 2011 and about 14 million pounds by 2014. It’s one of those Australian deposits that I believe will be coming on stream.

TER: Because the government will say it’s all right to add another mine.

GT: Yes, I’m sure they will.

TER: So you’re counting on that.

GT: There’s nothing like a worldwide downturn to open up governments’ minds. I like the growth of that company. Another interesting one that’s a lower technical risk is Uranium Participation Corp. (OTCPK:URPTF), which just holds physical uranium. So you don’t have any of the technical risk.

TER: So that’s really a pure play. How would that differ from buying an ETF of a particular commodity?

GT: It’s not particularly different. You get the straight increase in NAV when the price goes up. What is slightly different from an ETF is it tends to trade at multiples on discounts to NAV depending on sentiment. For example, when uranium was in the bull market, Uranium Participation Corp. was trading at a price-to-NAV ratio of 1.45 times, so a 45% premium to its NAV. Right now it’s trading at about a 12% discount.

TER: Isn’t there another nuclear holding company traded on the AIM?

GT: It’s called Nufcor Uranium Ltd. They recently listed on the Toronto Stock Exchange as well. There’s no liquidity in the TSX though, so if you want to buy it, you have to buy it on the AIM. Nufcor has higher expenses than Uranium Participation Corp. They do lease out the uranium to undisclosed counterparties, too, so it’s a higher risk exposure because you don’t know what the counterparty risk is.

TER: That’s probably why it sells at a much larger discount.

GT: Probably.

TER: Any other uranium companies?

GT: Cameco, of course. Then the ones I mentioned are about the only ones I’m looking at. The others, I find, are a bit higher risk.

TER: Any comments on Cameco aside from its Cigar Lake problems?

GT: Cameco probably serves as a good vehicle for exposure to the uranium market because there are so few large liquid names out there. I have a hold on Cameco just now. They’ve got a lot of cash flow from third-party sales, so production isn’t keeping up with their sales growth. I find the accounting to be very complicated with Cameco as well.

TER: Do you have a comment to give us on U3O8 Corp.?

GT: It is one of the better quality juniors. I know management; I’ve met them several times. I’m not sure how much cash they have now, but you could describe them as a cash-rich junior with good management.

TER: In today’s market, that’s what you want. Gotta have the cash; otherwise, that’s a problem. And then you need the management who can figure out what to do with it, ride the storm. Where are U3O8 Holdings’ assets?

GT: Guyana. They have a small resource, 5.8 million pounds, already delineated. That’s the hardest bit, you know, getting the first resource. It’s easier from then on to keep drilling it and build it out.

TER: Are they currently mining some of this resource?

GT: No, just exploration at this point.

TER: Another name on your list is Fronteer Development Group (FRG); their recent ‘bring back home the baby’ deal with Aurora gives them more than 90% ownership.

GT: Yes, for cash, really.

TER: (Fronteer CEO) Mark O’Dea really has done a shrewd deal there.

GT: That’s right. He’s brought it back in, basically, paying not much more than cash. For the time being, though, Fronteer is really more of a gold company because they’re not going to be doing anything with the uranium asset so long as the mining moratorium is in play.

TER: But aren’t there other things they can work? They could be getting ready to mine once that moratorium is over.

GT: Yes, you can spend a little bit of money getting ready, doing some metallurgical test work and doing some background for the environmental impact statement. But if I were Fronteer—and I think this is what they are doing—I would not be spending much money there at all to send the message that you can’t treat private companies like that and expect them to continue to employ people.

TER: Is it a foregone conclusion that the moratorium will be lifted?

GT: It’s still an open issue, but I think it will be lifted. It’s more a case of the Inuit not being ready to accept an environmental impact statement and to manage a process like that. They have neither the skill set nor the people.

TER: But they realize they have potential jobs and royalties and taxes and so on. They’re basically a new nation within a nation.

GT: I’m sure they’re well aware of that and it was a very close vote not to let the mining go ahead, so I think three years from now they’ll be ready for that deposit to proceed.

TER: You have Fronteer as a speculative buy?

GT: Yes.

TER: You also have Tournigan Energy Ltd. (OTC:TVCFF) as a speculative buy?

GT: Yes. They have a deposit over in Slovakia; basically a very good deposit with about 40 million pounds of high-grade uranium at 0.5%. The problem there is that it is, I believe, followed by environmentalists right now. I think they’ll probably get permission, but it’s going to be a long haul. If you’re patient, it’s one with a lot of value.

TER: Gabriel Resources had quite a time in Romania trying to get its big gold and silver deposit, Rosia Montana, permitted. Once you make the big discovery and all, that’s when the real work begins.

GT: That’s right. Particularly in Europe, it’s so easy for NGOs to travel from London to any European city. That makes it a lot easier to protest. You don’t see many protests in the Congo.