Spot Uranium Price Drops, But Niger Rebels Pressure Miners

by: James Finch

The markets got what they were promised – further short-term uranium price weakness.

For the first time since May 2001, the spot uranium price dropped twice in two consecutive weeks.

According to Nuclear Market Review [NMR] editor Treva Klingbiel:

Sellers are for the first time in many, many months showing a willingness to sell below the current published price in order to attract a willing buyer. As a result, TradeTech’s Spot Price Indicator dropped to $133 per pound U3O8, a decrease of $2.00 from the June 30th Exchange Value.

NMR reported current active spot supply rose to more than 3.2 million pounds U3O8 equivalent. The closely watched active supply/demand ratio also rose – to 3.5 to the advantage of future uranium buyers. This confirms a reversal of the supply/demand ratio which favored sellers in late 2006 and early 2007. In mid December, we reported at least nine buyers were seeking about 5 million pounds U3O8. Klingbiel characterized active demand as ‘extremely weak,’ and explained there was an absence of ‘have to’ demand in the market.

Quite the opposite appears to be true. Klingbiel also wrote, “One seller has offered 392 thousand pounds U3O8 contained in UF6 in a sealed bid auction.” Bids are due Tuesday, July 10th for a delivery date no later than December 14th. Auctions, which once sent the spot uranium price higher, now appear to give speculators, who hold uranium, the jitters.

It also seems that every time the appearance of a supply and demand equilibrium ‘flattens’ the uranium price, another market surprise comes along. In late October, Cameco Corp’s (NYSE:CCJ) Cigar Lake flooding drove a rush of buyers to the spot uranium market. After a relatively quiet period, this past winter, Energy Resources of Australia announced part of their Ranger uranium operations had been flooded by a cyclone. Both events triggered a buying frenzy.

What’s next on the mining disaster agenda?

World’s Fourth Largest Uranium Producer

The next potential squeeze on uranium supply could come from terrorism, not nature.

The world’s seventh and eighth uranium producing mines are found in the Republic of Niger: the underground Akouta and the open pit Arlit. Together, they produced 3434 tonnes of uranium in 2006, according to the World Nuclear Association. This accounted for more than eight percent of the world’s mining production last year.

How badly would this impact a tight uranium market if either of the Niger mines stopped producing?

A Paris-based spokesman for the Niger Movement for Justice [MNJ] Seydou Kaocen Maiga told reporters this weekend:

This region has been declared a war zone by the government and in this situation we cannot allow the Chinese to continue extracting natural resources while civilians are being killed.

He had made this statement after Tuareg and other nomadic tribes, led by the highly trained militant Aghaly ag Alambo, kidnapped China Nuclear International Uranium (Sino-U) deputy general manager Zhang Guohua. The kidnapping took place near Ingall, an area which is currently being heavily prospected for uranium deposits, and which we discussed nearly 15 months ago.

Ag Alambo appears to be emerging as a folk hero among the nomadic tribes, who control northern Niger and where the uranium mines are located.

We have been following the Tuareg story since April, when thirty armed MNJ nomads attacked Niger’s Akouta uranium mine, controlled by an AREVA subsidiary. A security guard and three others were killed. There had been two previous violent incidents before then, but none were uranium mining related.

Little took place until June when another 20 MNJ members boldly, but unsuccessfully, attacked an international airport, located in Agadez. This is another area being prospected for uranium deposits. In late June, a widely respected security expert, Neil Thompson of RED24, issued travel warning advising ‘against all non-essential travel to the northern parts of Niger.’ Thompson was formerly the Detective Superintendent in the UK’s National Crime Squad, is a trained hostage negotiator, and has worked closely with foreign intelligence and law enforcement agencies.

Thompson also wrote in his travel advisory:

The combination of widespread Tuareg discontent, a highly motivated and increasingly capable Tuareg insurgent group, and the Niger government’s entrenched political position suggests that a protracted, and possibly bloody, conflict in northern Niger is now highly likely, and may even spread to neighbouring countries.

The MNJ has been active for the past six months, as the spot uranium price reached a historic high.

A week before the Chinese uranium executive was kidnapped, Thompson warned the MNJ would “attack ‘softer’ targets, such as foreign companies and personnel.”

Earlier this year, Niger’s Minister of Mines and Energy Mohammed Abdoulahi said his staff was reviewing about 100 exploration applications from 26 companies. After Namibia had closed the ‘exploration license’ window, many chose to pursue uranium opportunities in Niger.

Most eager were the Chinese. The country had announced ambitions plans to build new nuclear reactors to continue fueling China’s astounding GDP growth, while at the same time hoping to reduce its share of carbon dioxide emissions. China is the world’s largest consumer of coal and hopes to reduce its coal dependence through the use of nuclear, natural gas and other less pollutive alternatives.

The Tuareg rebels have complained about Chinese workers taking the jobs of local workers. Ag Alambo issued a warning that he was opposed to foreign companies supplying Niger’s national army, which has been detaining and killing civilians during a brutal regional security crackdown.

At the root of the recent Tuareg hostilities is the demand to have greater control over Niger’s mineral resources, especially the country’s uranium interests. Uranium comprises more than 70 percent of the country’s exports. Ironically, Niger derives 100 percent of its electricity from fossil fuels. The electricity-producing power plant the rebels attacked earlier this year generates power to mine uranium.

In 1998, the Tuareg nomads were promised greater autonomy by the Niamey-based government in southern Niger, but all promises appear to have been broken. Rebellion by the tribespeople has been sporadic, yet violent, since the 1960s.

Thompson reported in his travel advisory:

Sources on the ground suggest that the group [MNJ] is largely made up of veteran Tuareg militants, who were integrated into the Niger military under the terms of the 1998 agreement and subse quently defected.

In question is who dictates how the land is used – whether for agriculture or uranium mining. The Tuareg nomads want the arable land for their camels, goats and sheep.

The agriculture and livestock sectors provide about 80 percent of the country’s employment. Only 15 percent of Niger’s land is arable, and herein lays the problem. The Chinese have been exploring near the oasis of Indall, which because of its salt diapirs could host prolific uranium deposits.

But the salty plains hold a cultural significance. Each September, as they have for centuries, Tuareg, Peul and Arab nomads gather for the annual ‘salt cure.’ During their annual reunion, they exchange news of their nomadic travels while their livestock graze on the grass of the oasis.

An MNJ spokesman explained that if Indall became a mining town, it would be a ‘disaster.’

And a disaster is what could possibly occur between now and September, before the annual nomadic gathering, should the MNJ insurgents continue targeting uranium interests in Niger.

This is not an anomalous episode, open to instant resolution. The traditional Tuareg lifestyle has been collapsing since the 1970s because of desertification and drought, especially the severe droughts of 1972-74 and 1984-85. Having found themselves forced onto the economic and political sidelines, they took up arms in the 1990s.

This led to the resolution of 1998, which was never honored. Dissatisfaction has driven the nomads to rebel. One expert commented, “The Tuareg problem in Niger was never resolved.”

And now the Tuareg and other nomads appear to have banded together to reclaim their territory, which includes uranium prospecting licenses awarded to foreign operators.

Most likely to be impacted should the Akouta underground uranium mine suffer any damage is AREVA, which owns 34 percent of the Cominak, the company which mines this deposit. Other foreign companies holding interests are Japan’s Overseas Uranium Resource Development Company (25 percent) and Spain’s Enusa (10 percent). Uranium concentrates, produced in Niger, are mostly shipped to Comurhex (France) for conversion.

Recent events show a departure from statements made by Dr. John North, then-director of uranium explorers North Atlantic Resources and Northwestern Mineral Ventures, who told us, “My experience with Niger is that it’s a peaceful, democratic country with no civil unrest.”

Just as with copper strikes, or the potential thereof, taking place in South America, production disruptions can impact a metal’s price. The same could be said for uranium, especially for one of the world’s leading producers.

Our conclusions are highly speculative and should not be construed as investment advice. However, to the south in Nigeria’s Niger Delta, another terrorist group, MEND – Movement for the Emancipation of the Niger Delta – has been dictating the world’s gasoline prices as a result of their kidnappings.

On Sunday, Tuareg rebels demanded that all foreign miners leave Niger.

It’s Africa. Anything can happen. Even with the uranium price.

Julie Ickes co-wrote this article.