Uranium spot prices are still hovering near $35.50 per pound of U3O8. Clearly they are in no hurry to start the trek up the price chart in a market still swimming with excess inventory.
But while market watchers wait in the aisles for the final catalysts in this inevitable bull market, the uranium price is weighing heavily on producers, one of which is Paladin Energy (ASX:PDN). The company capped off the first Friday in February with the announcement that it is calling a halt to production at the Kayelekera mine in Malawi.
Paladin's CEO, John Borshoff, said in a statement that "[t]he Kayelekera Mine has performed exceptionally well technically, with production levels recorded at or near nameplate capacity over the past 12 months and significant achievements made in PAL's cost reduction programme." He added, "[n]evertheless, despite these considerable efforts, KM continues to operate at a loss due to the low prevailing uranium price. Paladin is unable to continue to provide the level of financial support that PAL has required in recent years, hence the decision at this time."
Given the soft pricing environment, the news from Paladin comes as no big surprise to the market. However, the supply halt does add extra stress to the primary supply picture for uranium. With Kayelekera on care and maintenance, a small, but significant, 2-percent share of global uranium supply has been removed.
In a note to clients, Cantor Fitzgerald analyst Rob Chang highlighted that Paladin's decision might be the first of its kind if the pricing environment doesn't firm up. Already, "a notable amount of utility demand ... will be 'uncovered' by long-term contracts by 2016," Chang explains in his note; further, "uncovered demand is a risk for utilities." He added that the firm expects "significant contracting activity to occur in the future," particularly in the event of more supply being taken offline.
However, as Chang notes, "with no substitutes for uranium for nuclear reactors, the industry cannot afford to have the majority of its suppliers operate at a loss."
While negative for utilities, the news is positive for the market as it supports the primary supply deficit, adding clout to the possibility of an eventual, possibly drastic, hike in prices.