2015's top metal could see more gains next year

Radioactive metal uranium was the top-performing mining commodity in price terms this year and looks set to gain further in 2016 as nuclear sheds its "toxic" image.

Spot uranium prices last traded at $35.80 per pound, on track for gains of 0.85 percent since starting the year at $35.50/lb, according to Australian investment bank, Macquarie.

This marks the heavy silvery metal as the best-performing major mining commodity in 2015, when the vast majority of precious and base metals have slumped in price.


Uranium can be split to yield energy and its main use is as fuel for nuclear reactors to generate electricity. Colin Hamilton, head of commodities research at Macquarie, said that prices for the metal would likely continue to rise as the drive for "clean" sources of energy encouraged countries to use non-polluting fuels.

"We do see a play coming through this year. We would expect uranium and silver to continue to outperform. They are the natural defensives in this space; they are also playing on the clean energy theme. Thermal coal should continue to disappoint, the pain is still to come in that market," he told CNBC on Tuesday.

Credit Suisse forecasts that spot uranium prices will gain next year to average $40/lb, before reaching $45/lb in 2017, $50/lb in 2018 and $60/lb in 2019.

The Swiss bank said that positive price momentum over the next 12 months would be driven by nuclear reactor restarts in Japan, additional approval for new reactors in China, among other factors.

Fukushima

The popularity of nuclear energy waned, particularly in Asia, in the wake of Japan's Fukushima disaster in 2011 when an earthquake and tsunami triggered one of the worst nuclear accidents since Chernobyl. However, use of nuclear is now recovering, with the damaging impact of fossil fuel alternatives in focus after December's climate summit in Paris saw nearly 200 countries agree to work together to limit global warming.

Japan restarted two nuclear energy facilities in September and November respectively and has approved the restarting of two more next year, although this is subject to an injunction appeal.

India plans to produce 25 percent of its electricity from nuclear power by 2050, according to the World Nuclear Association.

China currently produces most of its electricity from fossil fuels, predominately coal, but is building 22 new nuclear power reactors and is due to start constructing more. It is on track to replace the U.S. as the world's largest uranium consumer, according to Washington D.C.'s Center for Strategic and International Studies.

The top three producers and reserve holders of uranium are Kazakhstan, Canada and Australia, according to the U.K.'s Royal Society of Chemistry. Other countries with known reserves include Russia, the U.S., South Africa, Namibia, Niger, Brazil and Ukraine.

The Ranger uranium mine in Kakadu National Park, Australia
Danita Delimont | Gallo Images | Getty Images
The Ranger uranium mine in Kakadu National Park, Australia

"In uranium, the price is effectively set by the Chinese market and China is happy (to set it at) $33 to $34 a pound for uranium and has done for the past five years," Hamilton told CNBC.

"Low volatility in commodity pricing is actually quite a good thing in the current climate and when you add that the (Kazakh) tenge has depreciated aggressively this year then actually, uranium producers are making a decent amount of money," he added.

Uranium is widespread in rocks and is also found in seawater. Apart from its use for electricity generation, it is also the main raw material used in nuclear weapons, according to the U.S. Institute for Energy and Environment Research. It is additionally used in nuclear submarines, as well as in its raw metal form in ships, aircraft, ammunition and armor.

Sanctions

On Monday, a Russian ship left Iran on Monday, carrying almost all of Iran's low-enriched uranium. This is a major step in a deal that would see Iran quit its nuclear weapon program in exchange for the lifting of international sanctions.

Downside risks to the price of uranium include the ramping up of production in Cameco's Cigar Lake mine in Canada, which is seen reaching full capacity in 2018, as well at other mines such as Husab in Namibia.

In addition, some countries, such as France, are cutting their use of nuclear energy. It currently derives around 75 percent of its electricity from nuclear power, but is due to reduce this to 50 percent by 2025.

Last week, BMO Financial Group noted that while uranium was the only metal to rise in dollar-denominated terms in 2015, gold had risen in a number of producer-nation currencies, including the Australian and Canadian dollar.

In U.S. dollar terms, spot gold prices are down around 9.5 percent on the year, while spot silver prices have fallen by around 10.5 percent.

Base metals have suffered sharper loses, with copper prices down nearly 25 percent on the year.

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