The Future of Uranium: A Story of Supply and Demand
The uranium market is at a tipping point.
Since the Fukushima accident in 2011, uranium prices have been on a downtrend, forcing several miners to suspend or scale back operations. But nuclear’s growing role in the clean energy transition, in addition to a supply shortfall, could turn the tide for the uranium industry.
The above infographic from Standard Uranium outlines how uranium’s demand and supply fundamentals stack up, and how that balance could change the direction of the market in the future.
The Uranium Supply Chain
The supply of uranium primarily comes from mines around the world, in addition to secondary sources like commercial stockpiles and military stockpiles.
Although uranium is relatively abundant in the Earth’s crust, not all uranium deposits are economically recoverable. While some countries have uranium resources that can be mined profitably when prices are low, others do not.
For example, Kazakhstan hosts roughly 1.2 billion lbs of identified recoverable uranium resources extractable at less than $18 per lb, more than any other country. On the contrary, Australia hosts a larger resource of uranium but with a higher cost of extraction. This varying availability of resources affects how much uranium these countries produce.
|Country||2019 production (lbs U)||% of Total|
|South Africa 🇿🇦||762,799||0.6%|
|United States 🇺🇸||147,710||0.1%|
|Rest of the World 🌎||308,647||0.3%|
It’s not surprising that Kazakhstan is the largest producer of uranium given its vast wealth of low-cost resources. In 2019, Kazakhstan produced more uranium than the second, third, and fourth-largest producers combined.
Canada produced around one-third of Kazakhstan’s production despite the suspension of the McArthur River Mine, the world’s largest uranium mine, in 2018. Australia was the world’s third-largest producer with just two operating uranium mines.
However, production figures do not tell the entire story, and it’s important to look at how the market price of uranium impacts supply.
How Uranium Prices Affect Supply
Low uranium prices have had a twofold effect on uranium supply over the last decade.
Firstly, miners have cut back on production due to the weakness in prices, reducing the primary supply of uranium. Here are some production cutbacks from major uranium mining companies:
|2016||Cameco 🇨🇦||Production at Rabbit Lake Mine suspended|
|2017||Kazatomprom 🇰🇿||Output reduced by 10%|
|2018||Kazatomprom 🇰🇿||Output reduced by 20%|
|2018||Paladin Energy 🇦🇺||Production at Langer Heinrich Mine suspended|
|2018||Cameco 🇨🇦||Production at McArthur River Mine suspended|
|2019||Kazatomprom 🇰🇿||Output reduced by 20%|
In addition, low prices have also blocked new supplies from entering the market. Around 46% of the world’s identified uranium resources, 8 million tonnes, have an extraction cost higher than $59 per lb. However, uranium prices have hovered close to $30 per lb since 2011, making these resources uneconomic.
As a result, the supply of uranium has been tightening, and in 2020, mine production of uranium covered only 74% of global reactor requirements.
Going Nuclear: The Future of Uranium
The world is moving towards a cleaner energy future, and nuclear power could play a key role in this transition.
Nuclear power is not only carbon-free, it’s also one of the most reliable and safe sources of energy. Countries around the world are beginning to recognize these advantages, including Japan, where all 55 reactors were previously taken offline following the Fukushima accident.
With more than 54 reactors under construction and 100 reactors planned worldwide, the demand for uranium is set to grow. Unlocking new and existing supplies is critical to meeting this rising demand, and new uranium discoveries will be increasingly valuable in balancing the market.
Standard Uranium is working to discover uranium with five projects in the Athabasca Basin, Saskatchewan, Canada, home of the world’s highest-grade uranium deposits.
How Energy Prices Performed in 2021
Energy commodities surged in 2021 as demand picked up and supply remained constricted, but which fuels flew highest?
How Energy Prices Performed in 2021
A year after the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, the world started to reopen and generate insatiable energy demand. Supply shortages and the clean energy transition further fueled the rise of all energy commodities.
Even in a year where markets and commodities performed strongly, energy prices stood out. The energy component of the Goldman Sachs Commodity Index (GSCI) rose by 59% in 2021, returning more than double any other component in the index.
How Much Did Energy Prices Climb in 2021?
After dipping into negative prices in April of 2020, WTI crude oil had a strong bounce back.
Many of crude oil’s derivative products also increased in price by double digits, resulting in higher gas prices at the pump. The U.S. average retail price for gasoline increased by 45.8% to close at $3.28/gal, while wholesale prices of RBOB gasoline also climbed by 57.8%.
|WTI Crude Oil||56.4%|
|Brent Crude Oil||50.7%|
Natural gas prices in Europe and the UK saw the biggest price increases in 2021, jumping more than 200%.
They were followed by ethanol, a biofuel that oil refiners are required to blend with their products. This requirement, along with the price rises in corn and sugar (ethanol’s primary raw materials around the world), made this hot commodity even more expensive.
Rising Natural Gas Prices Fuel Tension and Unrest
While the U.S. saw increases in its gasoline prices as well, these were mild compared to surges in Europe and elsewhere.
With close to 43% of Europe’s total gas imports coming from Russia, no additional supply was provided during the cold winter months. This was compounded as Germany’s approval of the Nord Stream 2 pipeline has remained in limbo.
So far, 2022 has been a continuation of these trends. For example, liquified petroleum gas (LPG) prices have nearly doubled due to unrest in Kazakhstan. The Kazakhstan government’s decision to lift price controls on LPG (the primary fuel for Kazakh cars) saw prices surge and led to days of protests and Russian intervention.
Coal Stays Strong Despite the Clean Energy Transition
Despite 2021’s emphasis on the clean energy transition, coal prices nearly doubled as the world was unable to shake off its dependence on the fossil fuel.
Even pledges from the COP26 climate change conference, such as China’s to reduce coal consumption after 2025, are not yet having an impact on prices. That’s because the country is still planning to add up to 150 gigawatts of new coal-fired capacity before then.
On the other hand, uranium couldn’t keep up with the price rises of fossil fuels. Although the energy metal had a breakout year as one of the recently renewed hopes for cleaner energy, the outlook for nuclear energy adoption and development is still mixed.
After the surge of energy prices in 2021, nations will need to carefully manage their clean energy transitions to avoid further unsustainable price rises.
Rare Earth Elements: Where in the World Are They?
Rare earth elements are the critical ingredients for a greener economy, making their reserves increasingly valuable to global supply chains.
Rare Earths Elements: Where in the World Are They?
Rare earth elements are a group of metals that are critical ingredients for a greener economy, and the location of the reserves for mining are increasingly important and valuable.
This infographic features data from the United States Geological Society (USGS) which reveals the countries with the largest known reserves of rare earth elements (REEs).
What are Rare Earth Metals?
REEs, also called rare earth metals or rare earth oxides, or lanthanides, are a set of 17 silvery-white soft heavy metals.
The 17 rare earth elements are: lanthanum (La), cerium (Ce), praseodymium (Pr), neodymium (Nd), promethium (Pm), samarium (Sm), europium (Eu), gadolinium (Gd), terbium (Tb), dysprosium (Dy), holmium (Ho), erbium (Er), thulium (Tm), ytterbium (Yb), lutetium (Lu), scandium (Sc), and yttrium (Y).
Scandium and yttrium are not part of the lanthanide family, but end users include them because they occur in the same mineral deposits as the lanthanides and have similar chemical properties.
The term “rare earth” is a misnomer as rare earth metals are actually abundant in the Earth’s crust. However, they are rarely found in large, concentrated deposits on their own, but rather among other elements instead.
Rare Earth Elements, How Do They Work?
Most rare earth elements find their uses as catalysts and magnets in traditional and low-carbon technologies. Other important uses of rare earth elements are in the production of special metal alloys, glass, and high-performance electronics.
Alloys of neodymium (Nd) and samarium (Sm) can be used to create strong magnets that withstand high temperatures, making them ideal for a wide variety of mission critical electronics and defense applications.
|End-use||% of 2019 Rare Earth Demand|
|Glass Polishing Powder and Additives||13%|
|Metallurgy and Alloys||8%|
|Ceramics, Pigments and Glazes||5%|
The strongest known magnet is an alloy of neodymium with iron and boron. Adding other REEs such as dysprosium and praseodymium can change the performance and properties of magnets.
Hybrid and electric vehicle engines, generators in wind turbines, hard disks, portable electronics and cell phones require these magnets and elements. This role in technology makes their mining and refinement a point of concern for many nations.
For example, one megawatt of wind energy capacity requires 171 kg of rare earths, a single U.S. F-35 fighter jet requires about 427 kg of rare earths, and a Virginia-class nuclear submarine uses nearly 4.2 tonnes.
Global Reserves of Rare Earth Minerals
China tops the list for mine production and reserves of rare earth elements, with 44 million tons in reserves and 140,000 tons of annual mine production.
While Vietnam and Brazil have the second and third most reserves of rare earth metals with 22 million tons in reserves and 21 million tons, respectively, their mine production is among the lowest of all the countries at only 1,000 tons per year each.
|Country||Mine Production 2020||Reserves||% of Total Reserves|
While the United States has 1.5 million tons in reserves, it is largely dependent on imports from China for refined rare earths.
Ensuring a Global Supply
In the rare earth industry, China’s dominance has been no accident. Years of research and industrial policy helped the nation develop a superior position in the market, and now the country has the ability to control production and the global availability of these valuable metals.
This tight control of the supply of these important metals has the world searching for their own supplies. With the start of mining operations in other countries, China’s share of global production has fallen from 92% in 2010 to 58%< in 2020. However, China has a strong foothold in the supply chain and produced 85% of the world’s refined rare earths in 2020.
China awards production quotas to only six state-run companies:
- China Minmetals Rare Earth Co
- Chinalco Rare Earth & Metals Co
- Guangdong Rising Nonferrous
- China Northern Rare Earth Group
- China Southern Rare Earth Group
- Xiamen Tungsten
As the demand for REEs increases, the world will need tap these reserves. This graphic could provide clues as to the next source of rare earth elements.
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