Uranium Down

By Glenn Dyer | More Articles by Glenn Dyer

Now here's something that hasn't really filtered through to the market: world uranium prices have fallen for the first time in more than four years.

That's after the radioactive leak at the world's biggest power reactor complex in Japan after the earthquake two weeks or so ago, and news of a surprise sale of uranium planned by the US Department of Energy.

Prices slipped to $US120/lb late last week from $US136/lb at the start of the month. It was the first drop since the middle of 2003 when prices hit $US11/lb.

Now they are 10 times that, thanks to rising demand due to growing worries about carbon emissions, a belief that nuclear power can be 'green' and rising demand for power as the world economy booms.

Uranium prices have also risen strongly as world oil prices have more than doubled in the same time.

The radioactive leak at the Tokyo Electric Power Company's Kashiwazaki-Kariwa nuclear plant has contributed to negative sentiment, with fears that it could spark new public opposition to nuclear power.

That's because there's evidence emerging of poor planning (the plant could have been built over a fault-line), and the disclosure of poor monitoring and an inadequate reaction from the company and the government after the quake caused a spill of water. That water proved to be far more radioactive than the company, the government first said.

The US Department of Energy's uranium sale from its stockpile took the market by surprise.

According to analysts, the department is selling the nuclear fuel to help pay for a clean-up of "contaminated uranium inventories". The timing is tight, with bids due in shortly, contracts awarded by the end of August and payments due by September 21.

That would put the deal inside the DOE's financial year which concludes at the end of September and would enable the money raised to be set off against the cost of the decontamination work.

That means there will be little room for negotiation and finessing.

The sale is expected to exert further downward pressure on uranium prices for the next few months, while the situation at the Tepco plant in Japan will be watched closely for signs of any renewed outbreak of anti nuclear power sentiment.

However, analysts said prices would continue to trade higher and that the price drop was a temporary correction.

They pointed to the continuing problems Cameco is having at its Cigar Lake mine in Canada which is flooded and won't be back on line until 2009 and news last week that Cameco (which is the world's largest uranium supplier) had suspended production at its Port Hope, Ontario nuclear fuel conversion plant because of contaminated soil surrounding the plant.

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In other news from commodity markets, oil prices rebounded with ICE September Brent up at $US76.26 a barrel in London and Nymex September West Texas Intermediate rising more than $US2 a barrel in New York on Friday to close at $US77.02.

For the week, Brent fell 2.3% but WTI rose 0.3%. It overtook Brent for the first time since February as more US refineries have come back on line and boosted demand for the prime US refining oil feedstock.

A lack of demand because of a high number of refineries and units offline for most of the year had seen Brent prices become a more accurate guide to world demand for oil than the WTI contract in Nymex in New York.

This change will now be vital for sending signals as the US steps into the lead up to the US autumn and winter build up of heating oil stocks.

Analysts say US oil inventories are now at their highest for months and are higher than they were this time last year.

Helping US oil prices hit $US77.02 a barrel in New York (one cent short of a record close), was the report on the strong second quarter growth for the US economy which surprised traders.

That got traders thinking about opportunities in the oil market rather than stressing about the sell-off in world stock and credit markets.

September crude rose $US2.07 or 2.8% to end at $US77.02 a barrel. The contract price rose 1.6% last week.

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Gold fell in New York on Friday in the first weekly decline in a month as the US dollar strengthened. Silver also fell.

It also fell Thursday while the US dollar was stronger on both days.

Comex December gold eased $US2.80 to $US672.30/ounce. The metal fell 1.8% last week.

September silver futures on Comex dropped 23.5 US cents to $US12.715/ounce, down 5.1% last week.

Gold had climbed earlier in the week as the greenback fell on concerns about the impact of the sub-prime losses deepening. Gold hit a three-month high of $US695.40 on July 25, so it fell more than $US23 an ounce in two days.

In contrast, the news of solid second quarter growth had a positive impact on copper which rose for the first time in four days on Friday.

Comex September copper futures rose 2.45 USc to $US3.547/lb (that took the year's gain back to 24%).

Also helping sentiment was news of a fall in Chinese copper inventories which eased 1.2% to just over 90,000 tonnes.

Renewed worries about industrial problems at some Chilean copper mines also helped push prices higher.

On the LME, three month copper fell $US15 to $US7,750 a tonne, that was down 4.4% last week.

Lead shed 14.6% to $US2,990 a tonne last week after reaching a record $US3,500 the previous Friday as speculators quit the market.

Wheat prices rose in Europe and the US because of concerns about the European harvests as an intense heat wave hit crops in several countries and rain was forecast for others (Britain, Germany and France).

In Chicago, CBOT September wheat rose 5.4% to $US6.53 a bushel, after hitting an 11-year high at $US6.64 on Thursday.

Glenn Dyer

About Glenn Dyer

Glenn Dyer has been a finance journalist and TV producer for more than 40 years. He has worked at Maxwell Newton Publications, Queensland Newspapers, AAP, The Australian Financial Review, The Nine Network and Crikey.

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