Interview with Mark Chalmers, President and CEO of Uranium producer, Energy Fuels (NYSE: UUUU).
It’s a bloodbath for Uranium equities at the moment. There is no news from Washington and most Uranium CEO’s have gone quiet. So we called Mark to see what he knows.
- Continuous Silence: What is Happening in the Uranium Market?
- Delays for the Decision and Options Available
- US & Iran: How the Situation Affects the Uranium Market
- The Mill: How Old is it, What is the Cost of Maintaining it and Could it be Decommissioned in the Future?
Matthew Gordon: We are operating in a bit of a void here. I’m looking at share prices of most of the Uranium players, North American, are being hammered. What do you know that we don’t?
Mark Chalmers: Well, I think that we have is, we have investors that are just tired of waiting. They have been waiting; when we started this 232 process 2 years ago and it just drags on and on and on. Look, I share the frustrations of investors, but just remember; for every share sold, there is one purchased, even though the price of these shares has gone down and we have all been hammered. Not just in the United States but even in some of the global equities in Canada have been hammered as well too. It certainly doesn’t make me feel good when I see these shares slipping but as you know, our company and Ur-Energy started this process 2 years ago, but we are still making progress. We are still making great progress. I think that the Government gets it. I think they get it that we have to have a nuclear fuel cycle in the United States.
Matthew Gordon: Why do you say that they are making great progress or that the Government understands?
Mark Chalmers: I think that when the tack changed from the 232 process, which is more of a trade-focussed initiative, to national security when it comes to producing Uranium and nuclear products, you know, focussed on the military’s requirements, the Government’s requirements, we got rid of, effectively, all opposition that we know of when we made that shift. The utilities are not openly fighting us. We’ve got good support from NEI. We’ve had many, many meetings, I wouldn’t want to count them up. Hundreds and hundreds of meetings with people in the Administration, people in Congress.
Matthew Gordon: You are meeting these important people up on The Hill, what are they saying?
Mark Chalmers: You know, I think that we have gone through a huge education process on how dependant we are for import products in the United States and I think that when we talk to them, they are shocked at how dependant we have become. The government inventories have been there for decades, but they are finite and they are diminishing. As long as we are the largest consumer in the world, is that where you want to be, and not have the capabilities to replace those inventories because Uranium nuclear fuel products for the military, has to be unobligated products by the treaty, so it basically has to be by treaty, mined, converted and enriched in the United States of America.
Matthew Gordon: Pompeo and Trump; do they understand the scale of the problem?
Mark Chalmers: Look, I haven’t met with Pompeo, I haven’t met with Trump but I believe they both understand the magnitude of the problem. I think the people surrounding them understand the problem. I think they are understanding they need to make a decision quickly because of this imbalance of our ability to produce these very specialised products for the US Government.
Matthew Gordon: 12 months ago they had this same problem, today it is more imperative. Given the nature of some of the politics in America at the moment; we have this impeachment hearing going on, we have got Iran waivers being discussed, another 60 day extension, is it possible to make a decision in that environment?
Mark Chalmers: Look, we think so. It’s certainly been harder to get to the top of the pile. Since the original working group deliberations and the report they prepared, it’s been really hard. Every time we thought we were getting closer, it kept getting delayed. Certainly, with our discussions with people in Congress and those in Administration, we say, ‘Look, we are out of time. We need to tell our shareholders what the outcome is with this review. They need to understand, we are getting hammered with our share price and we also need to send a clear message to the world of Uranium mining and these nuclear fuel products; including the Russians, the Chinese, the Kazakhs, that the United States of America is not going out of business, in this area, at the front end.
Matthew Gordon: What are the options on the table now? We’ve been reading about Government-buying programs of US Uranium.
Mark Chalmers: Look, we try not to make it guesswork because it’s better for us to provide some guidance here. I mean, the first thing we want is, we want the Government to come out and say that the Government is supporting the nuclear fuel cycle in the United States: mining, conversion and enrichment, at a level that at least provides some critical mass so that we have the capabilities to produce our basic requirements, not all our products, but we can flex up if required. So the number one is; we want to be able to show our shareholders and tell the world, or have the Government tell the world the conclusions that they have made through both the working group and the Section 232 investigations. That’s number 1. Number 2 – we want to see, or we hope to see immediate demand for Uranium mining. Uranium mining is the most challenged first step of the process. We would like to see the Government starting to buy Uranium: like now, this year -2020, and onwards to make sure that the Uranium miners can sell their product at fair prices. Fair prices. So that we can get some cashflow re-established.
These companies that are not producing now – zero cashflow, it’s not a real good outcome; it’s not sustainable for a long period of time. And then lastly, the plan, the plan that they announce, we do realise that some of this, or a big chunk of this is going to have to go through appropriations. The expensive part of the plan is really the enrichment. Uranium mining and conversion already have a lot of the infrastructure in place on the lesser side of this re-establishment of the fuel cycle. when you start talking about building new enrichment plants, being able to make everything from 495, 235, all the way up into 90s 235, that’s going to start costing billions. Now, the Government was already planning to re-establish enrichment without, in the early days, without looking at the Uranium and the conversion steps.
Matthew Gordon: Interesting. 20% of US energy is produced by nuclear fusion. There have been a few plants that have come to end of life, and a few due to come to end of life. The utilities have got oil, they have got gas, they have got renewables; nuclear is part of that, but for them to invest billions of dollars into building, or upgrading new plants, must be a big part of the conversations that they are having with the Government too. So, the miners are just a small part of this, but it’s got to be joined up thinking.
Mark Chalmers: Yes. And I think that there was a lot of logic when the President came up with his working group. Now granted, the working group’s main focus was just these first three steps of the fuel cycle but certainly, the Government, or the Trump administration is certainly committed to keeping its mini nuclear power plants operating, going forward, for obvious reasons. I think that the Government, like the DOD and the DOE, are also getting increasingly optimistic about the micro reactors and the small modular reactors. You know, this new Haleu fuel which is 20% 235, is also becoming a product that the Government thinks they will need for the SMRs particularly. And then, lastly, space travel – you know, that’s coming back on to the horizon. Now that is not probably a large consumer, and takes some time out, but again, I’ve said this to you many times, it is not time for the United States to not be in this business.
Matthew Gordon: What is your view on this Iranian waiver issue at the moment. It’s a real political hotbed. The Europeans don’t want it. I know there’s a lot of discussions internally between Pompeo and Mnuchin about it. They are in disagreement about it. Is that a big distraction for you?
Mark Chalmers: I think it helps us because I think it shows how sensitive and inter-related this fuel market is outside of the United States. Even this morning I was hearing that Trump and Pompeo were wanting these waivers to go away. I also heard, and I heard this on the radio, Fox News, that the utilities, they don’t want it to go away because they have such a dependency already on the former Soviet Union, Russians, for fuelling their reactors. So it is all interconnected. People talk about, we’ve got all of these stockpiles, we’ve got all of this Uranium. We don’t need it for another 5 years, 10 years so obviously, the business couldn’t ever be healthy, and I know that’s not the case. But then, if you start looking at when you remove or let these waivers expire, and it starts to create issues where Russia cannot import into the United States, or cut back on that, a lot of these utilities are going to start running out of fuel, like within a year and that is sure going to shock people. What happened to all of those inventories? Where are all those products? You know, we thought we had 5 to 10 years of those products available: we don’t.
Matthew Gordon: How much inventory is available to US ultilities today? What are they sitting on? A year? Two years? Three years?
Mark Chalmers: Look, the utilities: I understand they want the lowest cost fuel to keep nuclear as competitive as they can. We know that fuel is such a small part of nuclear generation, but nuclear generation is struggling. But, you know, Uranium is in all these different shapes and forms and you’ve got to make sure you keep those in to balance with what your requirements are. I think that this just highlights the fact that the United States doesn’t have the ability now, you know, URAMCO is fore-owned, in New Mexico, and they can do enrichment there up to 495. But we do not have US-owned capacity for enrichment. We do have US-owned capacity for conversion but that is shut down right now. I think it just highlights the fact that you do not want to be overly-dependant on all of these other countries and you do not want to be in a position where you have to fight with one or both of your arms tied behind your back the Iranians and with the relationships they have with the Russians.
Matthew Gordon: Can we just talk about your mill, White Mesa. You know, ‘he who controls the mill, controls the district. So people are saying, hang on, the mill that he has got has a huge capacity which you can’t possibly fill. How do you maintain this mill? What’s the cost of keeping this thing going? At what point do you decommission something like that? Or is it a case of, you just replace the bits; its ongoing maintenance as you start processing stuff through the plant, you just constantly upgrade.
Mark Chalmers: I think the mill was originally built to operate for like 20 years and now it has been around for over 40 years. There have been a couple of campaigns of modernisation, you know, with control systems and automation. We have replaced a lot of the tankage, we’ve built new tailing cells. There’s been an evolution in technology over the years. So the mill, even though it’s an older facility, is in very good, excellent condition considering its age. So it is unique; as we know, it’s the only one that is operable, licensed, fully-staffed right now. It has the Vanadium circuit, hey, Vanadium is starting to get a bit of life in it. The price of Vanadium is starting to go up. Granted, when it was USD$30, dropped to 5, up to 6, we never thought that would look good but we are hoping that the price of Vanadium continues to go up here this next year or two and we can capitalise on a fairly substantial inventory of Vanadium that we have at the mill. But no, it’s in good shape, as I said, it’s basically, largely staffed. We did lay off a number of people in the last week or the week or so ago. We shut down the Vanadium recovery process because of prices. But it’s in good shape and we are ready to go.
Matthew Gordon: You’ve let some people go, where they permanent staff or temporary staff?
Mark Chalmers: Yes, most of the people that I let go were temporary staff. When we have to spool up the mill, we try to keep a core group of full-time employees and then we spool up with temporary people where possible. It’s our ultimate objective though to offer as many fulltime jobs as we can in the region.
Matthew Gordon: We’re days away from a decision, but we have heard that before a few times before.
Mark Chalmers: I can assure you, I will let you know and the rest of the world and we have put a lot of our skin and sweat and money, we have worn out, I don’t know how many pairs of shoes I’ve worn out walking the halls of Congress and DC. But we’re excited it is finally going to happen and I know there are the nay-sayers who say it is never going to happen, they don’t think it’s going to happen, but I think we have done a fantastic job when you look at our company, because we have been doing most of the lifting, Energy Fuels has been doing most of the lifting, probably 75% of lifting here. I think it’s remarkable that we have got this thing elevated to where this is at this point in time.
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