Chief Nuclear Officer and economist Julian Tapp of Uranium company Vimy Resources (ASX: VMY) did his own research in to the nuclear market and his findings told him that the WNA Report was inaccurate. So he got involved in putting this new and improved version out.
As an economist Julian loves getting in to the detail. He helps us understand what investors should be focused on. And who the winners and potential losers are. Can the 3 biggest players control pricing and effect the chances of juniors getting into production? Julian gives us his opinion. The pricing matrix is very delegate. Manipulation or markets?
If you believe the WNA Nuclear Fuel Report is an important catalyst you need to understand what is in this report. Julian tells us why the report is more commercial and has more rigour in the process of putting the information together.
- WNA Expectations and The WNA Nuclear Report Overview
- What is The Importance of The WNA Nuclear Report? What Needs To Be Improved?
- Big Nuclear Players Could Affect Prices, So Why Don’t They? What Does That Mean For Junior Players?
- Winners vs Losers & How To Tell The Difference
- Vimy Resources: Can They Affect The Share Price Before Prices Change?
Click here to watch the interview.
Matthew Gordon: You’ve been meeting and greeting lots of people, sort of finding out what’s the mood is.
Julian Tapp: Everybody turns up for the WNA Symposium. So, you just hang around, talk to people, find out what the views are.
Matthew Gordon: What do you think the general mood is, positive or negative?
Julian Tapp: I think there’s a certain amount of optimism. I know it might sound odd but the past the past few reports, every time the WNA Report has come out, the forecast has got worse.
Matthew Gordon: You’re talking about the WNA Fuel Report. You’ve been involved in it. What was your role in that?
Julian Tapp: Yes, I have. Well, it is quite interesting. Going back a couple of years, when we did the (Vimy) DFS, I actually built a model to forecast world demand for uranium on a reactor basis. When I finished I wondered how it compared to what the WNA had done. I looked at their model and we got similar answers in aggregate. But regionally, there were big differences and wondered how they got those numbers?
Matthew Gordon: Why is that important?
Julian Tapp: I think actually their assumptions were wrong.
Matthew Gordon: That was a couple of years ago.
Julian Tapp: If you look at the current one, you’ll see that the projections are more optimistic. They’ve been raised, particularly the lowest scenario.
Matthew Gordon: What has been raised?
Julian Tapp: The forecast capacity of nuclear reactors operating and getting uranium over the next 20 years.
Matthew Gordon: Got it. And why is it better?
Julian Tapp: A couple of prominent reasons. Firstly, the assumption used to be that the French were going to reduce their nuclear capacity to meet 50% of electricity target by 2025. So, although the previous Fuel Report didn’t have them getting there by 2025, they were trying. Everybody now recognized Emmanuel Macron (French President) had kicked the can down the road. It’s 2035, if you actually listen to what he says. It’s isn’t ever going to happen. So for the pessimistic forecasts they put out, that lower case scenario used to have them losing 20Gw capacity. And that’s now not forecast to happen. In America there was an expectation that nuclear reactors, when they reach the end of their license life or when they just won’t get extended. And again, we had a lot of discussion about this. I kept saying when it gets the end of its life, it doesn’t get an extension if it’s not safe. But please tell me who thinks these reactors aren’t going to be safe after 40 years? They’ll be perfectly safe. Well, same argument where they get 60 years. Will they be safe? Now, sometimes you have to spend money to upgrade them, to keep them going. And if the economics are not good, maybe you wouldn’t pay for that upgrading.
Matthew Gordon: Are they safe? Have there been any incidents?
Julian Tapp: None. There’s never been a nuclear accident that was related to the age of the plant.
Matthew Gordon: That’s semantics. So, have there been incidents? Deaths?
Julian Tapp: Not in recent times. It’s interesting you should also ask that question. Even Fukushima. A vast majority of deaths were nothing to do with it, it was all to do with the tsunami. Now you will see people walking around saying “oh, there’s been one reported death.” Not true. There was a guy who worked at TEPCO who went to the site. He was like a radiation inspector and he got lung cancer.
Matthew Gordon: Unconnected?
Julian Tapp: Well, when you look at the time between when he was exposed and when he got the lung cancer, it was like two years. Usually it’s ten years between being exposed to radiation and radiation he was exposed to wasn’t high enough to trigger that sort of reaction. A different subject to be talked about but nuclear reactors are incredibly safe. A horrible way to talk about it, but if you look at the fatalities or deaths per thousand terawatt hours produced. There was a comment about it in the WNA Nuclear Fuel Report that comes from Lancet in 2007. They said that nuclear is safer than any other form of power. 90 deaths per thousand terawatt hours. I looked to that number and asked where did they get a number that high from. Do you know how much electricity is produced a year by nuclear reactors?
Matthew Gordon: Tell me.
Julian Tapp: About 2,500 terawatt hours. If you’re getting 90 deaths per thousand. Where all these deaths are coming from? Sometimes it’s because they included Chernobyl in the numbers. But I went and found that Lancet article, found out where they got their data from. Traced it all back to a French report in 1991 that assumed that very low levels of radiation spread over a large population would kill a small percentage of those people. The science has moved on from there. That’s simply not true.
Matthew Gordon: Let’s not focus on that, because I think that there’s too many reference points required to have a in-depth conversation. So, let’s come back to why is the WNA Fuel Report important for the industry?
Julian Tapp: I think it’s important for the industry, because love it or loathe it, it’s a reference document that everybody has a copy of it. Financial community, utilities, everybody gets it.
Matthew Gordon: But why this year is it more important? Obviously there have been some changes. It’s a little bit more commercial. Is that fair to say? I don’t mean in the sense that it’s commercial telling you what that nuclear industry is going to do but it’s a little bit more commercial in the sense that it’s giving people in the industry more information about what’s going on.
Julian Tapp: And I would say more rigor in the analysis. Don’t get me wrong, when I say it’s a little bit more positive. Nobody sat down and said it needs to be a little bit more positive. The way the forecasts are done are, literally country by country, reactor by reactor. Which ones are going to be built, which ones you don’t think are going to be built. They just all added up. And that’s was the answer.
Matthew Gordon: It’s on everyone’s desk, on fund managers desks, institutional investors desks, all the utilities, everyone who sits on this thing. What’s it going to do for them? Is it going to change behaviour or is it just a kind of the broad sentiment and things are better? We know the macro story. It’s fine. We’ll just park that. I’ve got that. Read the summary and move on.
Julian Tapp: I think there are a number of things in it. The first thing is since the last fuel report, Cameco have closed McArthur River. They’ve also shut in Rabbit Lake. Langer Heinrich is closed so there’s a new category of what’s called’ ‘idle mines’. And you need to pull them out because traditionally when mines idled, they put them in a basket with reserve projects that might come back at some point in the future. You know, the dynamics are very different from an idle mind than they are for a reserve project. They might get to be developed some time in the future. And that the economics around them coming back are very different. Mostly idle mines are owned by producers, that have other producing assets. And roughly 80% of the market is controlled by three companies. And they’re the three companies that have shut production down because market prices are unsustainably low. People say “oh, well, they’ll turn on this mine when the price gets to a certain level” but when the price gets to that level they will have just seen the profit on their existing mine go up a lot and what they don’t want to do is turn back on supply and see the whole thing collapse again. So, they’ve got a completely different way of looking. And I’m not suggesting that they collude in any way, but it’s the nature of economics. You have an oligopoly and there would be a classic description oligopoly. They’re going to look at the other guy and see what he’s doing.
Matthew Gordon: We saw recently with KazAtomProm and Camecos’ announcements, the marketplace is a little bit of jousting and a little bit of kidology, etc. around what they were saying or what they weren’t saying. Early days when I was getting into the uranium space, trying to understand it, because it’s not like mining. It is mining, but it’s not mining. I was intrigued by this potential control of will it be duopolies or oligopolies. And how you use that to your advantage. New entrants can come in and ruin things for everyone. You’ve got a group of juniors who can’t get the money that they need right now. So maybe this is a chance to take out some of the competition and starve the market of the supply. You can start affecting pricing. Those three companies can affect pricing. I’m not saying it’s a good thing to do or that they’re doing it, but they could do that. Why wouldn’t you?
Julian Tapp: I would say to you what the dynamics will be. They will keep these mines shut, until the price gets to a level where they will make the decision as long as the others haven’t broken. Because being oligopolies, they’ll be watching each other.
Matthew Gordon: There are going to be smaller players who are significantly advanced. Vimy potentially is one, where you’re quick to production. It’s potentially two years from pressing go, assuming it’s fully funded, and getting into production. You could get back into the market before some these big boys could de-mothball some of these operations. Surely?
Julian Tapp: Their lead time would be not dissimilar to ours. They can get back into production two years. KazAtomProm much faster than that. They don’t want to because when the price starts to rise, they’d much rather price kept rising than they turned on production and killed the rally. What about the juniors? When they’re looking around, what they do not want to happen is a 10Mlbs or 15Mlbs a year mine to get started.
Matthew Gordon: Well, that’s my next point. We’ve been told by the past couple of days by some other juniors who are quite close production, that are three years to production. So, if you’re saying the big boys can get into production before them, they’ve got no chance. These juniors have got no chance of being funded, have they?
Julian Tapp: Well, I’m not going to throw stones. If you look at Vimy’s DFS, I haven’t changed my mind since I did the economics behind that. My conclusion was these guys will keep their production shuttered till about $60 a pound. And let’s not discuss whether that’s contract or spot price. Just roughly when they think that $60 is like the sustainable price, they’re going to say if it goes any higher, there’s going to be too many entrants into the market. And once they’ve started, they’ll keep going. So, my view was the price would get to $60, but not go any higher.
Matthew Gordon: That’s price manipulation isn’t it?
Julian Tapp: No, it’s not. It’s perfectly rational behaviour.
Matthew Gordon: Sure it is, someone’s controlling it.
Julian Tapp: One would say, I’m prepared to keep supply cut until it gets to a certain point. And it’s perfectly rational for me to say at, look, if it gets to $70, I don’t know. Some big project in Tanzania is go getting to launched. I don’t want that to happen. I’m going to make sure these guys don’t get the signal they want, when it gets to $60 I’m making a handsome margin now. I just don’t want anybody else coming in
Matthew Gordon: That’s my point. If I’m one of these junior companies and I’m trying to raise money. I’m talking to the institutions and they’re cognizance that this could happen. I’m not going to find institutional investors to give me the money I need, because it’s not in my control. The pricing is being controlled at $60 bucks, is what you’re saying.
Julian Tapp: Yes but bear in mind also that for somebody like Vimy, in order to get finance, we have to we have to be writing some contracts. We’re talking about long-term contracts. Once you’ve signed those long-term contracts.
Matthew Gordon: I want to be clear, I wasn’t talking about Vimy. I was talking about some companies that are in a similar position to you but have got a longer lead time, which I think potentially could cause problems. I want understand winners and losers and what the factors are around that.
Julian Tapp: Yes, the longer your lead time, the more problematic. It’s not just because idle production could get in. But when you have a very long lead time, it’s more problematic in being able to write contracts. So, we’re in a position where we want to write contracts with utilities and you’ve got to write the contract and then go into production. The longer that window into production is, the riskier you’re going to be perceived to be to them, and the less willing they’re going to be to write contracts with you.
Matthew Gordon: Vicious circle.
Julian Tapp: Being two years away from production, it’d be much better if we could be one year away. And two years is fine. Because most long-term contracts deliveries aren’t normally for a couple of years. So, we’re in that window now where we know utilities are looking for deliveries, 2021, 2022, sometimes even 2023 for the beginning date.
Matthew Gordon: Let’s come back to the report, because the question I asked was what is the commercial use of that when people buy that, read that. What are they thinking and doing? And what I’m hearing is the sentiment is positive, but it’s not going to give people necessarily the commercial data they need to make a decision and on its own. Do you think the WNA needs to rethink the way that the report is being constructed again? Are you happy with the structure of it?
Julian Tapp: No I am not. I don’t think it’s any surprise to anybody. Everybody would like to see some discussion around price. Price put into the dynamic. So anti-competitive guidelines, nobody wants to sit down and agree what the price is going to be, which is what the guidelines are designed to stop you doing. It doesn’t seem to me sensible that you can’t have a discussion with people about, let’s say, what happens if the price stays at today’s level for forever? It’s how people do it with things, economic forecasts they don’t know. Let’s just assume the exchange rate stays forever. What does it mean? You know what happens? What interest rate can I use? Well, let’s just leave it at that current level and see what the model says going forward. So, there’s no reason why they shouldn’t put a price in, say, today’s price, spot price $25, $30 a pound. Run that out for the next 20 years. What does that do? That shows a really interesting picture. Basically, supply goes over a cliff and never comes back. So I don’t know if there’s a higher price that would be sensible. Maybe $50, maybe $60, run assumption again but you’re still a bit short. And then that’s the message doesn’t really come across at the moment basically that there’s a problem coming.
Matthew Gordon: If I look at people like TradeTech and UXC, you see the data which they gather and they put together and reports that they put out compared to the WNA, it seems a bit more robust, a little bit more goes into it. And they do talk about price. They need to and they do it on a company, country, industry basis. WNA needs to up its game, it seems to me, if it’s it wants to be a kind of commercial venture? So, what I’m hearing and seeing, and it’s not just you, there’s other people I’ve spoken to about this one. This report needs to do more, doesn’t it?
Julian Tapp: I think there’s measures to try to see what extra can be injected into it for next time round. I mean, this was an improvement on last time. I think there are various people who would like to see some pricing brought into it some way. If you be smart, you don’t have to sit and agree what you think the price is going to be. I said to you, you could use different price decks to show the impact. And to get better understanding. So, what you got now in the forecast is this unspecified supply, and nobody makes a judgment on who’s going to come into it, because you can’t without some sort of price assumption. Some of those are sitting at $80 a pound.
Matthew Gordon: Well, let’s how it’s going to be received. We’ll know in the next couple of weeks what people what people are thinking and we can get that feedback. Just to finish off on Vimy, you’re working there with Mike. Things are going well?
Julian Tapp: Very well.
Matthew Gordon: Confident?
Julian Tapp: Well when the price gets up.
Matthew Gordon: Do you think there’s anything your company can affect to help with share price? Or do we just wait for the price?
Julian Tapp. Look, there’s not much more we can do with the Mulga Rock project that can affect the share price. So, we’re going through the final stages of getting all the secondary approvals ready. That’s not regarded as a job stopper so when we’ve got them I’m not expecting a big uplift. Oh, you’ve got secondary approvals. So, in Angelaly, Northern Territory stuff we found a big haystack. Bigger than we thought it was the haystack. We think there are some valuable needles in there, we’ll continue to look for them.
Matthew Gordon: Thank you for your time, sir. Really appreciate that insight into the WNA Fuel Report. Fascinating what’s happening in the industry at the moment. And I like speaking to an economist. You look at it differently from everyone else which really helps.
Company page: https://www.vimyresources.com.au/
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