The Commodity Crash You Haven't Heard Of: How and Why the Uranium Market Melted Down

Here's a scene. Name the players: Sagging demand and a glut of supply send a commodity's price into the tank. A state-backed producer finally agrees to cut its output after years of recalcitrance.

If you guessed "oil" and "Saudi Aramco," try again. OPEC's drama has nothing on the crisis that has unfolded among uranium producers.

Kazakhstan's Kazatomprom, the world's largest uranium company, announced in January that it would reduce its production by 10% (about 5.2 million pounds), the company's first cut in at least 16 years. The spot price for the radioactive material has cratered from highs of around $135 per pound in 2007 to about $26 in February.

The effects of that crash are evinced by the depressed valuations of uranium miners. Cameco (CCJ) is the only uranium producer whose stock currently trades above $5 per share on an American market ($10.84 as of Wednesday afternoon).

Part of the uranium market's long slide to its present oblivion can be tied to the March 2011 Fukushima Daiichi nuclear disaster in Japan. The earthquake-induced meltdown permanently closed the plant and sparked a wave of anti-nuclear sentiment in the country. All of Japan's 50 remaining reactors shut down in the wake of the disaster, and only a small handful have since come back online.

"Before Fukushima, I think there was the idea of a nuclear renaissance around the world, where a lot of countries were looking to build out large fleets of nuclear reactors because it's a fairly low-cost, non-polluting energy," Morningstar analyst David Wang said. "Because of Fukushima, you've had a lot of developed countries, and emerging ones take a harder look at their pipelines. I think you saw a lot more deferral of projects and more stringent analysis of the ones that were in the project pipeline to ensure they were up to the safety specs that could handle such a large event."

Demand for nuclear power in the United States is widely projected to be flat in the short-to-medium term, though closures of plants like Entergy's (ETR) Indian Point Energy Center in New York make for easy headlines about the industry's decline.

A provocative tweet from then-President-Elect Donald Trump on December 22 about the state of the country's nuclear arsenal sparked widespread speculation of a new nuclear arms race. Trump, for his part, did little to quell those rumors when he told MSNBC a day later: "Let it be an arms race. We will outmatch them at every pass and outlast them all."

Despite the incendiary rhetoric, nuclear armaments play a background role in the global uranium market. Utilities hold about 57% (appx. 800 million pounds) of the estimated 1.4 billion pounds of above-ground uranium in inventories around the globe, according to data from Ux Consulting.

"It would really take something like another Cold War to have that boom we saw many years ago," Wang said. "And if there's a Cold War, we have a lot more to worry about than uranium demand in this world."

The more sober driver of uranium demand is much less likely to strike terror into the hearts of average citizens: China. The Asian superpower is expected to lead the way in nuclear reactor construction over the next few years.

China is projected to have 60 reactors online in 2020, according to Cantor Fitzgerald analyst Rob Chang. The country has 36 reactors online now and only had 17 in 2013.

"If you look at the pollution problem they have, they know they need to do this," Chang said of the Chinese government's rush to expand its nuclear capabilities. "The pollution levels are so high, they need to replace the coal or gas power in order just to reduce the pollution levels because it's just rampant over there."

Nuclear power doesn't carry the same political stigma in China that it does in Japan or the United States thanks to high-profile meltdowns like Fukushima and Three Mile Island. But even if it did, it probably wouldn't matter much. The Chinese Communist Party makes no quarter for NIMBYs.

"Rightly or wrongly, China's planning is all centrally government controlled," Chang said. "And they frankly just don't care. The state's going to do what they need to do for the greater good. In this situation, it actually works out better for the country that they're allowed to do that without being sidetracked by protests that may not be grounded in fact."

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