Nuclear power's white-hot metal
A newfound interest in nukes is fueling global demand for uranium. Meet the man leading the boom - in Kazakhstan.
(Fortune Magazine) -- The clock is chasing down 1 A.M. It's late for dinner - or for interviews - in Almaty, Kazakhstan's former capital. But self-made Kazakh uranium czar Moukhtar Dzhakishev is just hitting his stride. Between spoonfuls of Beluga caviar and bites of ruby-colored tuna flown in from Dubai, he is explaining that his small state-owned company, Kazatomprom, will soon rule the global nuclear energy industry. "I don't think there will be any competitors," he says softly. "I will eat them."
In Kazakhstan, where the family of President Nursultan Nazarbayev controls much of the country's abundant resources, Dzhakishev, 44 years old, is a rare breed: a Moscow-educated entrepreneur who took over a floundering mining industry - and the world's largest uranium deposit outside Australia - when the Soviets broke camp here. Now, after three years of skyrocketing uranium prices, he has found himself at the forefront of a global uranium boom that is fast making him one of the most powerful men in the country - and increasingly influential beyond it. Kazakhstan's ascendancy is far from assured, but Dzhakishev, described by colleagues as Kasparov-sharp and poker-faced, makes it sound as if he already has it all wrapped up. His confidence might be laughable if his arguments weren't so damn convincing.
As Dzhakishev sees it, a widespread nuclear renaissance is not only inevitable but well underway. And he's probably right. Global warming is weighing heavily on the international conscience, and with it comes a newfound sense of urgency to dispense with coal and other carbon fuels. No alternative is more developed, economically viable, and emission-free than nuclear energy. Since world electricity use is expected to double in the next few decades, nearly every industrialized country is considering a fresh buildout of nuclear power. Worldwide, 34 new reactors are under construction, and 280 are being planned or proposed. China alone has broken ground on five reactors to feed that nation's insatiable need for power.
That has raised questions about whether uranium producers can find enough of the element to fuel this long-term growth. In 2006 producers met only 62% of demand. (The rest was recycled from a diminishing supply of decommissioned warheads or taken from dwindling Cold War stockpiles.) The World Nuclear Association says uranium mining could need to increase by almost 300% in the next two decades.
Talk of such a crunch has brought the market to fever pitch. Spot prices for uranium jumped from about $7 a pound in late 2000 to a record high of $136 in June. Prices today hover at $74. More than 400 uranium companies are listed publicly, hedge funds buy warehouses of the stuff, and old U.S. mines are grinding back to life. Applications for new mines in Colorado and Utah have risen more than 200% since 2003.
Internationally, the world's largest uranium suppliers - Canada's Cameco, France's Areva, and Australia's BHP Billiton (BHP) and Rio Tinto (RTP) - are scouring for pay dirt at a pace rivaled only by Big Oil. And though existing mines are being expanded in Canada, Australia, and Africa, what producers really want is access to the deposits in Kazakhstan. "Kazakhstan needs to deliver," says Nick Carter, an analyst at Ux Consulting, a U.S. research firm.
The boom has put Dzhakishev in an enviable position. First, he made an audacious promise to more than quintuple production by 2015, to 27,000 metric tons a year, which could quench the market's thirst. Now he wants the world to rely on Kazakhstan for all things nuclear - not just the metal for fuel. Uranium, which today accounts for a fraction of the nation's GDP, would become as important for its economy as the $35 billion Kazakh oil industry is currently.
In the past few months Dzhakishev has gone on a high-profile international deal-signing tear, landing agreements aimed at transforming Kazatomprom from an obscure Third World mining group to a full-fledged, integrated nuclear energy powerhouse. Last summer he locked up contracts to ship half of China's uranium imports, agreed to buy 10% of U.S. reactor maker Westinghouse (owned by Japan's Toshiba), and scored a deal with Cameco (CCJ) to build a conversion facility, a technologically advanced link in the nuclear fuel cycle. "It's been honeymoon, honeymoon, honeymoon," he gloats.
But the game is far from over. Dzhakishev's production forecasts are wildly optimistic, requiring the skilled labor, improved infrastructure, and materials to run 16 new mines. That would be tough to execute in any business environment; Kazakhstan is an especially rough-and-tumble place. It is an emerging market with an autocratic government and a rap sheet for bribery that ranked it near the bottom of Transparency International's global corruption index last year. And Dzhakishev's plan could be laid waste by the kind of volatility to which metals commodities are prone. When fresh supply flooded the market, the price of uranium plunged last July, sending futures contracts down with it. "I don't know if they have the resources to do it," says Benoit de Galbert, project manager for Katco, Dzhakishev's joint venture with Areva, who believes a top-to-bottom modernization is needed. "Dzhakishev is pushing, but sometimes you have the impression he is alone."
To get to Kazakhstan's uranium fields, you hop a short flight west from Almaty along the foothills of the Tian Shan mountains and land on a grass field in Shymkent that's strewn with Soviet-era planes. Three hours north by car, where caravans of camels roam an arid steppe, you come upon a series of ten-story windowless boxes. It doesn't look like a typical mine. The boxes are processing facilities that treat a slurry of uranium, sulfuric acid, and water. The acid loosens the uranium from its bond with the rock below - a process called in situ leach - and the liquid is sucked out through a giant straw, no digging required. Production costs as little as $10 a pound, a fifth the cost of open-pit mining.
That low cost is part of what has made Kazakhstan's uranium so attractive. Raw uranium is found on almost every continent. Its biggest producers come from the most bountiful regions, like Canada, where literally any backyard might contain a pound of it. Cameco produces a fifth of the world's uranium and runs three large mines there. But in the past year its Cigar Lake mine, which it operates with Areva, has been hobbled by flooding and natural disasters, setting production back perhaps to 2011. Australia has the most reserves, about a third of the world's uranium, but the ore is of poor quality. The U.S. has mines and fresh exploration but ranks low among world suppliers. Much of the growth in the industry is coming from Africa, where environmentally destructive open-pit mines continue to be developed, and in Kazakhstan. Last year Kazatomprom leaped over Rio Tinto and Areva to become the world's second-largest production company behind Cameco, providing about 5,000 pounds, or 12% of global supply.