Sam's Exchange: Trading uranium

Wonthaggi is a little coastal town in southern Victoria, Australia. It is also home to what will be Australia’s biggest desalination plant. Australia has just had one of the worst droughts in history, lasting some 10 years, which is why the last government of Victoria decided to build such a large desalination plant.

Wonthaggi is a little coastal town in southern Victoria, Australia.  It is also home to what will be Australia’s biggest desalination plant.  Australia has just had one of the worst droughts in history, lasting some 10 years, which is why the last government of Victoria decided to build such a large desalination plant.  However, since the 2007 decision to build it, Victoria and other parts of Australia have been flooded.  In fact, Australia has just had one of the wettest summers on record. The government in Victoria has recently changed, with the new government branding the Wonthaggi desalination plant a 25 billion Australian dollar white elephant.  That’s the predicted cost to Victorian taxpayers over 30 years.  Australia is also the second largest producer of Uranium in the world, yet there are no nuclear power plants in Australia.  It is a debate that Australia is likely to have; whether to allow nuclear energy in the country as a power source as energy prices continue to rise and alternative energy sources will be sought. Could it be that Victoria’s white elephant might in fact be the sight for Australia’s first nuclear power station, and in so doing, create the grounds for a transparent, and dare I say exchange traded market in uranium and nuclear energy? 

There are 440 nuclear reactors operating in the world, with another 70 or so scheduled for completion over the next five years. The trend for nuclear power is on the increase, not just because it is one of the cleanest forms of energy production.  Uranium is either mined underground, or in open pit form, and must undergo certain technological procedures in order to make it useable in nuclear power stations.  The nuclear energy sector, as a source of commercial power, is in its infancy when it comes to research and development, but one which will grow.  With the onset of carbon tax, greenhouse gases and other pollutant taxes, the drive to find alternative forms of energy, which is clean and renewable, is frantic.  In fact, in some circles, nuclear energy is considered renewable, as it can be produced from seawater.  Uranium occurs naturally in seawater, and as such can be argued that it is a renewable energy, as it will never run out.  Nuclear energy from seawater is yet to be proven on a commercial basis; however, as traditional forms of energy rise in price, new forms, particularly renewable ones, come into focus.  For now though, nuclear power will come from mined uranium.

The global market in uranium is differentiated mostly along political lines.  It is a hangover from the cold war, with Western markets comprising the Americas, Western Europe and Australia, while another market exists within the former Soviet Union, with the CIS (Commonwealth of Independent States), Eastern Europe and China.  The nuclear debate facing Australia is not just about whether or not to allow nuclear power plants as a source of energy. It should also be about how to shape the global market in uranium.  Australia produces roughly one-quarter of the world’s uranium, second only to Canada.  Together they produce more than half the world’s supply.  Yet, fewer than 100 companies are involved in trading uranium in the western world, with pricing formulas varying widely.  Thrown into the mix is the decommissioning of nuclear weapons, with Russia and the United States committing to recycle their nuclear weapons into fuel for electricity production, known as the megatons to megawatts program.

As with oil, gas, coal, iron ore and other natural resources, uranium, or more exactly nuclear energy, should be traded in a transparent, accessible environment on exchange.  With a paradigm shift in the way energy is traded and its market structure, why should there not be a global marketplace for the trade in nuclear energy and therefore uranium.  In this regard, Australia, as a key producer of uranium, and other commodities for export, should have a debate not simply about whether nuclear power is safe and they should allowed it, but a debate on the nuclear energy cycle and how to price and pay for it.  With uncertainty in the Middle East and the potential for oil price spikes due to political unrest, the nuclear debate for Australia and the world could not come at a more opportune time.

Australia’s ex-prime minister, Bob Hawke, is currently in the Australian capital and rumored to be prodding the current Federal Labor government to open up the nuclear debate.  Hawke is no stranger to the global stage, having led Western governments in the late 1980s into applying sanctions against South Africa which led to the release of Nelson Mandela.  The irony of the debate is that Victoria’s conservative government’s white elephant could be the Federal Labor government’s golden goose.  Either way, Australia has an unprecedented opportunity to lead the front in what should be one of the world’s most important market places, the production of nuclear energy in a peaceful and regulated environment.

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Global Markets are anything but integrated. What if we had a paradigm shift in the way we think, the way we actually do business with each other, between nations. Balanced global trade can only occur if we have transparent, accessible, efficient markets, with standardized contracts and on a standardized platform of global exchange. We are on the cusp of achieving this, although most people cannot see it. Sam’s Exchange aims to give its readers a clearer view and a platform for discussion. Markets, trade and economics are in fact nothing more than the result of our thoughts and actions expressed in numbers, not the reverse.

Sam Barden is CEO of SBI Markets General Trading LLC, a Dubai-registered trading and advisory company. Barden, 39, has worked in the global financial markets for more than 17 years in Europe, Russia and the Middle East. He has advised and executed strategic transactions for both the government and private sector, in particular in energy and commodity markets, advising various energy producing nations on their strategic market developments and interaction. He holds a degree in economics and finance from Victoria University, Melbourne, Australia.

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