We discussed with the Ux Consulting president from which countries future uranium supplies may come, and who is going after those supplies more aggressively. He warns about the risks and rewards of Kazakhstan and Mongolia, looks to Africa for supplies, and talks about Russia’s expansion.
StockInterview: How do domestic uranium prospects rate in the eyes of U.S. and foreign utilities?
Jeff Combs: I don’t think that utilities expect the U.S. to be a major supplier of uranium. What you’re seeing with China and other countries, where nuclear power is growing, is that they’re definitely looking to secure supplies. The Chinese are going to Kazakhstan and also Australia, where there are a lot of uranium reserves, a lot of potential for growth. I think there’s some potential for growth in the U.S. But if you had a fast growing nuclear power program, I don’t think the U.S. is the first place I’d look. I believe that you can look for some opportunities in the U.S. But in general, the U.S. utilities are basically in competition with some of these newer entrants into the market for available supplies. Those are primarily outside of the U.S., as U.S. utilities also depend on imports for most of their supplies.
StockInterview: It appears many countries are racing to secure uranium supplies outside their borders.
Jeff Combs: Even Russia, which was a major exporter of uranium in the 1990s, is looking to secure additional supply sources, first to Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, and Uzbekistan, former republics of the of Soviet Union, but also to Africa. Russia has an extremely ambitious reactor expansion program, as well as a desire to greatly increase its exports of reactors to countries like China and India. As it stands now, most of the growth in nuclear power is expected to take place in China, India, Russia, as well as Korea and Japan to a certain extent. All these countries are really looking outside their borders for uranium supplies that are going to sustain them for quite a long period in the future. None of them are blessed with very rich and extensive uranium deposits.
StockInterview: Is Russian President Vladimir Putin trying to create something on the order of a Wal-Mart Super Center for the nuclear fuel cycle?
Jeff Combs: Well, you see them doing a joint venture in Kazakhstan. They’re trying to do something with Kyrgyzstan. They’re definitely looking at how they can shore up their supply through imports, in addition to investing a billion dollars in their own internal production. In this respect, they are trying to draw from their old supply chain arrangements. This is to meet their internal needs, as well as the needs of countries to which they have traditionally supplied reactors and the fuel to run these reactors. As Russia looks to expand its reactor sales to countries that don’t have established fuel cycles, they want to be able to supply them with fuel – possibly even lease them the fuel. This means that they have to be prepared to take back the spent fuel. This is due at least in some measure to nonproliferation concerns, in that you don’t want these new entrants building enrichment or reprocessing plants. While Russia has enrichment capacity and the ability to expand this capacity, they also need uranium to be able to supply these countries with enriched uranium. This is why they’re currently focusing on the uranium side of the equation.
StockInterview: Let’s talk about some of the target countries, where those with the more ambitious nuclear energy programs will want to secure uranium.
Jeff Combs: We have recently done a series of reports, looking at countries where major production is taking place, or could take place. Of course we’ve done them on Canada, Australia, Namibia, South Africa, Kazakhstan, and Uzbekistan. I think the next country might be Mongolia because of the exploration and development activity that is taking place there. Mongolia’s mining laws are very favorable to foreign companies. Mongolia is also located in that part of the world where the bulk of nuclear power expansion is taking place. The problem in Mongolia now is the lack of infrastructure – the location of the exploration sites relative to roads and rail lines, and the ability to connect to the electricity grid and water lines.
StockInterview: There has been so much press and chatter about Kazakhstan. Is there substance in these commentaries, or is it mainly hype?
Jeff Combs: They’ve got a lot of uranium resources and reserves. They’ve also got a commitment to expanding production there and a pretty big customer in China. The hype might be related more as to whether they can do it as quickly as they say, as opposed to whether they can eventually get to the levels they’re talking about. One of the things that will slow them down is the infrastructure, including the skilled work force, needed to expand at that rate. They have increased production. They definitely will continue to increase production, but perhaps not at the rates they are advertising. They’ve produced a lot in the past, in the old Soviet Union days. I think they can get back up to those production levels, but it’s going to take some time.
StockInterview: What will be required to get things going in Kazakhstan?
Jeff Combs: It appears they’ve been able to attract capital. A large part of it is just the time is takes to build the infrastructure, including training workers. You can have all of the investment in the world, but it still takes time to get things done, especially if the infrastructure isn’t well developed in the first place. If you look at Kazakhstan on the map, it is very close or adjacent to Russia, China, and India, where the major part of nuclear growth is occurring. I don’t think there will be any shortage of demand for their output.
StockInterview: Where does Japan fit into the current uranium bull market?
Jeff Combs: Japan is definitely a factor in the market. Their growth might not be as rapid as it once was, or once was expected to be. With Japan you have a country that does not really have any indigenous uranium resources to speak of. They really need to import uranium. To facilitate this and to secure future supplies, Japan has historically developed different supply relationships around the world, both by taking positions in uranium mines and by nurturing long-term relationships with producers. I think that it’s likely the case that this recent price rise caught them somewhat off guard, but recently Japanese utilities have put more effort into shoring up their supply options.
StockInterview: There are countries, which get little media coverage, such as Namibia. How does this country rate?
Jeff Combs: I think Namibia will definitely have an important role in supplying uranium. I don’t think it’s going to have the expansion potential of Canada, Australia, or Kazakhstan, but I think South Africa, Niger and Namibia are going to be an important component for uranium supply in the future.
StockInterview: You mentioned Niger, which was the world’s third largest uranium producer, and has now fallen to number four, behind Kazakhstan.
Jeff Combs: The funny thing about Niger is that in a way it’s sort of fallen off the radar screen. It produces, but it just doesn’t get the press as other places. If the price increases, it really changes how people look at all these different projects going forward and a lot of things, which might not have been looked at 20 years ago or so, are being reinvestigated. Obviously, there is uranium in Niger. It’s quite important to the economy there. As I said, they haven’t really been on the radar screen as much as a lot of other regions in the world. Perhaps this is because production there has been controlled by the French for a long time. There are some Canadian companies exploring in Niger now. Since this activity is fairly recent, it won’t likely bear any fruit for five to ten years down the road.
StockInterview: Do you foresee realistic nuclear energy expansion in other parts of the world, such as the Middle East?
Jeff Combs: Frankly, I haven’t focused on that very much. I know that Turkey is looking to do something. At some point, I think you would see more nuclear power in the Middle East just because the oil supplies aren’t going to last indefinitely. We do a headline news service, and it’s packed full of stories on different countries that are looking at nuclear power. It seems like there is a new country added to the list every day. I know, for instance, that Vietnam is looking pretty seriously at nuclear power. It would not be surprising there would be interest in the Middle East. There is a lot of focus on the problems associated with Iran. Overall, I’m a believer that if you have more nuclear power, then you’re going to have fewer problems with energy and more economic development, higher standards of living, and that’s going to be a big positive that will outweigh the negatives in situations like Iran.
StockInterview: Speaking of Iran, what is Washington’s sentiment toward nuclear energy, aside from the Bush Administration’s endorsement?
Jeff Combs: I think there is a growing recognition, even among Democrats, that you need nuclear power as part of the energy mix. You’re not going to get there just by renewable energy sources. With the environmental and overall energy challenges we’re facing now, with higher and higher natural gas and oil prices. From the U.S. standpoint the vulnerability with respect to secure energy supplies, I think there is a growing recognition that nuclear power is part of the solution, and this thinking extends outside of the Bush administration. I’ve talked to people, and they believe that even if a Democratic administration came in that you really wouldn’t necessarily put a damper on nuclear power.
StockInterview: What about the Hillary Clinton Factor, if she becomes the next U.S. President?
Jeff Combs: I haven’t really asked her for her views on nuclear power recently. I think the story for nuclear power is not so much what happens in the United States, which certainly could add more reactors. The rest of the world probably looks to what the U.S. does to a certain extent. I think the real growth in nuclear power, and what’s likely to drive the market in the future, is on the part of the developing countries in the eastern part of the world. These would be China, India, Korea and Russia, where economies are growing a lot more quickly, not the really mature economies like in the U.S. and Europe. Although I would expect to see some growth there as well. In this respect, having a Democratic president would not derail what’s happening in nuclear power or the uranium market. As mentioned earlier, I think that you see a more general acceptance of nuclear power across party lines, in Europe as well as the U.S., although there are still some factions that are virulently anti-nuclear.
Before we talk about the potential of uranium shortages and the steep price rise in that energy source, could you explain how you got started with this idea, and what is the philosophy behind Strathmore’s acquisition program of uranium properties?
Several years ago, Strathmore Minerals started with the idea of acquiring properties “out of the money” at very cheap prices in the belief that the uranium prices would recover so that our assets would be worth more. No one was paying attention to the commodity we chose: uranium. Strathmore Minerals is basically a call on the price of uranium. That’s how we started the company. This strategy is similar to what Lumina Copper (AMEX: LCC) used and what Silver Standard used. For example, the chairman of Silver Standard Resources (NASDAQ: SSRI) is on our board of directors. Our first step was to buy every pound we could for as cheaply as possible. The second step is to buy property that we think we can put into production. We are actively looking for those.
But uranium has a powerful environmental stigma. Why, then, are you enthusiastic about this type of energy source?
As with most people, when I began investigating uranium, I thought this was bad stuff. I thought of Three Mile Island and everything else. The more homework I did on this, the more I realized that nuclear power is clean and safe. That is primarily what uranium is used for now. It should be known that no one ever died at Three Mile Island. No one actually died at Chernobyl. Yes, people got sick. Compare that to coal or the oil spills in the fossil fuel sector, and the damage it has done to the environment. The problem is no one is championing nuclear energy. Frankly, the “greenies” have done a great job of burying the story. As I did homework, I found out France relies on nuclear power for about 78 to 80 percent of its electricity needs. I realized that somebody did a great job lobbying and built a very unhealthy picture toward uranium, when really it’s needed. We don’t talk about the cost of coal. We don’t talk about global warming. But, look at what coal has done. Global warming is a function of fossil fuels. That is why you are seeing a growing positive response to nuclear power. For example, one company has applied to put a new nuclear reactor into the US.
To what do you attribute the recent, steep price rise in uranium?
Since last year, the price of uranium (U3O8) has climbed back steeply back up. At one point, the price was moving up about $1/pound per month. Uranium’s price is more in line with the price of oil as opposed to other commodities. For a long time, we’ve only produced on the average about 90 million pounds, when we needed 140 (million pounds). There’s been an imbalance for a number of years. This extra came from foreign sources, or from internal US inventories. Since the 1980s, we’ve been using more uranium than we have been producing in the western world. As a result, the extra that we’ve needed has come from Russia, the US government or inventory that utilities had.
But most investors, let alone the consumer, don’t know that uranium’s spot price has nearly tripled, since bottoming three years ago. Why is that?
Uranium only makes up one percent of the cost of running a nuclear reactor. The biggest factor in why uranium prices can go up, even more rapidly than gold, is that uranium is insensitive to its use. Uranium prices can go much higher. In casual conversations with a few Toronto analysts, some believe it can go up to $80 or $100/pound. For example, if the price of gold tomorrow went to $800/ounce, it will affect someone’s purchasing decision. The guy might say, “I was going to buy this ring and now it’s up 70 percent because the price of gold is up. Maybe I will buy a silver ring instead.” The same occurs with other commodities. People may change their purchasing decision based on a commodity price doubling.
If the price of uranium went to $44/pound, the average consumer’s electricity bill might go up a few dollars. It is not going to force someone to turn off their power. However, if the price of oil doubled tomorrow, many of us would be driving smaller vehicles. It would make a fundamental difference in how we behave. That’s not going to happen with the price of uranium. It’s like buying pencils for your office. It’s not going to change the way you do business. Even if no nuclear reactors come onboard for the next few years, the ones already there will need the pounds (of uranium). We have a shortage coming up.
Why do you believe a uranium shortage is in the cards?
Bottom line is: the nuclear reactors are going to run out of fuel. You have to know that permitting takes a long time in the uranium industry. It’s not like finding a gold property tomorrow and maybe two years from now you are pouring gold. Typically, the permit takes at least three years out. Because nuclear reactors need it, that’s what is causing the price rise. Demand has kept going higher, but production has fallen off the chart. In this industry there are only about half a dozen companies exploring for uranium. At one time, back in the late 1970s and early 1980s, there were almost 150 uranium companies. There hasn’t been any underground mining since the early 1990s. And that doesn’t even include a wild card: there has been talk that by 2020, 90 percent of the nuclear reactors coming onboard will be for China.
And what would reverse uranium’s steep price rise?
The only thing that could kill this market would be if Russia discovered it had a lot more pounds to sell. Or the US government, through USEG, came up with more pounds. When we first entered the market, eight years ago uranium rose to around $17-$18/pound. Then it fell. What happened was the U.S. government sold their uranium to a private group, who turned around and dumped it into the market, from then until last year. In October of last year, the Russians were also dumping uranium onto the market for their hard cash.
If replacement value for uranium comes in the form of exploration costs to find and mine this energy source, what would that cost be?
Realistically, it would be $20 to $22/pound. I know some are going to say they can do it for less. By the time you take your exploration costs, development costs, and so on, you really need to get $22 to $25 for most properties to go into production and still make money. That’s why most of what you see in the market are ISL (in situ leach) projects. On one property we discovered, it would cost between $16 and $17/ pound to pull it out of the ground. But on others, it might take $20 – 22/pound to pull it out of the ground, after labor costs and sell it on a forward contract. Canada is producing the most uranium because of the grades. Some say Canada has the lowest cost, but that’s not quite accurate. What they mean to say is that the cash costs are the lowest. People forget that it costs up to $2 billion to put some of these into production. Cameco (NYSE: CCJ) was a creature of the government at one time. They were treated that way.
Earlier you noted that investing in Strathmore Minerals was “basically a call on the price of uranium.” Can you clarify what you meant by that?
As uranium prices, the share price of Strathmore Minerals should rise. If you look at Bema (Amex:BGO), when gold prices were at $265/ounce, what was it worth? As the price of gold moved up, it had value. Has it gone into production yet? No. Silver Standard (NASDAQ:SSRI) is similar, but it has had to tell its story because people are so focused on gold. The key for investors is not to go where the crowds go, but to go where you can find value. If you believe that nuclear power is the place to be, and the shortage is real, you have got to own uranium stocks.
What sets Strathmore Minerals apart from any other exploration companies in this sector?
I challenge any junior exploration company to show an individual who has actually put an ISL (in situ leach) uranium mine into production, including Cameco. They just aren’t around because the industry has been dead since the early 1980s. There aren’t many experts left in this business. The last standing geologist, which Cogema had, was David Miller, who is now working with Strathmore Minerals, as our head consultant. He is the one who has put the Strathmore strategy together. We’ve been looking in southern and eastern Africa. Strathmore is going wherever there are pounds that others have overlooked. Our competitive edge is a database we acquired from Kerr McGee (NYSE: KMD), which used to be number one in the uranium industry. Recently, we announced properties in Wyoming that could be satellite ISLs. We have enough pounds there that we could throw one of them into production. But we still need higher prices. We are still in the acquisition stage.
Strathmore is going to be very aggressive in picking up properties that we think have pounds in the ground or smaller properties that we think can be ISL-able in the US. Everything we’re looking at in the US is for ISL. In Canada, we have over 700,000 hectares in the Athabascan region. That’s a major asset for us. It’s one of the richest areas in the world for uranium. Some of our targets are near existing mines. In Quebec, we’ve got a large property that was drilled by Uranerz. Robert Quartermain has certainly been a part of that strategy. That’s what he did with Silver Standard, and that’s what we’re doing here. We are aggressively going after properties. When sophisticated investors meet our team, they see the story we’ve got and they see our management. You’ll see why we were able to millions of dollars in financings. Our strategy has been to buy the has-been properties, the low fruit in all the trees. And that’s what we’ve been doing.
Mr. Randhawa founded Strathmore Minerals Corp. in 1996 and is currently the Company’s CEO. Mr. Randhawa also founded and is currently the President of RD Capital Inc., a privately held consulting firm providing venture capital and corporate finance services to emerging companies in the resources and non-resource sectors both in Canada and the US. Prior to founding RD Capital Inc., Mr. Randhawa was in the brokerage industry for 6 years as an investment advisor and corporate finance analyst. Mr. Randhawa was formerly the President of Lariat Capital Inc. which merged with Medicure in November 1999 and the was the founder and former President and CEO of Royal County Minerals Corp. which was taken over by Canadian Gold Hunter (formerly International Curator) in July 2003. Mr. Randhawa also founded Predator Capital Inc., which became Predator Exploration. Mr. Randhawa received a Bachelors Degree in Business Administration with Honors from Trinity Western College of Langley, British Columbia in 1983 and received his Masters in Business Administration from the University of British Columbia in 1985.
Investors who bought during the top of the frothy commodities rally are now panicking or kicking themselves. Neither activity helps an investor or trader think straight. Below are a few tips in dealing with the current market shakeout.
1. If you believe you invested in the right stock(s), then turn off your computer and do something enjoyable.
Exercise is a great stress reliever. The market has already begun its shakeout. If you didn’t get stopped out, or failed to place earlier stops, your best opportunity lays ahead in picking up additional shares at a much lower price. Most of the experts we’ve interviewed tell us the next rally should start sometime between late July and Labor Day. In an attempt to interview the uranium guru James Dines in late May, we were told, “Call back in a couple of months.” That was a helpful clue that the markets were less than exciting. Mr. Dines is often eager to be interviewed, but recently he was not.
2. Do you believe the fundamentals which engendered the commodities boom have changed? If they haven’t, then the bullishness is only taking a breather.
We don’t see any fundamental change in the markets. Russia still wants nuclear power, and its oil production may be peaking. China hasn’t announced the end of its nuclear expansion program. India wants to spend $40 billion on new nuclear reactors. If you are invested in uranium stocks, spot uranium jumped another dollar to $45/pound this past week. Hardly the end of the bull market.
3. If you worry about your investment in one stock or another, then stop watching the ticker and focus on the company fundamentals. Is the story still true or has it changed? See #7 A, B and C below.
4. There’s an old cliché that the time to buy is when you feel like dumping everything you own in the category.
At the exact moment you want to sell your entire portfolio of uranium stocks, it may be wiser to add to your holdings. This applies mainly to the retail investor. Most of the professionals did dump at the top and are now slowly accumulating the shares of the na?ve who waited until the washout to start selling off.
5. Has a major, earth-shattering event occurred? The last bull cycle in uranium ended with Three Mile Island (TMI).
The last decent rally in the precious metals markets fell off a cliff after it was discovered Bre-X Minerals had perpetrated a fraud about its gold ‘discovery’ in Indonesia. Something significant and newsworthy always transpires, and it is also far-reaching. That is the trigger. As with TMI and Bre-X, those were the first shots which launched a later chain reaction to end those bull markets.
6. Before pulling the sell trigger, ask yourself: Do I really want to give up these shares to a bargain basement hunter, who will make a killing on my losses?
7. Since most of you will still panic, please review the following basics for any of the uranium companies you’ve read about:
A) How much cash does the company have in the bank? During shakeouts, cash is king. Prescient companies, which completed their financings during the recent and robust rally, are sitting pretty. They can weather the short-term storm and are well-oiled to move forward when this correction bottoms and reverses. Those companies are the strongest ones to check out when this correction looks gloomiest.
B) Has the management remained the same? Unless the top financial and/or technical people blew out the door, in recent weeks, the story probably hasn’t changed much. Companies which built a strong technical team are resilient and powerful. They will move forward.
C) Have the properties come up dry? One of the reasons you invested in a uranium company was because it announced it had “pounds in the ground.” Some companies have more than others. Some went to the expense and trouble of completing a National Instrument 43-101, which independently confirmed the quantity and quality of the uranium resource. If that changed – and the company announced, “Sorry, nothing there after all,” or announced, “Hey, we were kidding,” that’s one thing. If you haven’t heard that, or read a news release announcing that, then the uranium didn’t walk away or move onto a competitor’s property. It’s still there.
Next time, when the markets are racing higher, and you feel like you won the lottery, consider this bit of biblical advice. The old joke goes, “When did Noah build his ark?” The answer of course is: Before it began to rain.
In two previous columns, we talked about how quality management attracts Publicity, or PR. Nearly every company is constantly trying to attract the attention of the media. What brings the media to a company’s door? That’s what every public relations man or woman would love to know. For this is what PR people get paid to obtain for their clients.
Quality management is certainly a key motivation in attracting a reporter’s attention. This helps persuade the reporter or a radio/TV producer that the proposed interview isn’t going to be with someone who has “nothing to say” or just rehashing a cliché or tired, old story. The higher the title and the better known a company, the greater the “impingement” a PR pitch (that’s what publicity people use to sell a reporter) impacts upon a member of the media. If someone from the publicity department at Microsoft calls Fortune magazine to ask about profiling Bill Gates, the pitch will have major impingement value. Few names have this kind of clout, either personally or corporately.
In any event, the senior editor of the major magazine will still inquire about the story angle. The editor will want to know, “What are we going to talk about?” Ultimately, it is the outstanding story that sells magazines or newspapers, not just the big name. Not all such stories involve a big name speaking or spouting his thoughts for the day. Often, better stories evolve when there is a strong newsworthy angle. Let’s look at two recent stories – one which involves a uranium company and another one about a coalbed methane (CBM) company, which we’ve covered in this column.
On Thursday, Pacific Asia China Energy (PACE) was featured in the Financing section of Canada’s Globe and Mail newspaper. Headlined “High-Energy Performer,” the opening sentences told us why the reporter was interested: “PACE holds contracts to help China explore for and develop its coalbed methane (CBM) resources – fuel China needs to help satisfy its energy demands.”
The big story, which drew the newspaper to Pacific Asia China Energy, was China. PACE piggybacked that story because the company may be helping to offer a legitimate solution to the country’s energy mix. Part of the big story is the possible size of the recoverable gas, estimated in a technical report by Sproule International to be as large as 11.2 trillion cubic feet of gas.
Those two items enhanced the reporter’s interest in PACE. China needs alternative energy sources, such as CBM, to improve their energy mix – from a near total dependence upon coal. And, PACE has a potentially huge resource, which could last a good number of years. Such a gas resource could be sufficiently large to make an impact on China. After all, China has proven reserves of a little more than 30 trillion cubic feet. Another 11 trillion cubic feet, should the potential be proven up, would represent a significant increase of available gas in a very large country. By itself, this could later develop into a major international energy story, reported upon by a great number of news media. Another impingement about the reporter is having the satisfaction of reporting upon a good story, well before others write the story.
Chatter in the newsroom:
“Did you hear about PACE’s gas discovery in China, Bob?”
Bob’s Reply: “Oh that one. Yeah, I wrote about it eight months ago!”
Therefore, there are multiple impingement points in this story. Each “draw,” or a reason to attract eyeballs to the story, is another point the story must score, for the reporter and his editor, to overcome the hurdles of being featured in a major publication. China is a draw. The size of the PACE coalbed methane gas resource is a draw. The potential impact upon China’s energy mix is a draw. Writing about it before the rest of the pack jumps on the bandwagon? That’s a draw, too. In this case, four draws sufficiently attracted media coverage for this small CBM development company.
Sometimes, the timing is just perfect, and the overpowering “big story” accidentally introduces a lucky guy onto the world’s stage. On the same Thursday, the PACE story was carried in the Globe and Mail, the Chief Executive of a tiny Canadian uranium company impinged on a Russian news service reporter in Hong Kong. Such was the good fortune for Craig Lindsay, a Certified Financial Analyst, who has spent more than 16 years in corporate finance, investment banking and business development, according to the website of Magnum Uranium, for which he now serves as Chief Executive.
While Magnum has a market capitalization of about $15 million, and Lindsay is neither a geologist nor engineer, RIA Novosti news agency touted him as a “well-known energy expert.” Admittedly, Lindsay gave a great speech at the Hong Kong Club for foreign correspondents. Cleverly, he announced, “Uranium may be the next oil,” during his speech. As many other industry experts have predicted, Lindsay also forecast uranium “may hit $50/pound by the end of the year.” So many are now announcing this it is likely to become a self-fulfilling prophesy.
What elevated Lindsay’s publicity was not what he said in his speech. Most of his commentary has been already been reported in numerous publications, including in our columns. (What reporters really hate is rehashing old news to give someone publicity!) It was to whom Lindsay was speaking, and especially the “timing” as to when it was said. Here is how Craig Lindsay got his “15 minutes of fame.”
About six hours earlier, the very same Russian news agency reported that Russia and Kazakhstan had signed a uranium deal worth $1 billion. The photos of Russian President Vladimir Putin and Kazakh President Nursultan Nazarbayev appeared as the photo op which goes with such really big stories. This was a major event involving two very big names, and among the biggest names and countries in the uranium sector. This was also Russia’s first contract to import uranium; Kazakhstan is the world’s third largest uranium producer. All of this is “big news.”
The clever Russian freelance reporter, who attended the Lindsay speech in Hong Kong, probably text-messaged or emailed his editor by Blackberry, tried to piggyback the Russian-Kazak story with his own story. Yes, that is how timing works. As soon as a major event takes place, other journalists rush to piggyback the event with “their” story. The Russian reporter scored points with his editor and got his story filed (slang for published).
Two cunning gentlemen, the Russian stringer (slang for freelance reporter), and Craig Lindsay (whose name was spelled Kreig Lindsay in the article), both accomplished their purposes. Mr. Lindsay got his company into the world’s spotlight. The Russian stringer got a great story. The reporter threw up a softball question, for which Mr. Lindsay supplied the desired answer.
What was the question the reporter asked Lindsay? That’s pretty obvious from what the reporter published in his article. Here is a clip from the Moscow News article:
Foreign investors are ready to invest in Russia’s uranium industry, if Moscow wants this to happen and establishes a necessary legal base,” Lindsay said. “I believe that Russia is one of the most promising directions for this kind of investments, it is an undeveloped market, full of opportunities. My company will be the first to come to Russia, if the necessary conditions are created,” he added.
Nowhere in Lindsay’s speech did Magnum Uranium’s Chief Executive discuss investing in Russia. However, the reporter NEEDED a good quote. It had to tie-in with “investing in Russia for uranium development.” Lindsay accommodated. He didn’t commit to investing in Russia, but he kept the door open. Magnum Uranium recently announced the acquisition of a 1,080-acre land package in Converse County, Wyoming. The company is also exploring for uranium in both Wyoming and the Athabasca Basin. Its finances are probably already stretched from both exploration and acquisition activities. Magnum’s market capitalization would probably be insufficient to launch investments into Russia, at this time.
However, Lindsay did a great job getting his company this caliber of publicity. And he got the uranium sector excellent publicity. He capitalized upon an impinging story – a story that did show up on the world’s radar – by correctly supplying an answer the Russian journalist was trying to prod out of him.
This is the essence of how journalists and publicity-seekers work together. If the PR person gives the journalist the story angle he is looking for within the bigger story, chances are it will appear in print. Piggybacking a “main event” is the most common way to increase one’s impingement value to a reporter. And by being a cunning interviewee for his Russian reporter, Craig Lindsay just got Magnum Uranium into this column as well!
Perhaps the White House flap as to whether or not Saddam Hussein’s government tried to buy uranium ore from the country of Niger was the best publicity Niger has had about its uranium production for more than two decades. How many geologists know that the Republic of Niger ranks fourth, behind Canada, Australia and Kazakhstan, in terms of the quantity of uranium annually produced worldwide?
Named after the river which runs through it, Niger produces nearly four times the uranium currently mined in the United States. More uranium is mined in Niger than in Russia, South Africa, India, China, Brazil, Ukraine Namibia or Uzbekistan. In fact, if you added up the total amount of uranium mined in South Africa, China, India, Brazil, Czech Republic and the Ukraine for 2004, Niger would trump the combined production of those six countries. Until Dr. Jon North came along, uranium mining was pretty much monopolized by Cogema and a consortium that includes Spanish and Japanese interests.
“This is the fourth largest uranium producer in the world,” raved an excited Dr. North into his cell phone during our taped interview. “Niger has never had an entrepreneurial and nimble junior mining company ever explore for uranium. And this is the first one.” North was talking about Northwestern Mineral Ventures (TSX: NWT; OTC BB: NWTMF). “Imagine if Australia, Canada and Kazakhstan having never had a junior company looking for uranium. It’s absolutely absurd to even consider the concept.”
The Republic of Niger supplies about 9 percent of the world’s annual production to meet the growing need for uranium to fuel the world’s nuclear reactors. According to the IAEA-NEA Red Book of 2003, the sub-Saharan Niger ranked #4 behind Australia, Kazakhstan and Canada for total uranium reserves. In the 2005 update, it fell to seventh place. It may be that this country is under-explored. In 1981, Niger produced a peak of 4366 tonnes of uranium. As with others, mining production plummeted with the spot price of uranium during the 1980s and 1990s. The slump hit the country hard because Niger depends upon uranium for more than 30 percent of its exports, more than $100 million. Five percent of the country’s tax revenues come from uranium mining.
Dr. North discussed how he came to obtain concessions for both his company, North Atlantic Resources (TSX: NAC) and Northwestern Mineral Ventures, in which he serves as a director and helps guide geological colleague and president Marek Kreczmer. “I traveled around the Sahara Desert twice on field trips with a local Niger geologist before I decided to apply for permits. When I did this in 2004 with the minister of mines, he said to me, ‘You know, you’re the first person to ever do this, and the only people who have done this are energy companies or governments.’ So, I told him I would like to apply for two permits.” North obtained two for Northwestern Mineral Ventures and another for North Atlantic Resources.
Salt Tectonics the Key to Uranium in Niger
North explained, “We selected the projects based on the geologic ingredients that we felt were important in the control and distribution in the uranium, such as, but not limited to, northwest trending fault corridors, northeast trending fault corridors, and inliers of stratigraphy that are popping up through younger parts of the stratigraphy.” According to North, the salt structures are the key to finding uranium in the Republic of Niger. “The northeast and northwest faults, and the inlier there, are all salt-related structures,” North remarked. An inlier is an area or formation of older rocks completely surrounded by younger layers. “For decades, the oilfield people have understood, emphasized and completed research on salt, the deposition and then the movement of salt through stratigraphic sequences,” North pointed out.
Salt is very common but it doesn’t last very long in stratigraphy and it escapes, North explained. “When it escapes, it forms walls and diapirs (an anticlinal fold where the salt has pierced through the more brittle overlying rock).” Oil exploration geologists pay attention to these because they tend to form permeability barriers to oil and gas deposits. North is interested in them for a different reason, “We noticed that the salt diapirs, where they escaped through the sequence in Niger, coincided with the distribution of uranium deposits.”
Uranium in the Republic of Niger is mined by open pit because of the sandstones. “These are redox deposits,” North noted. “They tend to be associated with reduced layers and structures, such as the former salt diapirs and faults in the stratigraphy. At the time, we didn’t really understand why we were doing that. We just knew there was an association with uranium deposits and these structures in Niger.”
That appears to have made Dr. North’s job a walk in the park, or in this case, a walk in the desert. How do you inexpensively explore concessions of 2,000 square kilometers each? That’s about 24 miles and 30 miles each, both in the desert. “If you do the target selection carefully, and you stick to the salt diapirs, those really narrow down the search,” North revealed. “When we do our first multi sensor mag and radiometric survey, which will happen in the next couple of months, we will map out those structures and features, and look for radiometric anomalies associated with them. When we have that data, we’ll have at least 50 drill targets on those projects.” There appear to be no scarcity of drill targets on the concessions.
Without that data, North believed he could have picked out ten high quality drill targets, just from the geology map. “They show up as circular bull’s eyes on geology maps,” North noted excitedly. “In the desert they show up as low hills. They’re topographic anomalies where you have about maybe 50 meters of relief. It’s just a low rise because the desert is flat as piss on a plate.” North explained that you can drive anywhere by pointing your vehicle and stepping on the gas. “The only things in your way are these very low hills, and those hills are related to either faults or inliers (exposed older rocks surrounded by younger rocks).” Initial targeting comes straight from a topography map.
A Vote of Confidence on Current Progress
But what about the availability of drill rigs for this project? North conceded there is a global shortage. But he shot back, “There’s a drilling company in West Africa called West African Drilling services – and surprise! surprise! – I’ve been working with them for the past four years.” North has already discussed moving a rig in with them. “Quite honestly, it’s not a big issue,” he said. Neither is labor or the cost of drilling. “We pay an all-inclusive cost of approximately US$150/meter,” North told us. “Labor costs are very low, about one-third the cost of North America. We use all local people because that’s what we do in Mali. There are lots of highly trained, skilled geologists in Niger.”
Clearly, Northwest Mineral Ventures is excited. “We are very pleased to be one of the first North American companies to acquire exploration permits in Niger – a country that has not been explored using modern techniques and has, until now, been one of the world’s best-kept uranium secrets,” Northwestern’s Chairman and CEO Kabir Ahmed told Reuters in wire service story published in March.
Northwestern Mineral President Marek Krezcmer, who has been a geologist for more than thirty years, seventeen of which were spent exploring in Africa, was also enthused about the company’s prospects in Niger, “We know there is uranium mineralization on the surface, based on the work which was done by Jon North. I think we can succeed. We’re going to find uranium.” Kreczmer is familiar with geology in Africa and doing business on this continent. “I’ve worked in Tanzania, Zambia, Swaziland, Ethiopia and Eritrea,” said Kreczmer. He was optimistic about developing Northwestern Mineral Venture’s uranium concessions, “Our business plan there is to discover mineralization, and (have) probably someone like Cogema become a partner of choice.”
At Cogema’s seven open pit uranium mines which feed the Arlitt mill, the grades have run 0.3 percent with 2003 production at 1126 tonnes. At the two open pit uranium mines which feed the Akouta mill, grades have run at between 0.4 and 0.5 percent with 2003 production at 2017 tonnes. Krezcmer explained that Northwestern’s exploration licenses are valid for a period of nine years, three-year licenses which are renewable three times. The country’s mining act, according to Krezcmer allows Northwestern to apply for a mining license, which can be granted for between 25 and 70 years.
We were concerned with any political situations, but both North and Kreczmer assured us the country is stable. “When I first went to Niger in November 2004, and that was during the last election, it honestly looked like a lot of fun. Everybody had a little piece of rag tied around their wrist or tied to the antenna of their car to represent their political affiliation.” Kreczmer added, “My experience working in Africa is that because this country relies so heavily on foreign aid, the World Bank has great influence.”
The Republic of Niger has North’s vote on confidence. He has worked for the past few years as Chief Executive of North Atlantic Resources, which hopes to develop its Kantela gold property in Mali. Niger and Mali and demographically and geographical identical, he told us. North feels Niger is going to become more aggressive in developing its uranium properties. He talked about how the President of Niger told his minister of mines, “Get out there and advertise Niger as being open for business. We want people to come in here and invest. We want to give them mineral rights, and we want them to do what Mali is doing.” From the looks of it, the first to jump on the Niger bandwagon were Northwestern Minerals and North Atlantic Resources, but they won’t be the last.
“My experience with Niger is that it’s a peaceful, democratic country with no civil unrest. Let’s put it this way. They have less civil unrest than France.” Ironically, French is one of the country’s official languages. “You gotta be fair, right?” asked North. “The French recently stormed the Bastille in France, and they didn’t do anything like that in Niger.”
Just how exhilarated is Dr. Jon North? “The excitement in the market is we do the airborne survey,” he enthused. “We find some radiometric anomalies that correlated within inliers. We show the model. If that doesn’t excite people, then I don’t think their hearts are beating.”