* Just one of 54 reactors online in Japan, restart plan unclear
* Cameco says Japanese utilities not selling excess uranium
* Japanese partners still committed to mine development
* Sees some reactors restarting in near future
* Cameco eyeing “near-production” takeover targets in U.S.
By Julie Gordon
March 26 (Reuters) - Japan, which has taken all but one of its 54 nuclear reactors offline in the wake of the Fukushima disaster, has not indicated that it is planning a permanent shift away from atomic power, said the head of Cameco Corp on Monday.
Cameco, a top global uranium producer, has offered to buy excess material from Japanese utilities, but they are not selling, said Chief Executive Tim Gitzel, speaking at the Reuters Mining and Steel Summit from Saskatoon, Saskatchewan.
That has Cameco confident that Japan will bring at least a portion of its reactor fleet back online in the near future.
“I think over the next months we’ll start to see some reactors come back on,” said Gitzel. “It will be a slow process, but eventually they’ll bring those back on.”
While a few utilities have asked to defer deliveries over the last year, none have moved to reduce their inventories, he added, noting that Cameco’s Japanese partners remain committed to developing new mines.
“We’re partners with some of the Japanese utilities in some mining projects,” said Gitzel. “We’ve talked to them about whether they’re staying in the game and indeed they are staying in. They’re continuing to invest in exploration.”
“I think that’s positive news for the Japanese fleet going forward,” he added.
On Monday, Tokyo Electric Power Co (Tepco) shut down its last operating nuclear reactor for planned maintenance, leaving just one reactor online in all of Japan to supply the nation’s creaking power sector.
Tepco holds a 5 percent stake in Cameco’s Cigar Lake project in Saskatchewan, while Idemitsu Kosan Co Ltd has an 8 percent stake in the uranium mine, set to start up in late 2013.
Cameco is also partnered with Japan’s Mitsubishi Corp to develop the Kintyre uranium project in Australia.
Japan’s final operating reactor is scheduled to shut down in May and the timeline for restarts remains unclear. Stress test results are currently being reviewed by the country’s nuclear regulator; then the government will need to green-light restarts based on public and political support.
Despite the lingering uncertainty, Cameco sees strong uranium growth going forward as China, India, Russia and Korea push ahead with aggressive nuclear build-outs.
For its part, China should have some 40 reactors online by 2015 and another 20 or 30 in operation by 2020, said Gitzel.
“We see the long term fundamentals of the business as very strong,” he said. “We see 96 net new reactors by 2021. That’s the best growth we’ve seen in the business since the 1970s.”
With 104 reactors, the United States is the largest consumer of uranium in the world and Cameco is the top uranium producer in the country, producing some 2.2 million pounds in 2011 from its mines in Wyoming and Nebraska.
“We’re in a good space down in the United States and we think it’s an important place for us to be,” said Gitzel. “Our estimate for the U.S. is four to six new reactors by 2020.”
That has the company eyeing more output in the United States, despite the often “laborious” permitting environment.
Cameco, which is expanding its Smith Ranch-Highland project in Wyoming, hopes to boost U.S. production to 4 million pounds a year. The company also plans to bring the idle Highland mill back online.
That would give Cameco additional processing capacity, and that has the Canadian miner on the lookout for potential takeovers, especially those with late development-stage assets.
“We would be looking in the area to see if there are any projects that are, I would say, near production,” said Gitzel. “Projects that could fit in with ours and could bring uranium to our existing facilities in the near term.”
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