Cameco shares down following $168M write down on its Kintyre uranium mine

SASKATOON – Cameco has confidence in the long-term value of its Kintyre project but it’s not economically viable at current uranium prices and had to be written down by $168 million, CEO Tim Gitzel said Monday.

He said uranium would have to be at least US$67 per pound “to make that project interesting.”

“If you follow the market, you’ve seen others — our competitors — using $75 to $90 or $84 or somewhere in that range,” Gitzel said in a conference call.

“We wouldn’t dispute those numbers. We think something certainly north of where it is today but something in the $60 to $80 range would start to get people interested in moving the project ahead.”

Cameco (TSX:CCO) reported Friday it got an average of US$47.62 per pound for uranium last year, including nearly $50 per pound in the fourth quarter.

Gitzel noted that the Kintyre project in Australia was acquired in 2008, prior to the financial meltdown that hit major economies and three years before an earthquake and tsunami damaged the Fukusima Daiichi electric plant in Japan.

“It remains a good project. There are significant resources there that we’re planning on exploiting in the future,” he said.

However, it is not economical at current market prices and drilling results last year weren’t as encouraging as hoped “so we’ve put it into our bull pen for now.”

He said the 2011 Fukushima nuclear crisis has caused “a pause” in demand for uranium.

“There’s been high-profile countries like Germany, who had 17 reactors operating before Fukushima and quickly shut down eight and are just running nine now and plan to phase out (the rest) over time,” said Gitzel.

“What gets a bit lost, though, is the continued growth we see — especially in Asia.”

China has 29 units under construction, for example. India, South Korea and the United Arab Emirates are also expected to add to demand and fuel average annual growth of three per cent over the next decade, he said.

“We think those fundamentals are good for Cameco and for the uranium business,” Gitzel said. “We’re growing from the 22 million pounds we produced in 2012 to 36 million in 2018 to be ready for that growth in the market.”

Cameco shares were down about three per cent Monday from the previous close at about C$21 on the Toronto Stock Exchange.

It’s also down from the 52-week high of $26.43 set nearly a year ago and the all-time high of $59.90 set in June 2007.

On Friday, the Saskatoon-based company reported revenues of $958 million for the period ended Dec. 31, down just one per cent from $971 million in the year-earlier period.

Net earnings for the quarter came in at $45 million, or 11 cents per diluted share, a steep drop from $265 million, or 67 cents per diluted share, in the prior-year period — largely because of the Kintyre writedown.

The uranium producer, however, delivered a solid beat on analysts expectations on both revenue and adjusted earnings.

According to a Thomson Reuters poll, analysts were expecting revenue of $820.8 million for the quarter and adjusted earnings per share of 41 cents.

Cameco handed in an adjusted EPS of 60 cents.

For the full year, Cameco posted $2.32 billion in revenues, slightly lower than $2.38 billion in 2011. Net and adjusted earnings were $266 million and $447 million, respectively, down from $450 million and $509 million year over year.

In December, Cameco announced that it had completed a US$430-million deal to buy the Yeelirrie development project — one of Australia’s largest undeveloped uranium deposits from BHP Billiton Ltd. (NYSE:BHP).

“We think it’s a great asset that we got at a fair price,” Gitzel said Monday.

In June, it acquired Areva’s 28 per cent stake in the proposed Millennium mine in northern Saskatchewan for $150 million, giving Cameco nearly 70 per cent ownership. The rest is owned by JCU (Canada) Exploration.

Last month, it also completed the purchase of NUKEM Energy, a global trader and broker of nuclear fuel products and services, for US$140 million plus assumed debt.