July 13, 2018 / 6:40 AM / a month ago

Unloved uranium sector eyed for revival on reactor build

* Asia demand, China reactor ambitions to drive growth

* Australia's Tribeca to launch uranium mining fund

* Tribeca looks for recovery in 2-4 years on Asia demand

* Australia sees upward price pressure "over the longer term"

By Melanie Burton

MELBOURNE, July 13 (Reuters) - Seven years on from Japan's Fukushima nuclear disaster, the beaten down uranium sector is attracting interest as analysts and investors see signs its time in the wilderness may drawing to an end.

Years of low prices have forced cuts by large producers who have also shelved new investments, while reactor restarts in Japan and a drive by China to cut pollution point to a potential revival, although the timing of any pick-up is unclear.

Australian fund manager Tribeca is betting on a sector recovery over the next two to four years, with the forthcoming launch of a uranium-focused mining investment fund.

It expects uranium prices and mining shares to rally as Asian nations build new reactors to reduce their reliance on polluting fossil fuels.

"You've seen Japan coming back ... China has made a very clear and aggressive focus on reducing pollution, that's becoming a theme that the rest of the emerging market is picking up," fund manager Guy Keller told Reuters.

Uranium spot prices slumped from over $70 a pound pre-Fukushima to below $20 in late 2016. Tribeca sees term prices at least doubling from $20 a tonne over the next few years, Keller said.

Tribeca plans to launch its open-ended fund on Aug. 1 with an overall target of $100 million. It will have a three-year lock-up and is targeting 15-20 mining investments to hold as well as taking physical price exposure.

ASIA INTEREST GROWING

Japan last month confirmed plans to make nuclear power 20-22 percent of its total power mix by 2030, up from 2 pct in 2016, while China is set to boost nuclear power capacity by more than 60 percent to 58 gigawatt (GW) by the end of this decade. It sees that at around 150 GW by 2030.

China's nuclear reactors are already gaining global market share. China General Nuclear Corp (CGN) and France's EDF are building a Hualong reactor in England, while China also has a deal to build a third large reactor in Pakistan.

"Going forward, Chinese-made reactor technology will be exported and that will accelerate growth in emerging markets," Keller said.

Perth-based broker Argonaut also sees a recovery for the downtrodden sector.

"We believe the uranium price is within two years of a sustained recovery," it said in a recent report.

Risks, however, include construction delays in China's next generation plants, due to both protracted safety testing and difficulty in gaining funding given a current domestic power oversupply. China's nuclear build-out is well behind schedule, noted Argonaut Hong Kong-based analyst Helen Lau.

Australia, the world's third largest producer, expects uranium prices to start rising slowly after recent production cuts.

However, it sees spot prices rising only around $6 a pound from current levels to $28 by 2020, at which level "uranium will remain a loss-making commodity for most producers", the Department of Industry said in its latest quarterly minerals report.

Further out, however, it said new capacity under construction and the shake-out in supply should lead to "much greater upward price pressure over the longer term".

($1 = 1.3483 Australian dollars)

Reporting by Melanie Burton; editing by Richard Pullin

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