“We are waiting to see where things are going to move forward to in order to make a decision in the VNC situation,” he told analysts during a conference call.

“It is clear that the situation now is different from where we were six months ago and we are reacting accordingly,” Schvartsman added.

Vale said in 2016 that its patience with VNC had ended and warned that it was considering alternatives for the then loss-making project.

The company confirmed in December 2017 that it was still looking to sell a minority stake of VNC by mid-2018 and said that if no buyer was found, the mine would be put on care and maintenance.

But the positive prospects for prices of cobalt - an important byproduct of VNC - and the improved ramp-up of the project might mean a different outcome for the mine.

According to Schvartsman, a decision on VNC’s future won't be made until the end of 2018.

The executive told analysts Wednesday that Vale’s goal for 2018 in New Caledonia is to shift it from project to profitable operation.

“The purpose is to be cash positive in all our operations,” Schvartsman said, adding that Vale has achieved this “for the first time ever” in the past couple of months.

VNC’s adjusted earnings before interest, taxes, depreciation and amortization (Ebitda) were $11 million in the fourth quarter of 2017, Vale said late Tuesday. This compares with a negative Ebitda of $32 million in the fourth quarter of 2016 and a negative Ebitda of $7 million in the third quarter of last year.

Such an improvement in VNC’s earnings was mainly due to higher nickel and cobalt prices, record quarterly cobalt production and lower costs.

Vale’s average realized cobalt price doubled year on year in the final three months of 2017 to reach $57,680 per tonne, compared with $28,021 per tonne during the same period in 2016.

This strong increase in cobalt prices contributed to about 30% of the cost reduction at VNC in the fourth quarter of 2017, with the remaining amount coming from efficiency gains and the ramp-up of the mine.

VNC unit cash cost of sales fell to $8,420 per tonne in the fourth quarter from $11,375 per tonne a year earlier.

“This makes us more optimistic about VNC," Schvartsman told analysts.