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The Case for Nuclear & Uranium – (Still) Not Dead

by Brett on May 24, 2013

Like an 80s horror film character, nuclear energy has been left for definite dead many times of the past decades.  Recently it appeared to be making yet another valiant comeback until 2011’s Fukushima disaster put the final nail in the nuclear coffin.

Or did it?

If you peer beneath the Western headlines and study the facts, there are a surprisingly large number of nuclear plants still under construction – which would make $40 uranium a screaming bargain today.


The Resurgence of the Nuclear Reactor

By Casey Research

In August 1956, the Calder Hall Power Plant in Seascale, England began generating electricity and earned the distinction of being the world’s first commercial nuclear power plant. It was a humble beginning for nuclear power; the plant only had a 50-megawatt (MW) output capacity, whereas the smallest US plant today has a 478 MW capacity. Nonetheless, Calder Hall represented the launch of a new era in energy that promised to bring electricity too cheap to meter.

But early on, the promising power source had its detractors. They objected to the high initial cost of constructing nuclear plants, the problems of radioactive waste disposal, and the risks of nuclear accidents and nuclear proliferation.

The detractors had an impact. The heavy regulation they pushed for and the litigation they initiated extended construction times and drove up construction costs. But despite their efforts, over 100 reactors had been placed in service in the United States by 1974.

Then came 1979 and a landmark event – the nuclear accident at Three Mile Island. In the aftermath, public opinion turned solidly in favor of the anti-nuclear movement, several construction projects were canceled, and no new US building permits for nuclear power plants were issued for the next 33 years.

Though the US abandoned nuclear expansion in the 1980s, other countries forged ahead. Worldwide startups peaked in 1984 and 1985, as over 30 plants were brought online in each of those years. However, escalating regulatory and litigation costs and pressure groups were not unique to the US. By the 1980s, it was becoming difficult to cost-justify new projects. On top of all that, the Chernobyl accident occurred in 1986, and the world had its own Three Mile Island moment.

In the 1990s, global startups fell to an annual average of less than six per year; in the first decade of the new century, average annual startups were just over three per year. In fact, since 1990 there have barely been enough startups to offset shutdowns.

The recent flurry of closures was caused to a great extent by yet another accident. After the earthquake and tsunami in Japan on March 11, 2011 and the ensuing catastrophe at the Fukushima Nuclear Power Plant, several countries began to rethink their nuclear energy policies. In May 2011, Germany announced that it would abandon nuclear energy entirely, shutting down all 17 of its plants by 2022. In June 2011, Italian citizens voted overwhelmingly in favor of a referendum to cancel plans for new reactors. The Japanese Cabinet, though unclear about a specific plan, has issued a white paper calling for less reliance on nuclear power.

So is nuclear on its last legs? It would appear so… but before we make the funeral arrangements, let’s take a closer look.

A Nuclear Renaissance

In the wake of the Fukushima disaster, much of the attention in the Western world has been on the nuclear power debate, plant shutdowns, and project cancelations. Meanwhile, those in developing countries recognize the harsh reality that something has to be done to produce more power. Driven by population growth and increasing standards of living, future demand for energy in those countries will be strong, if not overwhelming.

The International Energy Agency forecasts that global demand for electricity will grow by a staggering 70% between 2012 and 2035. The increase will come predominantly from developing countries – over half is expected from China and India alone.

Serious pollution problems mean that those developing countries cannot produce all that electricity by burning coal. Amir Adnani, Uranium Energy Corporation’s CEO, says, “The plans to develop nuclear power in China and other countries are very much driven by a set of realities that is very different and very acute. People are dying every year in China, literally choking to death, because of all the toxins that are being put into the environment by burning coal.”

This explains why China, India, and the Russian Federation are quietly forging ahead with nuclear energy expansion while the West and Japan fret over it. As you can see in the table below, those developing countries are dominant leaders in the construction of nuclear facilities.

Nuclear Plants in Operation
Nuclear Plants Under Construction
China, Mainland
China, Taiwan
Czech Republic
Russian Federation
Slovakian Federation
South Africa
United Kingdom
United States

Source: European Nuclear Society

It typically takes about six years to complete a plant once it is under construction, so the 67 facilities shown above should be producing electricity soon. In addition, over 100 reactors are at various stages of planning and permitting.

So it looks like the needs of developing countries will be more than enough to revitalize and sustain the nuclear-power industry. As for the developed countries, many still heavily rely on nuclear energy, and that won’t change anytime soon. In fact, the reliance may only increase in the coming years.

Though many developed countries have been cool at best and hostile at worst toward nuclear energy expansion, a more conciliatory approach may be required in the future. That’s because many of the same people who are concerned about the risks and costs of nuclear power are even more concerned about global warming. That means fossil fuels and the carbon dioxide they emit must be limited.

But what will be used other than fossil fuels? The hope was wind and solar, but the inefficiencies, high costs, and intermittent nature of these two energy sources make them unlikely candidates for widespread use. What’s left is nuclear.

On February 9, 2012, the US Nuclear Regulatory Commission approved a license for two new nuclear reactors in Georgia, the first in over 30 years. This could be a sign of more approvals to come. But what could eventually really ignite a nuclear expansion are the promising technology advancements that are being developed.

Nuclear Technological Developments

Small Modular Reactors:

You’ve heard of the mini-brewery and the mini-steel mill; now meet the mini-nuclear reactor. Commonly known as “small modular reactors” or SMRs, these reactors are tiny compared to conventional ones. However, with capacities reaching up to 300 MW (power sufficient to supply 45,000 homes) they pack plenty of punch to have practical commercial application. Here are some advantages that SMRs offer:

  • They are cheaper to construct and operate than conventional reactors.
  • They can be standardized and factory built, a much more efficient process than on-site construction.
  • They can be set up in groups to provide however much power an area needs. Grouping would allow for a unit to be taken offline for repairs, maintenance, or replacement without an interruption of service. On the flip side, more units can be easily added if an area’s power needs increase.
  • They can basically run themselves with little on-site supervision.
  • They can be stored underground, which enhances security.

Most important, because they are small and use less fuel, they are easier to cool, which greatly reduces the risk of a meltdown.

Small Modular Reactor

Some SMRs can even run on what was once considered nuclear waste. For example, a Bill Gates-backed company, TerraPower, is developing a reactor that burns depleted uranium. Depleted uranium burns very slowly, so TerraPower’s reactor could theoretically run for decades without the need for a fill-up. This is an exciting development. Unfortunately, the TerraPower reactor only exists as a prototype on a PC. This means that it will take several years before it could possibly make its debut on the power grid.

In fact, most SMRs are still in the very early stages of development, with many challenges to be met and many questions to be answered. However, the concept has enough promise to induce the US government to invest in its pursuit. If it proves to be viable, this technology could really shake up the energy scene.

Thorium Reactors:

Imagine a cheap, plentiful atomic fuel that could provide safe, emissions-free power for hundreds of years without refueling and without any risk of nuclear proliferation. That fuel is thorium, and proponents claim it eludes many of the pitfalls of today’s nuclear energy.

Robert Rapier, chief technology officer and executive vice president at Merica International, says:

“Longer term, commercialization of thorium reactors would dramatically reduce (although not totally eliminate) the risk of nuclear-weapon proliferation. Thorium is abundant relative to uranium, and thorium does not have to undergo the enrichment process that uranium requires. Further, thorium reactors have little risk of melting down because climbing temperatures will decrease the power output, eliminating the runaway reaction possibility present in a uranium-fueled reactor. Thus, these reactors would naturally tend toward the fail-safe state. The primary disadvantage is that thorium reactors are still mainly at the experimental stage, and therefore commercial viability has not yet been clearly demonstrated.”

Pebble-Bed Reactors:

The pebble-bed reactor concept was first introduced way back in the 1940s. The US, Germany, and South Africa have experimented with the technology over the years, but it is the Chinese who have persisted in the experiment and plan to implement the technology in two reactors near the Yellow Sea.

Under the pebble-bed design, uranium fuel rods are replaced with tennis-ball-sized graphite spheres that contain tiny beads of uranium, and helium (instead of water) is used as a coolant. A New York Times piece provides a simple explanation of how the technology works:

“Rather than using conventional fuel rod assemblies…(pebble-bed reactors) use hundreds of thousands of billiard-ball-size fuel elements, each cloaked in its own protective layer of graphite.

“The coating moderates the pace of nuclear reactions and is meant to ensure that if the plant had to be shut down in an emergency, the reaction would slowly stop on its own and not lead to a meltdown.

“The reactors (are) cooled by non-explosive helium gas instead of depending on a steady source of water – a critical problem with the damaged reactors at Japan’s Fukushima Daiichi power plant. And unlike those reactors, (pebble-bed) reactors are designed to gradually dissipate heat on their own, even if the coolant is lost.”

Challenges remain for pebble-bed reactors, and some environmentalists oppose the technology. They point to the fact that the volume of radioactive waste increases under the pebble-bed design, but do concede that pebble-bed waste is far less radioactive per ton than spent uranium fuel rods.

These technological developments in the nuclear-reactor space are promising and certainly worth keeping an eye on… but it’s unlikely that anything disruptive will hit the mainstream anytime soon.

So from an investment standpoint, this means that the best and most immediate way to play the nuclear trend is not the companies that make the reactors, but the companies that mine the fuel for the reactors.

The Coming Uranium Bull Market

There are a number of supply and demand circumstances that appear to be forming a perfect storm for bullish uranium prices. From the demand side, the 67 new reactors that we discussed earlier will be coming online in the near future.

On the supply side, there isn’t enough uranium being mined to meet current reactor requirements, let alone new facility requirements. According to the World Nuclear Association, there was a 40-million-pound uranium production gap in 2011. It is unlikely that that gap will be closed at current prices; miners claim that their production costs average $85 per pound. With spot prices at about $40 per pound, miners have no incentive to bring new capacity online.

Another factor affecting the supply side is the coming end of the Megatons to Megawatts program. Under this arrangement, the US and Russia agreed to convert high-enriched uranium from Russia’s dismantled weapons arsenal into low-enriched uranium for use in power plants. This secondary source provides about 15% of the US’s annual supply of uranium. However, the program will expire later this year and when it does, the production gap will widen. Guess what will happen to uranium prices. That’s right: they’ll skyrocket.

Intrigued yet? Want some more specific investment advice? Help is on the way. Marin Katusa and the Casey Research Energy Team are on top of the emerging opportunity in uranium and have assembled a panel of world-renowned energy experts to discuss it in further depth in an upcoming webinar titled The Myth of American Energy Independence: Is Nuclear the Ultimate Contrarian Investment? The webinar is free of charge. In addition, all attendees will receive a free copy of our new Global Resource Intelligence Report on uranium (a $29 value). I urge you to reserve your seat today.

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