Depending upon which side of the fence you are sitting, the nuclear renaissance is either in full blossom or an arid landscape. The new uranium miners – Paladin Resources (NYSEARCA:PDN), UrAsia (NYSEMKT:UUU) and SXR Uranium One (SXR) – celebrate the record spot and long-term uranium price. Exelon Corp (NYSE:EXC) Chief Executive John Rowe is less sanguine, based upon comments he made this past Friday:
“The government may have fooled me on 17 reactors that I currently run, but I’m the one who’s being foolish if I build a new plant without knowing what they’re going to do with the spent fuel.”
Exelon is the largest owner of nuclear power plants in the United States.
In a September 19 article, we interviewed Steven Kraft, Nuclear Energy Institute Director for Used Fuel Management. Mr. Kraft hinted the stalls around the nuclear renaissance in the United States would revolve around the spent fuel depository issue. What happens with the 40,000 metric tons of used nuclear reactor fuel? Right now, they are chilling out in 141 concrete cooling ponds scattered around the country.
For the past quarter century, the nuclear industry expected the reactor fuel would end up in a centralized depository, as has been proposed at Yucca Mountain, Nevada. Thanks to U.S. Senator Reid, and his efforts to squash this site, the Department of Energy has been paralyzed in moving forward. Alternatives are now being proposed, and the U.S. part of the nuclear renaissance remains stalled.
Then the other shoe drops. Because of the vociferous environmental lobbyists, pre-construction costs dissuade nuclear utilities from accelerating their plans to build new nuclear reactors in the United States. Utilities do what is convenient – they pass on these licensing costs to their utility consumers. Because of the environmental lobby, Georgia electricity consumers are paying the freight to license the new nuclear reactors proposed by Atlanta-based Southern Company (NYSE:SO). Charlotte-based Duke Energy (NYSE:DUK) hopes to get the same deal in North Carolina.
How much does it cost to license a nuclear power plant? Standard & Poors analyst Dimitri Nikas estimated the permits to construct a nuclear plant would cost between $1.5 billion and $2 billion. This means roughly one-half the cost of constructing a nuclear plant in the United States goes to pay for a permit to build and operate the reactor.
Because of this expensive proposition, nuclear energy costs more to produce electricity in the United States than it would in places like China, Korea, Japan or just about anywhere else. For a nuclear plant costing $2 million per megawatt to build, the power plant’s electricity would cost $55 per megawatt hour. By comparison, a coal-fired power plant costs consumers $53 per megawatt hour for their electricity. A combined cycle integrated gasification plant fueled by coal produces electricity for $50 per megawatt hour.
On the bright side, the S&P analyst believes that after the first wave of nuclear power plant construction, overall costs could plunge to $1.5 million per megawatt hour for electricity, or roughly $44 per megawatt hour. Because of this drop Mr. Niklas concluded nuclear energy “is by far the most competitive cost from any resource, except perhaps hydroelectricity generation.” This is more good news for uranium miners now supplying the nuclear industry and those who hope to do so over the next decade.
The question facing most Americans – and we would guess 99 percent haven’t the slightest clue about this problem – is whether or not they would prefer losing the nuclear option as part of their electricity generation. The environmental lobby would cheer the loss but the utility consumer would lose up to 20 percent of their baseload electricity generation. And on a darker note, the alternative would be more coal-fired power plants – not wind or solar power, which are still more than one decade away from offering any sort of hope for baseload electricity generation.
To put this into perspective, coal now generates 54 percent of America’s electricity. One pound of coal produces 1.25 kilowatt hours of electricity, enough to power one 100-watt light bulb for 10 hours. The average internet user consumes more than his body weight in coal just to surf the net: 12 hours weekly over the course of one year consumes 300 pounds of coal. Total demand for electricity by personal computers now amounts to 8 percent of the U.S. electrical supply. In the future, over one billion people will be accessing the Internet. This amount of computer time would be equal to the total ‘current’ capacity of U.S. electrical production.
If the U.S. nuclear renaissance doesn’t get launched, we will either be accessing the Internet by polluting our environment with several hundred additional millions of tons of CO2 emissions, or the Internet users will suffer. Wind and solar won’t power the Internet, but coal, gas and especially nuclear will.
And at this stage of the uranium renaissance, U.S. utilities have contracted with three non-U.S. uranium mining companies – Paladin, SXR Uranium One and UrAsia – to purchase uranium mined in Namibia, South Africa and Kazakhstan. Where is the energy independence in that observation? Next we’ll be buying our electricity from the Russians, Chinese, and quite possibly the Iranians, if this nonsense continues. Please bring this to the attention of your local environmental lobbying office. It's something that might move Exelon Corp into action.