No one can ignore the push in the United States and elsewhere across the globe to move away from a dependence on fossil fuels and into a more environmentally friendly, low carbon emission means of producing energy, and in particular electricity. Feeling this push, politicians are moving to formulate plans by which electricity can be produced in an environmentally sound manner.
Despite the recent advancements in clean coal technology, coal fired power plants are still targeted as public enemy number one by the environmental movement. The United States, however, is still very much dependent upon coal as its primary supplier of electricity and no other environmentally friendly sources have proven that they are capable of supplying even close to as much energy as coal at a price that is cost feasible. But there is perhaps an exception that is becoming more cost feasible. That is nuclear power.
American politicians seemed to have turned their attention to nuclear power to help produce emission free electricity. Presidential candidate John McCain recently stated that he would like to see 45 new nuclear facilities built by the year 2030 and pledged 2 billion taxpayer dollars a year to help make that a reality. It is very likely that a proposal such as this will come to fruition no matter which party is elected and having funds like this available make nuclear power a cost feasible method of producing emission free electricity.
The first thought that investors will have in looking to play this coming boom in nuclear power will be to buy up stock in the owner/operators of the nuclear plants such as companies like NRG Energy (NYSE:NRG). The issue with this is that even with such substantial federal subsidies in the pipeline for building these new plants it is likely that the nuclear power companies will still have to make a substantial initial investment in each reactor they build because of the hefty up front cost. Furthermore, with electricity being a regulated product, the profits that these companies can make will be capped.
The best way to play the future nuclear boom is to look to the most integral suppliers for the production of nuclear power: the uranium producers. The uranium producers' stocks right now have bargain basement prices and they stand to profit immensely in the coming years as nuclear production begins to ramp up.
The recent decline in prices of uranium has hammered the stock prices of uranium producers such as Uranium Resources Inc. (NASDAQ:URRE) and Denison Mines Corporation (NYSEMKT:DNN). There are many factors to blame for the recent decline in prices and the first is that the 2006-2007 run-up in uranium prices was caused by a worldwide surge in demand and also by speculators frantically buying uranium in anticipation of a surge in nuclear capacity, only to sell when they realized that the surge was still years off. Though the surge is still a few years away, the decline in uranium prices has created the perfect opportunity for the long term investor to swoop in and pick up some shares in these uranium producers at extremely low prices.
The worldwide demand for uranium hasn't changed too much over the years as year after year new production fails to meet worldwide demand. According to the Energy Watch Group, an organization of scientists that continually research worldwide energy production, the current demand for uranium is 67 kt/year and only 42 kt/year are supplied by new production. The remaining 25 kt is supplied by stockpiles at mines and power plants that were accumulated prior to 1980. The Energy Watch Group estimates that these stockpiles will be exhausted within 10 years and this will leave a tremendous imbalance between supply and demand that the uranium producers will have to step in to fill. Add to this scenario a new rash of federally subsidized nuclear reactors in the United States and the supply and demand imbalance becomes even larger.
The graph below, provided by the Energy Watch Group, shows the availability of yet to be mined uranium reserves. The orange shows reasonably expected reserves which can be extracted at $40.00 per Kt, the yellow area is reasonably expected reserves that can be extracted at $130.00 per Kt, and the light blue area shows inferred reserves that can be extracted at $130.00 per Kt. The black line shows the expected demand for uranium.
To give you an extra idea as to how critical the uranium supply situation can be, eleven countries including Germany, The Czech Republic, France, Congo, Gabon, Bulgaria, Tadshikistan, Hungary, Romania, Spain, Portugal and Argentina have already exhausted their domestic uranium resources. Several of these countries rely very heavily upon nuclear power for their electricity production and having no domestic uranium supply means that they must import their entire supply.
The one factor that seems to be keeping prices of uranium stable currently is the aforementioned stockpiles at the mines and power plants. These stockpiles that were created during the uranium mining boom of the 1970s mean that all demand can currently be met at reasonable prices. When these stockpiles do run out is when a worldwide shortage could take effect and give the uranium producers a golden opportunity to bring their products to market at an extremely high price.
For an investor to take advantage of this long term trend, the price seems right to jump in right now. Not only do Uranium Resources Inc. and Denison Mines Corporation look like they potentially stand to benefit from the second coming of nuclear power but so do companies such as Cameco Corporation (NYSE:CCJ), which is also a player in the gold market, and Uranerz Energy Corporation (NYSEMKT:URZ), a smaller company that is engaged in the exploration stage of the uranium market rather than the actual mining.
The bottom line is that nuclear power is going to make a comeback in the United States and if you add more demand in the United States to an already present (but masked by excessive stockpiles) lack of supply then the answer inevitably will be higher prices for uranium. Higher prices for uranium will make the uranium producers money along with any investor prudent enough to pick up shares in their stock while they are at bargain prices.
Note: the full report of the Energy Watch Group including many facts and figures mentioned in the above article can be found at: http://www.energywatchgroup.org/fileadmin/global/pdf/EWG_Uraniumreport_12