Is Nuclear Power About to Go Dark?

If Japan can go nuclear-free after being tied into a grid for more than four decades, what's to stop other countries following suit? And more importantly, why shouldn't their nuclear reactors be shut down?

Source: SXC.hu.

On one hand, nuclear power has proved itself to be a very clean, safe, and affordable form of energy. According to the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, there are 100 licensed nuclear power plants operating in the U.S. generating 20% of the country's electricity needs. Exelon (NYSE: EXC  ) is the largest domestic operator of nuclear plants, with 10 power plants and 17 reactors powering some 17 million homes in Illinois, Pennsylvania, and New Jersey. It's fleet represents one-fifth of the country's capacity.

While the Three Mile Island calamity may represent to nuclear power opponents what can go wrong with nuclear power here at home, it also epitomizes all that's right with the industry in the U.S.: the redundancy of safety features and backup measures prevented what otherwise might have been a huge calamity.

But then there's Chernobyl in Russia and Fukushima in Japan to underscore the very real risks nuclear power represents. In the former, government ineptitude led to catastrophe such that families who lived within a 1,000-square-mile area around the reactor are still prohibited from returning to their homes because of unsafe radiation levels. In the case of Fukushima, a natural disaster created an even larger man-made one, and we're still assessing the impact from the fallout. Just the other day, the plant dumped 1,000 tons of contaminated water into the ocean.

Germany, for one, has decided enough's enough and will be going nuclear-free by 2022. It's already shut down eight of the country's 17 reactors, plans to phase out another six by 2021, and will close the rest by the deadline. It also has in place a fairly ambitious goal of having 80% of the country's electricity needs generated by renewable sources by 2050.

There's been ancillary fallout as well. BHP Billiton (NYSE: BHP  ) , one of the leading uranium miners, has delayed expansion of its Olympic Dam project in Australia, the site of the world's largest uranium deposit, and production at the site fell 2.5% in 2012. Last year the miner also agreed to sell its Yeelirie deposit in western Australia to Cameco (NYSE: CCJ  ) for $433 million.

Cameco is also one of the world's top uranium producers, and its second-quarter earnings report was surprisingly strong despite the weakness it admits is still present in the industry because of Fukushima. Even so, it is still restructuring its business and looking for ways to cope with the dim prospects by cutting costs further.

It says the fact that Japan's reactor operators have applied to restart their plants suggests the situation will eventually improve, but following the earthquake and resulting tsunami, Japan turned off power at all 50 of its commercial reactors to conduct a safety inspection. Because of extreme public hostility toward nuclear power, the operators have been unable to turn them back on, and despite the government's attempt to create hysteria by saying blackouts would occur if they weren't turned back on, the chaos never ensued.

Two reactors owned by Kansai Electric were allowed to reactivate last July, but one of them was shut down this month for another inspection, and the second was shut off this week. Although the plant operators have filed to restart their reactors, it's not just the government that needs to give approval, but local officials as well have to sign off. Considering the climate surrounding nuclear power there, that seems like a dim possibility.

Also generally left unsaid is what to do with the waste these plants produce. Spent fuel is stored in pools on site at the plant, and when they're filled up, it's put into dry casks -- steel and concrete cylinders -- that are also stored on-site. Other low-level waste is stored at federally approved sites across 37 states, while high-level waste is buried under Yucca Mountain in Nevada. Essentially, we have stockpiles of nuclear refuse just scattered around the country.

Although nuclear power is relatively safe and certainly cheap, it doesn't require too many disasters like Fukushima to scuttle the idea that it's still safe. Japan has gone from generating a third of its power from nuclear to zero, and Germany is flipping the switch, too, albeit more slowly. I foresee other countries eventually following suit, particularly should another catastrophe strike, and I view the nuclear industry as one that has a clock ticking down on it.

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Read/Post Comments (11) | Recommend This Article (2)

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Help us keep this a respectfully Foolish area! This is a place for our readers to discuss, debate, and learn more about the Foolish investing topic you read about above. Help us keep it clean and safe. If you believe a comment is abusive or otherwise violates our Fool's Rules, please report it via the Report this Comment Report this Comment icon found on every comment.

  • Report this Comment On September 21, 2013, at 6:01 PM, therylmccoy wrote:

    Japan seems to have forgotten the following rules:

    1. Do not build a nuclear power plant in the tsunami zone.

    2. If you do (which you should never ever do) do not place the backup generators in the basement.

    4.Do not use statistics to determine whether or not a tsunami will hit.

    5. Do not ignore 400+ year warnings made of stone that our ancestors left for us not to build ANYTHING below the tsunami tide line.

    6. Do not be so arrogant that you can stop nature with your puny seawalls and mediocre earthquake safety precautions.

    FAIL!

  • Report this Comment On September 21, 2013, at 6:14 PM, marianfartadi wrote:

    Captors of sun and wind, and their applications. Clean, efficient and renewable energies for the best Price: 0,01 euro for KW/h. www.captorsofsunandwind.com ; www.captadoresdesolyvientos.com ; Thank you. Marian Fartadi

  • Report this Comment On September 21, 2013, at 6:40 PM, Robnati wrote:

    Japan will re-start its reactors and other countries are building new reactors. However, at this moment in time, the nuclear industry is at a low point. IF you think nuclear has any future, it's probably time to pick up some bargains.

  • Report this Comment On September 21, 2013, at 6:58 PM, owlbeback wrote:

    What idiot wrote the headline for this article?

  • Report this Comment On September 21, 2013, at 8:38 PM, Rotomoley wrote:

    We'll see. The nuclear industry seems to have near insurmountable obstacles to progression.

  • Report this Comment On September 21, 2013, at 9:47 PM, mw3051 wrote:

    Rich Duprey is not only a fool they trolled us with the fake headline.

    fire that idiot and hire someone who is not an idiot.

  • Report this Comment On September 22, 2013, at 12:03 AM, phillipzx3 wrote:

    Only corn based ethanol and heavy California oils produce worse returns on investment than nuclear.

    Scientific American did a great article on what gives us the biggest bang for the buck. Hydroelectric, the best, to the worst...corn based ethanol. Nuclear slipped in tied with tar sands at third to last place. Second to last place was the heavy California oils.

  • Report this Comment On September 22, 2013, at 12:07 AM, shlitz wrote:

    Uranium will be around for a long,long time.

  • Report this Comment On September 22, 2013, at 8:34 AM, Paxus wrote:

    Cheap power? Some additional research will prove that nuclear is actually a net loss in the US when you look at the subsidies which have been provided for it. (see http://funologist.org/2012/11/27/what-a-really-poor-investme...

    Waste certainly is a problem that none of the 30+ countries with civil nuclear programs has solved in an adequate way, despite years and billions invested.

  • Report this Comment On September 22, 2013, at 10:06 AM, GRLCowan wrote:

    Kharecha and Hansen find nuclear power to have saved 1.84 million human lives and prevented 64 gigatonnes of CO2 emission to the atmosphere. (http://pubs.acs.org/doi/abs/10.1021/es3051197)

    It would have taken five cubic miles of petroleum to produce that much CO2. K&H don't go into how much government income that might have been has stayed in the ground along with the fossil fuel, but it turns out that for each life saved by nuclear power, the public sector is several million dollars poorer, and the private sector that much richer.

    So neither the left (life-saving, OK, but a reduction in government income!?) nor the right (private money, yes, but lifesaving?!) is entirely comfortable with nuclear power.

    The picture of Lonnie Dupre at https://www.dropbox.com/s/o6mrb62bfe8seww/uww.jpg tells the whole story, I think. You may shill for worse mousetraps, or work for an organization that has been suborned by worse-mousetrap money, but in your *own* house, you want the better mousetrap, and that's nuclear power.

  • Report this Comment On September 23, 2013, at 4:21 PM, HoosierRube wrote:

    There's enough left unsaid in this article that makes you wonder why someone would intentionally misinform others.

    1. In a 50 year history, Chernobyl is the poster child for what can go wrong. But lets look at the consequences. Some few square miles were left to go back to nature and nature is doing very well in this area. By all measurements, wildlife populations are exploding with little to no ill effects of radiation. Compared with ANY other energy source, nuclear is by far the safest with .002 deaths per year. Thats even better than wind at 2 deaths per year.

    2. Germany has not gotten off of nuclear. They just outsourced it to France. And they are paying through the nose for outsourcing the risk to France. And France, they are doing very well.

    3. And the most outrageous of the 'things left unsaid', Japan elected a PRO nuclear government to get their reactors back online.

    4. 136 of new reactors are currently under construction with permits for future builds over 1,000.

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