Large-scale disasters like Fukushima and Chernobyl have given the nuclear power industry an image problem. However, there are signs that key nations aren't giving up on nuclear with industry developments setting the stage for a potentially bright future.
The perfect example
Fukushima is the perfect example of nuclear's image problem. The reactors at this site were designed by General Electric ( GE -2.58% ) and put in place in the late sixties and early seventies. They've been running without major problems for around 40 years. However, like the airline industry, when something goes wrong at a nuclear plant it usually goes wrong in a big way.
Japan shut all of its reactors after the Fukushima meltdown to help ensure that nothing like this ever happens again. That, of course, is a good call, since it is better to be safe than sorry—especially when nuclear disasters are such large-scale events. However, GE is still working in the nuclear space and, well, it's learned a lot over the last 40 years.
A new partnership
For example, GE was involved in the first commercially funded nuclear plant. Today, it has design options that are three and four generations removed from that plant on the technology front. The most recent designs, PRISM reactors, actually use spent nuclear fuel to generate electricity. And it isn't the only one working on such fourth-generation technology.
For example, Babcock & Wilcox ( BWXT -1.41% ) has just teamed up with Bill Gates backed TerraPower on its "Generation IV traveling wave reactor (TWR)." That's a feather in Babcock & Wilcox's hat, and the TerraPower reactor just happens to use depleted uranium as a fuel, too.
Carbon is today's hot buzzword, but nuclear plants also help avoid all of the other pollutants that come from burning carbon-based fuels, too. And this commitment to helping Southern build the first nuclear plants in the U.S. in 30 years shows that, despite the disaster in Japan, the United States continues to see a role for nuclear. Energy Department Secretary Ernest Moniz noted the deal as a part of the government's efforts to "jump-start the U.S. nuclear power industry."
That technology, however, is the future -- so what about the present? Southern Company ( SO 1.32% ) just received $6.5 billion in government loan guarantees for, "the construction of two new nuclear reactors at the Alvin W. Vogtle Electric Generating Plant." According to The U.S. Department of Energy, "The nuclear facility is eligible for loan guarantees since it is expected to avoid nearly 10 million metric tons of carbon dioxide emissions annually."
Giving nuclear a second chance
Even Japan has decided it should revisit its total shutdown. For example, Grant Isaac, CFO of pure-play uranium miner Cameco ( CCJ -5.06% ), noted late last year that "There are six utilities representing 16 reactors that are currently in the restart process" in Japan. Although no decisions have been made, it's highly likely that Japan will eventually go nuclear again.
As new technologies from the likes of GE, Babcock & Wilcox, and TerraPower continue to improve the safety and reliability of nuclear power, look for more support to build for nuclear. In the meantime, watch developing nations like China and India. While the U.S. is looking to "jump-start" its nuclear industry, Cameco expects there to be three times as many reactors operating in China in 2022 (59) as there were in 2013 (19). It projects that India will go from 21 reactors to 36.
That should make Cameco a good investment option for investors seeking nuclear exposure today. GE and Babcock & Wilcox are far more diversified, but a nuclear renaissance would boost this pair's long-term fortunes, as well. That's good news for Cameco and the entire nuclear industry.
Even better for the uranium miner, however, is that demand for uranium has outstripped mining output for years. The difference was made up by outside sources that are starting to go away. According to Cameco's Isaac that should help turn the uranium market from supply driven to demand driven—and boost prices.