According to Cameco (NYSE:CCJ), the largest publicly traded pure-play uranium miner, Europe will close 16 nuclear reactors between now and 2023, while opening only 10 new ones. That's not surprising, since the Fukushima meltdown in Japan materially changed how nuclear power is viewed, particularly in Germany. However, China won't close a single reactor while opening 58 over that same span.
While countries such as Japan and Germany have either sworn off or reevaluated their commitment to nuclear power because of Fukushima, other nations haven't reacted the same way. Indeed, the power needs of a rapidly growing nation like China almost mandates the involvement of nuclear power as a clean and, equally important, controllable power source.
And before passing judgment on China's decision to continue building nuclear power plants, it's worth considering that the Fukushima meltdown involved a unique confluence of events. First, an earthquake followed by a tsunami is, thankfully, not a common occurrence. The plant involved was older, and less advanced, than what is being built today. So while it may be easy to say an authoritative government is simply ignoring the risks, the perceived risks may, in fact, be less material than anti-nuclear advocates would have you believe.
How big is China's commitment?
China is not only committed to nuclear; it's committed in a big way. For comparison, the United States leads the the world in power plants, with 126 (Europe, taken as a whole, has roughly 10 more). That number is slated to remain unchanged between now and 2023, as plant closures offset additions. China currently has around 20 nuclear power plants. By 2023, Cameco estimates it will have 78, with no planned closures.
The 58 new plants represent nearly 41% of all new nuclear construction over that span, and fully 64% of the net nuclear additions. The country currently has 28 of those plants under construction right now. Three new reactors have already come on line this year. Fellow Asian up-and-comer India is also building plants, but its 15 new additions (like China, it won't be closing any of its roughly 20 operating nuclear plants) pale in comparison with the commitment that China has made.
So China is really the global hotspot for nuclear power, which makes sense since it requires a lot of electricity to accommodate the shift from a largely agrarian society to an industrialized one. This one country is so important that Cameco dedicated a slide to just China in a recent investor presentation. So if you're watching nuclear power, you have to keep a close eye on China. Cameco certainly is.
The miner projects that uranium demand will increase at roughly 4% a year between now and 2023. Clearly, that's going to be driven by construction plans in China. While that may not seem like a lot, the compounding impact is actually quite large. For example, current uranium production, because of depletion, is going to fall from 160 million pounds to 140 million pounds over that span. Consumption, however, will increase from 170 million pounds to 240 million pounds.
That's a huge investment opportunity being driven largely by China. However, it's never as easy as it seems. Right now the negative view of nuclear power and secondary supplies (such as the conversion of nuclear warheads to fuel for power plants) have left uranium prices weak. The spot price for uranium has fallen from over $70 a pound in 2011 to recent prices in the $30 range.
That's caused Cameco to pull in its reins on the expansion front of late, but it doesn't change the long-term opportunity. It's more of a delay, which is hurting Cameco's top and bottom lines in the near term and the share price, but it should provide long-term investors with a relatively low entry point. And once a nuclear power plant is built, it has to be continually fed uranium to work. So as long as China keeps leading the nuclear way, Cameco should see demand, and eventually uranium prices, increase.