Suddenly, it’s blue skies for nuclear — but the price-setters haven’t noticed
Three pieces of good news in a week for nuclear power. When was the last time that happened? Yet those who influence the uranium price do not seem to have factored this in to their calculations, with the spot price remaining this week at $28.35/lb, down in the basement at the same level as it has been since May.
On several occasions I have made the point (not an original one — a few of the more perspicacious analysts put the thought into my head) that we are heading for a supply crunch real soon, and certainly by 2020, and when the market realises this fact suddenly investors will be knocking on the uranium door wanting to get in and get aboard.
Developments this week in China, Japan (the only one of the three to get international attention) and the Czech Republic may signify the turning point for uranium may be closer than we think.
China Daily is reporting today that the country’s top energy regulator “announced 164 industry standards, about half of which are related to nuclear power, a signal that the country will support its nuclear sector with new approvals for plants”. The newspaper said the National Energy Administration was putting an emphasis on the nuclear industry with detailed standards for upstream and downstream segments such as primary coolant pumps, a key reactor component, as well as instrument and control systems.
These new standards are clearly intended to cover the third-generation nuclear power technology used in the Westinghouse Electric Co’s AP1000 and the domestically developed CAP1400, according to China Daily.
The newspaper continued: “The move comes at a crucial time, with many speculating that the NEA’s action may expedite the resumption of new approvals for inland nuclear projects”. China General Nuclear Power Group has just signed a 38 billion yuan ($6.1 billion) contract to build two nuclear power plants in Southwest China’s Guizhou province. Hunan province has two nuclear power projects on the drawing board.
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Another straw in the wind was the recent decision by a group of investors out of Guangzhou to invest A$11 million into an Australian junior, Cauldron Energy (ASX:CXU) which has the Yanrey uranium project in Western Australia and an Argentine uranium (along with silver and copper) asset. Cauldron had been one of many unloved uranium stocks before the announcement, at one point trading at just 0.8c. The investment sent the stock to 41c. Then along came another Chinese investor, Starry World Investments, to throw another A$4 million into the junior.
The news that did get some attention this week was that Japan’s regulators have begun to clear the way for two reactors to start up again. The Sendai plants owned by Kyushu Electric Power have received preliminary approval.
According to the Nikkei news service, electricity prices in Japan are really beginning to bite and there’s now more enthusiasm to reduce use of fossil fuels that have pushed up energy costs. The news service quoted Yasuchika Hasegawa, chairman of the Japan Association of Corporate Executives, saying it was hoped there would now be swift progress on assessing other nuclear plants in the country.
And, according to Akio Mimura, chairman of the Japan Chamber of Commerce and Industry, small and midsize businesses have been unable to raise prices to cover higher electricity costs, a factor which has been seen as holding back Japan as it battles to get some economic growth going again.
Nikkei reports that companies have seen a 30% rise in their electric bills since the March 2011 earthquake; households, a 20% increase. “Customers of Tokyo Electric Power, operator of the ill-fated Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant, have borne a roughly 40% hike,” it said. “Utilities have had to jack up the price of electricity because they are spending 3.6 trillion yen ($35 billion) more annually on imported fossil fuels than in fiscal 2010.”
The problem is that the Sendai plants will get back on line this year — but they will be the only ones, and just two reactors in service will not be enough to prevent another hike in electricity charges in early 2015. Power costs are clearly a major factor working in nuclear’s favour.
In the Czech Republic, a prominent politician has had a change of heart about nuclear power. Just three months ago, Andrej Babiš, a multi-millionaire, Finance Minister and leader of the ANO Party (it stands for, in Czech, Action of Dissatisfied Citizens) was against the proposition that the state would cover plans by Czech power giant ČEZ’s to construct two new units at its site at Temelin, South Bohemia. Radio Praha now reports that Babiš has publicly come out now in favour of Czech nuclear expansion. He said the country needed more nuclear power with natural gas not an alternative and that coal reserves should be left in the ground for future generations.
The radio station said ČEZ could no longer keep tender bidders Westinghouse and the Russian-led MIR 1200 consortium hanging on and cancelled the estimated 200 billion crown ($9.86 billion) tender on April 10.
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