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United States And Allies To Triple Nuclear Energy Capacity By 2050

The United States and 21 other countries have pledged to triple their respective nuclear energy capacities by 2050, saying incorporating more nuclear power in their energy mix is critical for achieving their net zero goals in the coming decades. The United States, alongside Britain, France, Canada, Sweden, South Korea, Ghana and the United Arab Emirates have signed the declaration at the COP28 climate summit currently underway in Dubai.

Although tripling their nuclear energy output will go a long way in helping Europe become more energy independent, it's likely to come at a heavy price. Consider that in the majority of advanced economies, home to nearly 70 percent of global nuclear capacity, investment in nuclear energy has mostly stalled thanks to massive cost overruns, incessant project delays as well as never-ending public opposition. Indeed, all 31 nuclear power plants that have been constructed since 2017 belong to China and Russia.

But the leaders attending the climate summit are confident they can overcome these hurdles. John Kerry, President Biden's climate envoy, says there are "trillions of dollars" available that could be used for investment in nuclear energy. "We are not making the argument to anybody that this is absolutely going to be the sweeping alternative to every other energy source - no, that's not what brings us here. But you can't get to net-zero 2050 without some nuclear power," he told reporters.  Related: Al Jaber Says Fossil Fuel Phase Out is 'Inevitable'

France's President Emmanuel Macron has said that nuclear energy, including small modular reactors, is an "indispensable solution" in the fight against climate change. France is Europe's largest nuclear power producer, deriving ~70 percent of its electricity from nuclear stations.

But not everybody is buying that nuclear renaissance thesis. Masayoshi Iyoda, an activist from Japan with 350.org, says that nuclear power is a dangerous distraction from decarbonization goals, "It is simply too costly, too risky, too undemocratic, and too time-consuming. We already have cheaper, safer, democratic, and faster solutions to the climate crisis, and they are renewable energy and energy efficiency," he has said in a statement, citing the Fukushima nuclear accident.

First SMR Launch Tanks

Unfortunately, it appears that nuclear power, including the small modular reactors Macron has alluded to, is not about to become an easy sell. NuScale Power Corporation (NYSE:SMR), a developer of modular light water reactor nuclear reactors, has been forced to terminate the Carbon Free Power Project with Utah Associated Municipal Power Systems (UAMPS) thanks to high costs and low interest by end users. The plan was to build a novel nuclear power plant comprising six small modular reactors (SMRs), each generating 77 MW. But the project fell apart after prospective customers for its electricity backed out and costs more than doubled to $9.3 billion. The cancellation has come even after the Department of Energy, in 2020, approved $1.35 billion over 10 years for the plant. NuScale was the first U.S. company to secure regulatory approval for modular reactors.

As you might expect, the critics have wasted no time coming out of the woodworks.

"The termination of NuScale's contract signals the broader challenges of developing nuclear energy in the United States. Placing excessive reliance on untested technologies without adequate consideration of economic viability, practicality, and safety concerns is irresponsible and clearly won't work,"Edwin Lyman, director of nuclear power safety at the Union of Concerned Scientists, has told Reuters.

Short-seller Iceberg Research has followed up last month's negative report with a new, even more damning report saying the company's Standard Power contract is "a pipe dream that was designed to divert attention from the loss of UAMPS." Iceberg claims NuScale has touted Standard Power as a credible partner because its investors comprise "ultra high net worth family offices and financial institutions [with] access to capital in excess of $10B." 

However, the short seller remains skeptical because of Standard Power's small size as well as the lack of identification among its investors. Further, Iceberg has faulted NuScale management's claims to having a solid balance sheet, with $197M of cash and no debt at the end of Q3, saying this overlooks the company's $153M cash burn during the last 12 months and does not take into account the hit to its books by the UAMPS contract termination, which adds ~$63M in liabilities. Iceberg estimates NuScale has a mere 11-19 month cash runway.

Full-Size Mock Up Of NuScale's SMR

SMRs have been touted as the nuclear reactors of the future thanks mainly to their smaller footprint which allows them to be sited on locations not suitable for larger nuclear power plants.  Prefabricated SMR units (similar to NuScale's) can be manufactured, shipped and installed on site, making them several times cheaper to build than large power reactors. Additionally, they can be deployed incrementally to match increasing power demand. Another key advantage: SMRs can be refueled every 3 to 7 years compared to between 1 and 2 years required for conventional nuclear plants. 

By Alex Kimani for Oilprice.com

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Alex Kimani

Alex Kimani is a veteran finance writer, investor, engineer and researcher for Safehaven.com.  More