As the need for abundant and expedient carbon-free energy intensifies and solar and wind power deployment hit some major speedbumps, more and more industry experts are calling for a resurgence of nuclear energy. While nuclear power has been out of vogue for decades now, proponents argue that its myriad values can no longer be ignored.
In the era of climate change, the benefits of nuclear energy are growing increasingly valuable – nuclear fission yields no greenhouse gas emissions, it’s a proven technology with existing supply chains and well worn blueprints, and, crucially, it’s a base load power source. Unlike solar and wind production, which are variable and answer not to consumer demand but to the whims of the weather, nuclear energy production can be manipulated to provide exactly as much energy as we need, when we need it.
As a result, nuclear energy is gaining more and more vocal proponents, and public opinion is shifting in favor of nuclear power expansion. In fact, public support for nuclear energy in the United States is at a 10-year high according to a Gallup poll released last year. And world leaders are listening. At last year’s United Nations climate summit in Expo City Dubai, 22 countries including the U.S. pledged to triple nuclear energy capacity by 2050.
“The Declaration recognizes the key role of nuclear energy in achieving global net-zero greenhouse gas emissions by 2050 and keeping the 1.5-degree goal within reach,” states a press release from the United States Department of Energy. “Core elements of the declaration include working together to advance a goal of tripling nuclear energy capacity globally by 2050 and inviting shareholders of international financial institutions to encourage the inclusion of nuclear energy in energy lending policies,” the statement continues.
There’s just one problem with this plan – the world might not have enough uranium production capacity to keep up with a nuclear power boom of that magnitude. "Where is that uranium going to come from?," Nicole Galloway Warland, managing director of Thor Energy, was recently quoted by Yahoo! Finance. "There’s not enough to go around. There’s a supply deficit." Thor Energy is an exploration company with uranium-focused projects in Utah and Colorado.
Even now, the global nuclear sector is struggling to find sufficient supplies of affordable and responsibly sourced uranium. In the wake of the Fukushima nuclear disaster in 2011, the bottom fell out of global uranium mining. Now, as demand is skyrocketing, supply remains relatively low after years of lessened production levels.
Even before the Declaration to Triple Nuclear Energy Capacity by 2050 was even launched, global demand for yellowcake uranium was sharply increasing. In fact, global demand hit a ten-year high in October of last year, and prices have climbed accordingly. Though uranium prices still haven’t rebounded to pre-Fukushima levels, they’re well on their way. In fact, some speculators think that they could skyrocket to around $200 per pound by just 2025.
“You have a focus on energy security colliding with a focus on clean energy,” Grant Isaac, chief financial officer at Cameco, the world’s second-largest uranium producer, told the Financial Times. “The days of buying $40 uranium are over — and probably also for $50 or $60. We’re going to need new supplies,” he added.
What’s more, increasing uranium demand is stirring up geopolitical problems as high yellowcake prices line Russia’s coffers. At present, the lion’s share of global uranium exports is coming out of Russia, undermining the West’s efforts to slap meaningful energy sanctions on the Kremlin in response to the ongoing war in Ukraine.
As a result, the Biden administration is seeking to increase domestic uranium production. The U.S. has plenty of uranium deposits to dig into, but bringing the industry up to speed will be a challenge. A 2019 Annual Report by the U.S. Uranium Committee of the Energy Minerals Division determined that the U.S. has more than enough uranium to fuel hundreds of years of nuclear power generation, even if nuclear power took up much more of the national energy mix going forward. But new uranium mines take 15 years to come online when permitting is figured in.
"The US has extensive in-ground uranium resources and quite a bit of idled processing capacity. But we have let our industry and infrastructure atrophy over the past few decades, as nuclear utilities bought cheaper uranium from places like Russia and Kazakhstan," Curtis Moore, senior vice president of marketing at Energy Fuels, told Yahoo Finance.
In the meantime, prices are set to remain high and uranium stocks are on fire. While the U.S. and other uranium producers rush to expand their industries to meet coming demand from nuclear energy expansion, Russia is set to enjoy a major uranium price bubble.
By Haley Zaremba for Oilprice.com
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