The nuclear power industry is struggling in the U.S. Several reactors are at risk of early closure due to difficulty competing in the wholesale power markets. New units being built in South Carolina have been abandoned, while the only other nuclear construction project in the U.S.—the Plant Vogtle expansion in Georgia—is behind schedule and over budget. Companies pushing small modular reactors, long touted to be the nuclear plant of the future, continue to search for guinea pigs willing to build the first unit. However, the picture is markedly different around the world.
Today, more nuclear power plants are operable—and planned, proposed, or under construction—than were in March 2011 before the Fukushima accident. According to the International Atomic Energy Agency, 58 reactors are currently being built around the world, with China, Russia, and India leading the nuclear resurgence. Even hydrocarbon-rich countries such as the United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia are taking steps to add nuclear reactors to their power generation fleets.
Although the drivers are in place for uranium demand to increase substantially, uranium prices continue to remain near decade lows—around $22/lb. Very few, if any, uranium mines can cover the costs of production at that price. As a result, very little investment has been made in uranium exploration and mining.
Amir Adnani, founder, president, and CEO of Uranium Energy Corp., spoke to POWER about the state of the nuclear industry. He suggested a national security crisis is looming in the U.S. The reason is that the nuclear reactor fleet requires about 50 million pounds of uranium per year to operate. However, U.S. mines are currently on pace to produce less than 1 million pounds of uranium this year. That means roughly 98% of the fuel must be imported. Much of the uranium available in the market comes from nations such as Kazakhstan, Niger, Russia, and Uzbekistan—not exactly countries the U.S. should feel comfortable relying on.
Adnani said a clear vision is needed for the nation’s future. He cited “Saudi Arabia’s Vision 2030,” as an example of what could be developed in the U.S. The plan includes measures to reduce Saudi Arabia’s dependence on fossil fuels and develop its nuclear capability. The Saudi’s expect to invest at least $80 billion to construct 17 nuclear reactors because they see the need for baseload carbon-free power.
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—Aaron Larson is POWER’s executive editor (@AaronL_Power, @POWERmagazine).