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The Putinization of Uranium
On Friday, March 11, 2011, nature struck. A monster, magnitude 9.0 earthquake grabbed the seabed 40 miles northeast of Honshu, in Japan. It tossed the entire island eight feet eastward and shifted the earth's axis by more than four inches. The shock generated tsunami waves that reached elevations of 130 feet and inundated areas six miles inland. Hundreds of thousands of people fled. Nearly 16,000 bodies were recovered and another 2,500 still are missing.
Lying in the tsunami's path were generators that fed the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant's cooling system. They were disabled, and the cooling system stopped. Reactor core meltdowns followed. On the International Nuclear and Radiological Event Scale, it was a Level 7 disaster, matched only by Chernobyl.
In the aftermath of Fukushima—whose cleanup will take decades— the spot price of uranium yellowcake has dropped more than 60 percent, to $28 per pound (see Figure 9.1), and the stock prices of uranium miners
Figure 9.1 Spot Uranium Price
Source: S&P Capital IQ. © Casey Research 2014.
have plunged between 60 and 85 percent. Japan shut down all 52 of its other reactors for safety evaluations. South Korea followed suit for its 23 reactors—although most have now been returned to service.
Fukushima rousted antinuclear protestors out of bed around the world. For them, the earthquake revealed nuclear power to the world for the terrible idea it had been all along. Germany announced it would shut down all 17 of its reactors, permanently, by 2022. It seemed that many other countries—perhaps all of them—would be closing their nuclear power plants as well.
Well, not so fast.
No one followed Germany's lead. Today, no fewer than 71 new plants are under construction, in more than a dozen countries, with another 163 planned and 329 proposed. (See Figure 9.2.) Many countries without nuclear power soon will build their first reactor, including Turkey, Kazakhstan, Indonesia, Vietnam, Egypt, Saudi Arabia, and several of the Gulf emirates.
While many countries with nuclear power plants declared a timeout to reassess safety practices, almost all are staying with what they have. Uranium is still the only fuel that can produce base-load electricity
Figure 9.2 Nuclear Reactors Worldwide
economically and without exhaling greenhouse gases and other unwelcome hydrocarbons.
In the United States, which hasn't opened a nuclear power plant since 1977, six new units are scheduled to come online by 2020, four from license applications made since mid-2007. The country is the world's biggest producer of nuclear energy, accounting for more than 30 percent of the worldwide total. Its 65 nuclear plants (housing just over 100 reactors) generate 20 percent of U.S. electricity.
France is the country most dependent on uranium; 75 percent of its electricity comes from nuclear power. China, whose urban residents are choking on pollution from coal-fired plants, is now on a nuclear-construction fast track. It already has 17 reactors in operation, and 29 more are being built. The country wants a fourfold capacity increase by 2020. India has 20 plants and is adding seven more. Several countries in Africa, where more than 90 percent of the population goes without electricity, have begun to explore the possibility.
New facilities are going to be safer, too, especially after Fukushima exposed the vulnerabilities of older designs. Though the containment systems at Fukushima were far more robust than the buckets that held the Chernobyl reactors, they were 40 years old, several generations behind today's containment engineering and materials. Fukushima would soon have been a candidate for decommissioning.
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