Nuclear Energy Looking Bleak for the US

May 1st, 2009 ยท 3 Comments

With this President, more than any other, we will see radical change in many policy areas. But perhaps none will have as significant an impact on the metals industry as energy policy. We have dedicated so many posts to energy because it covers such a broad range of metals from uranium and lithium to nickel, indium, copper and steel among others. And though we have spent much time offering up speculative analysis of where specific market segments such as nuclear may go in terms of forging investments, uranium mining, zirconium demand and the general global drive toward nuclear, only in the past ten days do we see a clearer picture of where nuclear will go in terms of the US market.

Yesterday, Senate Republicans asked the Obama administration to explain why it made the decision late last month to not proceed with the development of the Yucca Mountain nuclear waste repository, despite the $7.7b spent studying and researching the feasibility. Opposition, despite unanimous support from all of the National Labs came from one person, Senator Harry Reid of Nevada. Many believe that the storage issue remains the biggest stumbling block to the US expanding its nuclear capabilities.

Unfortunately, the science and research have little to do with why nuclear won't grow in the US. It all comes down to politics. On the one hand, Obama appointed Steven Chu, a well-respected Nobel-Prize scientist who has consistently supported the development of nuclear energy. According to the NTI (Nuclear Threat Institute), " recently as August 2008, all ten National Lab directors, including Secretary Chu, signed a letter on the essential role of nuclear energy, which advocated continuing the licensing of a geologic repository at Yucca Mountain," Chu has also said that he would help accelerate awards of federal loan guarantees for nuclear facility development. And on the other hand, Obama appointed Jon Wellinghoff, Chairman of the FERC (Federal Energy Regulatory Commission) who has gone on record as saying, "no new nuclear or coal plants may ever be needed in the United States," according to the New York Times. According to the article, at a recent US Energy Association Forum he said that he felt renewables (including solar, wind and other biomass) meets minimum energy requirements. He puts a lot of stock into the new smart grid and claims the whole notion of base-load has become antiquated. In other words, with a smart grid in place, the minimum amount of power required for availability for a particular customer base no longer becomes the minimum standard to supply power.

What's our take? We suspect that Obama has known for quite some time (pre-election) that the issue of nuclear storage would never get resolved as long as Senator Harry Reid serves as the Senate Majority Leader. Yet the President didn't want to put the whole kibosh on the nuclear industry before he stepped foot into the Oval Office. So he appointed a team with competing points of view ....Chu as an extremely well respected scientist who publicly supports the nuclear industry and Jon Wellinghoff, an attorney with experience in, "client matters related to renewable energy, energy efficiency and distributed generation," according to the FERC website. Together, they will kill US nuclear industry prospects. We look forward to hearing from Chu the scientific rationale to not move forward with the Yucca Mountain repository.

Maybe this analysis seems too negative but we're not seeing these developments as positive for nuclear or those companies in the metals/mining industries supporting nuclear.

-Lisa Reisman