Three Mile Island. Chernobyl. Sellafield. Fukushima.
These are just the most famous names from an alarmingly long list of civilian nuclear incidents. Each of these accidents resulted sparked intense public debate on the future of civilian nuclear power.
Is it really safe? What do we do with the waste? It'll be toxic for tens of thousands of years? How bad will the next accident be? What kind of trade-off are we making? These are just some of the questions mooted in the wake of these and other nuclear accidents.
All the Technology in the World Won't Help
The Japanese build some of, if not the safest, most advanced reactors in the world; failsafe upon failsafe, the latest proven technology and techniques. And, all things being equal, nuclear power is safe. But in a world in which the very ground beneath our feet shifts violently from time to time, how long can all things remain equal?
The Fukushima Daiichi disaster - which has yet to be fully resolved in more than two years on showed that even the best planning can't stand up to every eventuality. In this case, a cataclysmic earthquake and tsunami overwhelmed the physical plant of the reactor and led to numerous, widespread radiation releases, all resulting in a 20-kilometer "exclusion zone" around the stricken facility.
Dozens of selfless workers "were prepared to die" to stabilize the situation and save potentially millions of their countrymen. And so Fukushima Daiichi joins the list.
Perhaps more so than any other nuclear disaster before, Fukushima comes at a critical point in human affairs, a time of great introspection and vigorous debate about the ways in which we power our modern society.
The options are many: Nuclear fission, solar energy, coal, natural gas, oil, geothermal, wind, dozens of experimental technologies, combinations of all or none. Each of these choices has its own advantages and drawbacks to be weighed by taxpayers, governments, and private industry. Some sources are on the way out, others are on the way in.
The Race to Turn Off
According to Bloomberg, Germany and Japan are currently leading the world in the number of nuclear plants being taken offline, both responsible for 12 of 20 shutdown orders issued worldwide since 2011. The United States has turned off another four.
Germany has announced its intention to go off nuclear fission entirely. Japan has sent some mixed signals. In the immediate wake of the Fukushima disaster, the Naoto ministry said Japan was through with nuclear power, questioning the ability of private industry to effectively run civilian nuclear reactors. Japanese Prime Minister Shinzō Abe may have other ideas. There are 50 reactors currently in Japan. To take all of them offline would leave utilities on the hook for $47 billion.
It's not just as simple as turning off the lights and converting the unused plant into a skating park.
No, the process of taking a working reactor and its physical plant offline is expensive, heavily involved, and takes decades - up to 100 years in some cases. There was a wave of 20 reactor turn-offs after the Chernobyl disaster in 1986, and most of those are still in the process of being decommissioned 27 years later. The Sellafield plant in the United Kingdom has seven reactors and fuel-processing stations. It's going to take 100 years and $106 billion to completely decommission the controversial site.
A Multi-Generational Opportunity
A contract for decommissioning a nuclear plant can bring decades of business to many different companies, each specializing in a different aspect of the decommissioning process. The worldwide trend away from nuclear power means a generational payday for investors and corporations all over the world.
There are still some X-factors to contend with in the decommissioning process. Have utilities saved enough to complete the process? To what extent will governments need to step in to pick up the financial slack?
There is an elite tier of conglomerates with the expertise and resources to put these plants into the history books.
Global nuclear player Westinghouse Electric Company, a subsidiary of Toshiba Corporation (TYO:6502, LSE:TOS) is being courted by governments wishing to decommission their reactors. Westinghouse has been in the nuclear game for close to 80 years.
The Sellafield site in the UK has become a virtual corporation unto itself, and has contracted with huge providers to accomplish the 100-year task of shutting down the facility. Consultants AMEC plc (LSE:AMEC) operate in the UK and throughout Europe and North America. They contract with a variety of large energy businesses and are on the Sellafield decommissioning in a project management capacity.
Multibillion dollar URS Corporation (NYSE:URS) is one of the top hazardous waste disposal handlers in the world - that's just part of their business. URS, too, has large operations at the Sellafield site. Both AMEC and URS are close to the end of five-year contracts inked in 2008, but they enjoy 17-year extension options - just a glimpse of the longevity of nuclear decommissioning contracts.
Areva SA (EPA:AREVA) rounds out the large trio of companies working at Sellafield. Areva is a veritable one-stop nuclear shop and is just as happy to build a nuclear reactor as it is to decommission one. Areva's nuclear technology group, Areva NP, took over Siemens' nuclear business and absorbed a great deal of technology and know-how along the way.
All of these companies and more will be working on the decommissioning problem for decades to come. The opportunities for profit, and for a safer world, are there for the taking. For ourselves and any who come after us.
What do you think? Is the race to deactivate our reactors too much too soon, or too little too late. Let us know what you think on Twitter, or drop us a line on Facebook. For more about all the possibilities of energy investing, click here.
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