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A power lines and steaming cooling towers of the Slovakia's oldest nuclear power plant Jaslovske Bohunice (JOE KLAMAR/AFP)
A power lines and steaming cooling towers of the Slovakia's oldest nuclear power plant Jaslovske Bohunice (JOE KLAMAR/AFP)

Energy

Climate concerns put fuel focus back on uranium Add to ...

Uranium, the silvery-white mineral that powers nuclear reactors, is capturing growing attention amid burgeoning demand for power from emerging nations and a scramble to curtail carbon emissions.

As leaders gather in Copenhagen to hammer out a deal on global warming, many nations have seized on uranium and nuclear power as a carbon-free energy solution despite opposition by environmentalists on safety grounds.

The case for uranium is bolstered by estimates that electricity demand is due to surge by up to two-thirds by 2030, driven by emerging nations like China and India.

"A gap of almost 12 trillion kilowatt hours needs to be filled by 2030," said CIBC analyst Ian Parkinson in a research note. "We expect nuclear energy to play a major role in this growth."

Most environmentalists are still adamant in their opposition to nuclear energy, arguing that tough problems remain unsolved, such as the threat of nuclear fuel getting into the wrong hands and finding safe storage for spent radioactive waste.

Dustbin of History?

"The promotion of nuclear power as the answer to climate change is a dangerous diversion from the real solutions: a massive uptake of renewable energy and the adoption of energy efficiency," Greenpeace said in a report.

"Nuclear power belongs in the dustbin of history; it is a target for terrorists, and a source of nuclear weapons."

While new plants in the West might face opposition, that is not an issue in China, where the central government is backing ambitious growth plans. Beijing is moving even faster than official targets to boost nuclear power to 40 gigawatts by 2020, a more than four-fold rise.

India, also concerned about mushrooming demand for electricity, is building six reactors and has a further 23 on the drawing boards to add to its existing 17 plants, according to industry group the World Nuclear Association.

The current revival in nuclear power comes after decades of decline in the wake of the 1986 Chernobyl accident that sparked widespread fears about safety and a virtual freeze on new plants.

Volatile Price

Excitement by investors in the fresh interest in nuclear power propelled spot uranium prices to soar from a low of $7 (U.S.) a pound in 2000 to a peak of $136 in 2007.

But prices plunged when nuclear plants took longer than expected to build and speculative investment funds withdrew.

Spot prices may decline in coming months from current levels of $45 a pound as extra U.S. inventories flow on to the market and Kazakhstan ramps up output as it moves to become the world's biggest producer, overtaking Canada.

Investors in the sector are looking at the long-term picture, confident that a supply squeeze is looming even if a glut of supplies may cap prices in the short term.

"The more that prices are depressed in the short term, the fewer mines that are likely to be built and developed and that could possibly exacerbate any price spike," said Will Smith, a London-based portfolio manager on the Geiger Counter fund run by New City Investment Managers that focuses on uranium producers.

Mining groups seeking to meet higher demand for uranium may face obstacles such as government red tape, technical mining problems and the hangover of years of underinvestment.

Supplies from dismantled Russian nuclear weapons may help plug shortfalls in mining supply as Moscow seeks to supply China and India as well as lucrative deals with U.S. utilities.

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