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Nuclear Renaissance

February 9, 2023

View of Mountain Fuji at Shizuoka prefecture, Japan.

Nuclear power is a low-carbon, reliable source of energy. Yet, over the past decade, it has struggled to play a strong role in energy transition. Nuclear power generation has been around since the 1960s, and saw massive growth from the 1970s to 1990s. Since then, however, its share of global electricity production has declined from 17% in the 1990s to the current 10%, largely due to safety concerns following the tragic accidents in Chernobyl in 1986 and Fukushima in 2011.

Chart 1: Share of electricity production by source, World.

Today, nuclear energy’s role in the energy system varies by country. In 2021, for example, nuclear accounted for 69% of total domestic electricity generation in France, 51% in Belgium, 28% in South Korea, 20% in the United States, 12% in Germany, 7% in Japan, and 5% in China.

Amid the global energy crisis following the war in Ukraine, many nations have prioritized efforts to reduce their reliance on imported fossil fuels. Add the backdrop of the global climate crisis, and the search for other sources takes on increased importance. Renewable energy sources have experienced remarkable growth in recent years, yet renewables alone are not sufficient to fully decarbonize the energy grid. This opens the door to an increased role for nuclear power.

According to the International Energy Agency (IEA), global nuclear capacity needs to expand by about 10 gigawatts (GW) per year to be on track with the Net Zero Emissions by 2050 Scenario. In 2022, nuclear energy had an operational capacity of 413 GW in 32 countries, thereby helping reduce reliance on fossil fuels while also avoiding 1.5 gigatonnes (Gt) of global emissions and 180 billion cubic metres of global gas demand a year. Emerging countries accounted for almost all new nuclear capacity added in recent years, while developed economies are catching up.

The UK currently has 5.88 GW of nuclear capacity, accounting for 15.5% of energy generated in 2022. It has set a goal to reach 24 GW by 2050, about 25% of UK’s predicted energy demand.

In the U.S., meanwhile, nuclear energy has consistently provided about 20% of total electricity generated over the past 30 years, and that country’s 93 operating nuclear reactors had a combined capacity of 95 GW at the end of 2021. However, as most of the American nuclear plants are approaching their 40-year design life, capacity will need to be extended or added to achieve the 2050 net zero goal.

Before the Fukushima disaster, Japan sourced about a third of its electricity from 54 nuclear reactors, but only nine are still operational. Following the war in Ukraine and the subsequent energy crisis, Japanese citizens’ sentiment toward nuclear reactors has shifted positively. In December 2022, the Japanese government announced a new nuclear energy policy aimed at maximizing the use of existing nuclear power plants and building next-generation reactors. Nuclear currently accounts for 7% of total power generation in Japan, and their goal is to increase the percentage to 20-22% by 2030. But getting there will require about 26 to 33 operational nuclear reactors.

Two major barriers hindering the growth of nuclear power are safety concerns, and elevated construction and operating costs. However, advancing technologies can help to overcome those barriers. Small Modular Reactor (SMR), for example, can be made in factories and installed on site, reducing both initial costs and construction times. The smaller size also makes economic sense for small electric grids. It is also believed to have enhanced safety characteristics.

Most recently, scientists have achieved a breakthrough by successfully producing a nuclear fusion reaction resulting in a net energy gain, instead of just breaking even as past experiments have done. Nuclear fusion provides carbon-free energy, without the highly radioactive, long lived nuclear waste created by current nuclear reactors. The process is inherently safe as fusion is a self-limiting process, the reaction could come to a halt within seconds. However, it will take years if not decades before fusion can meaningfully contribute to energy transition. The next step is to figure out how to produce more energy from nuclear fusion on a much larger scale, and at a lower cost.

Global Alpha has some holdings in the nuclear power sector that we believe offer good investment value.

For example:

Curtiss-Wright (CW US) supports the global nuclear power industry by providing precision components and highly engineered products and services. The company has an installed base of products at all nuclear plants operating in the U.S., and many operating internationally. Curtiss-Wright designed the world’s most advanced reactor coolant pump for Westinghouse’s AP1000 reactor, one of the safest and most economical nuclear plant designs available worldwide and has been approved or planned at many nuclear plant projects globally, notably in China, India, U.S., and UK. Curtiss-Wright also works with SMR and Advanced Reactors designers to ensure its presence in the future growth of this market. It has the opportunity to secure $10 million to $100 million in content per location.

Horiba (6856 JP) manufactures measurement equipment, specializing in the analytics and measurement of small particles in the field of environment, health, safety, and energy. Among its extensive product lineups, Horiba offers a wide range of measuring instruments and sensors to measure the pH of secondary water in nuclear power plants. For example, measurement of silica is paramount in preventing the problem of scaling, which reduces the efficiency of power generation. Horiba provides silica analyzers to allow for quick and automatic measurement for boiler water, and trace amount of silica present in pure water.