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Why nuclear trash (URS) is a golden investment opportunity

David Fessler, Investment U
0 Comments| September 25, 2013

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On July 6, 2013, Ralph Seidensticker quietly passed away in his home in Valencia, Calif. He was 81 years old.

If you ask 1,000 people who he was, it’s doubtful that more than one or two would know. Seidensticker was the pioneer in nuclear reactor design. He spent 58 years designing reactors for nuclear power plants as an Argonne National Laboratory engineer. Many of the 104 plants in use in the U.S. today use his design features.

Today, a group of companies stands to make billions tearing them down.

Margaret Harding, an industry consultant, told Bloomberg that such decommissioning work is “where companies are going to make their fortune.”

Renaissance in Reverse

Mark Cooper is the senior fellow for economic analysis at the Institute for Energy and the Environment at the Vermont Law School. Cooper examined 11 risk factors that could lead to early nuclear reactor shutdown.

His findings were shocking: 38 of the 104 operating reactors in the U.S. had at least four risk factors.
Entergy’s Pilgrim reactor in Plymouth, Mass., had the most demerits: nine.

The fleet of 104 reactors will shrink this year. Edison International (NYSE: EIX, Stock Forum), Duke Energy Corp. (NYSE: DUK, Stock Forum) and Dominion Resources Inc. (NYSE: D, Stock Forum) are all closing reactors in 2013.

Entergy Corp. (NYSE: ETR, Stock Forum) will close its Vermont Yankee nuclear plant next year. Exelon Corp. (NYSE: EXC, Stock Forum) plans to close its Oyster Creek plant in 2019.

The Vermont Yankee closing marks the fifth reactor slated for shutdown in the past year. Cooper commented that, this year, “More nuclear capacity has been retired early than in the history of the U.S. nuclear program.”

Are these reactors simply wearing out? The answer is a combination of factors that leads companies to the retirement decision.

Low-cost natural gas, expensive repairs, retrofits and rising operating costs all affect the profitability of any given plant.

“All of the reactors have significant economic issues,” Cooper explained. “If anything goes wrong, any of these could be retired early.”

Most of the current fleet of U.S. reactors dates back to the 1970s. License lengths vary from 40 to 60 years. At the end of its useful life, every plant must go through a decommissioning process.

But “no U.S. nuclear plant has ever closed because it reached the end of its licensed life,” said Peter Bradford, adjunct professor at the Vermont Law School. “Instead, cost challenges to their continued profitability have usually been the cause of shutdowns.”

Twenty-three non-operating reactors are already going through the decommissioning process. Ten have been completely decommissioned.

How Much Does Decommissioning Cost?

Decommissioning a nuclear power plant can take decades and cost billions. For example, the Zion Nuclear Power Station in Illinois shut down in 1998. But it still hasn’t been decommissioned. Full decommissioning of the plant will cost roughly $1 billion over the next decade.

Its owner, Commonwealth Edison, shut Zion down because the cost of needed repairs exceeded the plant’s value. But to save money, Exelon decided to delay Zion’s cleanup. Under Nuclear Regulatory Commission guidelines, it was required only to remove the main reactor components.

Companies like EnergySolutions and URS (NYSE: URS, Stock Forum) can clean up nuclear reactors faster since it’s their only business.

EnergySolutions, which is owned by the private equity firm Energy Capital Partners, has been contracted to complete the cleanup work at Zion. And it is currently dismantling 18 reactors in England.

You can expect more companies to become nuclear trashmen. Right now, there’s $38 billion-plus of decommissioning work on the horizon, with more coming behind that.

Shuttered nuclear plants are creating a completely new sector of companies. They will create thousands of jobs and put millions of dollars in savvy investors’ pockets.


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