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Nuclear energy’s big comeback will get a reality check in 2024

As 2023 drew to a close, the nuclear energy market witnessed a remarkable turnaround, particularly in its primary fuel, uranium.

For the past decade, the market had been sidelined, but it appears nuclear energy is experiencing a palpable resurgence, earning its place back in the global energy discussion.

While this resurgence was marked by shifting public sentiment and governmental support, it was also underscored by significant developments and challenges in the nuclear sector. Sprott Asset Management, which specializes in precious metals and energy transition investments, explored these events in detail in its latest uranium outlook, “What a Year for Uranium and Nuclear Energy.”

Below are the key highlights from the report, written by CEO John Ciampaglia.

The resurgence of nuclear

The nuclear sector’s journey from oblivion to center stage by 2023 was nothing short of dramatic. At COP26 in 2021, governments began to acknowledge nuclear power as a necessary ingredient to achieving lofty net-zero targets, but it was still met with controversy. However, by COP28 in November 2023, nuclear energy was a headline act. This shift marked a significant change in the narrative, but it also birthed concrete commitments from 22 countries to triple their nuclear energy capacity by 2050.

Geopolitical and economic realities

The energy crisis of 2022, primarily triggered by Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, played a pivotal role in reshaping global energy policies and highlighting the importance of onshoring the supply of many key materials. The circumstances were reminiscent of the OPEC oil crises, which forced several G20 economies – including Japan, the U.K., Germany and the broader European continent – to reevaluate their energy dependencies.

To make matters worse, Germany’s decision to phase out nuclear power backfired significantly, leading to an increased reliance on the dirtiest form of coal and a surge in energy prices. This scenario served as a cautionary tale, demonstrating the perils of neglecting energy security for political ideals.

Challenges of solar and wind energy

To put nuclear energy’s relevance into context, it’s important to understand the reality of renewables. While renewables like solar and wind are expanding at a record pace, they face their own challenges, particularly in the mismatch of energy production and demand.

In areas where renewables are well developed, and the geography provides a high degree of sunlight or wind, this can lead to situations where the cost of electricity from renewable sources is zero or even negative during peak production. 

However, this energy surplus is useless without cost-effective batteries, highlighting the necessity for practical storage solutions. Even with low-cost battery solutions, locations with intermittent sun or wind have little to no hope of meeting their baseload power demands through renewables.

Uranium’s comeback

As would be expected, the renewed interest in nuclear energy has direct implications for the uranium market. In 2023, uranium prices rose from $48 to $91 per pound, almost a doubling. But price action was far from the whole story as this previously dormant market grappled with new challenges and opportunities in rebuilding the uranium supply chain. 

Despite reaching incentivizing levels, the uranium supply response is expected to be slower than anticipated due to legacy issues and long development lead times. Sprott’s report includes insights from uranium giant Cameco CCJ .

Geopolitical dynamics also influence the uranium market, particularly the roles of Kazakhstan and Russia. With Kazakhstan emerging as a major uranium producer and Russia securing future production for its security of supply, the geopolitical landscape presents complex challenges for the global uranium supply.

The sector’s prospects in 2024

With the uranium spot price hitting new highs and utility contracting accelerating, the nuclear sector is looking poised for significant growth heading into 2024.

The renewed interest in the sector is attracting much-needed capital investments to meet the current expansion plans but also to sustain the long-term growth and innovation in the market for the foreseeable future.

In all likelihood, the revitalization of the nuclear energy sector is poised to play a pivotal role in the clean energy transition, offering a reliable and low-carbon solution crucial for achieving global climate goals and securing a sustainable energy future. Still, one snag is that supply chains that have long since disappeared need to be rebuilt.