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The End of Nuclear Power?

This column may be premature, with events at Japan’s damaged nuclear power plants still unfolding.

But regardless of whether events end in a catastrophic meltdown or relatively successful containment, the reality is that the role of nuclear power in the world will come under increased scrutiny going forward.

German Chancellor Angela Merkel, for example, has already decided to shut down seven of that country’s older power plants even though it has no history of either strong earthquakes or devastating tsunamis.

Nuclear safe? Surely not?

And yet, am I crazy to think that the ongoing events in Japan, rather than show how dangerous nuclear power is, actually show that it is relatively safe?

After all, these reactors have suffered through an 8.9 magnitude earthquake, the worst in Japan in more than a century, a tsunami, more than 100 aftershocks, and now several explosions without yet melting down.

This isn’t to diminish the magnitude of the crisis or its potential consequences, but just to note it took a catastrophic confluence of disasters to spur this series of events.

Now consider that not only is the technology for new nuclear power plants better than what is current running in existing Japanese reactors, but that locations and proposed locations in China, India, and the U.S. do not run the same geographic risks.

Why is the knee-jerk reaction in some circles — leaving aside those perpetually opposed — that the world ought to cease nuclear development?

Not everybody thinks that way … but the market does

Sure, there have been plenty of commentaries in recent days, published in The Atlantic, The Wall Street Journal, and many more — supporting the further development of nuclear power as the only sustainable, low-emission power source that can meet the world’s global energy needs.

But those who actually put their money on the line — investors – might foresee a very different future.

Shares in uranium miners and companies associated with building nuclear power facilities, including Paladin (ASX: PDN), Extract Resources (ASX: EXT) and Energy Resources of Australia (ASX: ERA), plus General Electric in the U.S., all fell sharply last week. And on the flip side, shares in coal miners such as Macarthur Coal (ASX: MCC) were up.

What the market is saying is that it expects the global nuclear power development that was to take place over the next decade to be replaced by coal, gas, wind and solar power development.

Regarding solar, the sun is, after all, probably the only energy source with enough potential to be harnessed to meet the world’s energy needs — but the technology is not yet efficient enough to meet base-load demand.

No stopping nuclear

Furthermore, developing countries such as India and China can’t wait around for technology improvements. India, for example, already has a near-10% nationwide energy shortage and 15% of the country’s households are not yet connected to the energy grid. There is no way the country can stop its 23 planned nuclear power facilities.

Similarly, it’s hard to imagine how China will sway from actually building their 77 planned nuclear power facilities. Rather than scrapping nuclear power, it’s far more likely the country will learn from Japan as it furthers its own plans.

The global view

While it’s looking as if Japan will be able to get a handle on its nuclear facilities, rest assured that if there were a meltdown — or a heightened risk of one — both uranium miners and power infrastructure shares would suffer more.

But if you’re a long-term investor, it’s impossible to ignore the global need for energy and energy infrastructure.

It’s in times like these the market often throws the baby out with the bathwater. If you check back in 10 years, I think you’ll find China and India will have followed through on their nuclear power development plans.

It’s at volatile times like these when keeping an eye on the long-term helps you invest wisely in the short-term.

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This article, written by Tim Hanson, was originally published on Bruce Jackson has updated it.

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