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Thursday, June 19, 2008

Global investors circle new nuclear markets

[It appears the investors are beginning to think more about nuclear...]


Investors see the USA as the best place in the world to engage in nuclear build projects. Next come the UK and China, followed by South Africa. Banks and utilities, however, are yet to make serious moves.

The list of countries comes from Ernst & Young research commissioned by the UK government, a summary of which was presented in London today by Adam Dawson of the country's department of business and enterprise as part of SMI's inaugural Financing Nuclear Power conference.

Delegates heard that there is widespread confidence in the new nuclear power markets among investors. Pieter Stor of RBS presented ABN Amro research which had nuclear power as the cheapest generation source of all when carbon costs were taken into account. He said his figures were based on conservative values of $60 per barrel of oil and €30 ($46) per tonne of carbon dioxide and concluded: "Why invest in nuclear new build? Because it's deemed to be profitable."

However, very large uncertainties remain in the market for new reactors, which is yet to see many significant orders outside of China. Items at the top of financiers' list of concerns according to both Stor and the Ernst & Young research concern political and regulatory stability as well as volatility in prices for energy and carbon dioxide emissions. Stor said each investor had to make up its mind what energy prices would do in the long term.

These concerns are compounded by the capital required to build nuclear power plants - the cost of financing construction amounts to around 55% of the final cost of electricity. Stor said that banks are not keen to finance individual projects, which they think have too much uncertainty during application and build, but would prefer to be involved in fleets of new reactors and are becoming more comfortable with that idea.

Ernst & Young's research consisted of interviews with 18 investors from Europe and North America. Dawson said the results indicated that the USA is "almost in a league of its own" because of its sheer scale, the ease of doing business and the relative regulatory certainty. In addition, the US government has announced certain amounts of funding and loan guarantees for the first companies to test the licensing process and begin building respectively. The 32 new reactors at various stages of planning are testimony to this.

Dawson said he was pleased the UK came in as the second best place to do nuclear business, with China at a similar level. Next he said South Africa was moving up rapidly, and was ahead of European countries which had the possibility of multiple new reactors. He added that the United Arab Emirates and other Gulf states were not yet on the list, but they probably would be soon.

The US government's financial support for nuclear has helped to overcome nervousness among companies of being the first to try new regimes, said Malcolm Keay, a fellow at the Oxford Institute for Energy Studies. Referring to the USA and the UK, he said that once firm orders are made for new nuclear plants there could be a "stampede" from companies that don't wish to be left behind. Similarly, the current position of many companies expressing interest in nuclear is in some part due to strategic reasons. The real state of the market, he said, would only be known once companies begin to take hard decisions in a few years' time.

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