Though most of the world continues efforts to reduce carbon emissions, low-carbon nuclear energy is still viewed by many as unfeasible for a variety of reasons. According to The Banker, critics are skeptical that the benefits of nuclear energy, such as the ability to reliably generate electricity and a decreased dependence on traditional fossil fuels, are worth the expense and significant safety risks that come with nuclear projects.
Along with other factors, those criticisms make nuclear investors wary, which has turned into a major impediment to the sector’s growth.
“Naturally, one of the biggest hurdles is financing,” Pillsbury’s Elina Teplinsky tells The Banker. Teplinsky is a Washington, DC-based partner in Pillsbury’s international Nuclear Energy practice.
Theoretically, borrowers should simply be more strategic in finding investors, but The Banker reports that no nuclear power plants have received project financing in the 60 years since the first plant became active. Hurdles for investors include dealing with political and regulatory developments and having to consider how limited their step-in rights could be.
Because of the intimidating price tag on a nuclear plant build, the systems and processes in place for financing other energy projects, like natural gas plants, don’t work. Vincent Zabielski, a nuclear energy lawyer in Pillsbury’s London office, tells The Banker that expanding the supply chain internationally to help maximize the availability of financing can help. For instance, he suggests sourcing some parts from a U.S.-based company to encourage the Export-Import Bank of the United States to invest and buying other parts from Japan or Korea in an effort to involve the Japan Bank for International Cooperation or the Export-Import Bank of Korea.
“If you had a few big anchor lenders, commercial banks would probably be more inclined to get involved,” he told The Banker.
Other problems include the significant length of time it takes to build a nuclear plant, in turn delaying the start of project loan repayments. Many investors and banks also don’t want to assume responsibility for nuclear-specific liabilities. Teplinsky suggests that debt providers and investors use different structuring models to minimize those risks.
“Liability is channeled to the operator of the plant,” she said, “so it’s best to structure those deals so that lenders or investors aren’t asked to back or invest in the entity holding the nuclear liability risk, but [in] an entity shielded from that risk.”
Despite a lack of project financing, 10 new nuclear plants started running in 2016, which could signify to lenders that plants can be built on time and on budget, The Banker reports. And that could establish a foundation for project-financed nuclear plants in the future.
“There’s nothing really so different about nuclear projects that can’t be overcome,” Zabielski said. “It’s just that we’ve forgotten how to build them.”