There is no question that the disaster in Japan has refocused investor attention on nuclear power's future both abroad and in the United States. Although it is true that nuclear power is not nearly as important to the U.S. power infrastructure as it is in some countries (notably France, Belgium, Sweden, Germany and Japan), it is more pervasive than some investors may realize.

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More to the point, while there is a wide range of company-level exposure to nuclear power, the reality is that a very large percentage of U.S. utilities have some level of exposure. Given the difficulties of decommissioning nuclear facilities and the trouble of installing alternate capacity, this is unlikely to change.

Nevertheless, investors may find it helpful to keep a cheat-sheet on the exposure levels of major U.S. utilities. Please note that the following tables to include somewhat arbitrary distinctions between "regulated" and "diversified" and that the numbers do not include power purchased under long-term contracts (which can be significant for some utilities).

Regulated Utilities

Name Ticker % of Capacity From Nuclear Nuclear Power Cap. (MW) Dividend Yield Return On Assets Price / Book
PG&E NYSE:PCG 31% 2,240 4.2% 3.2% 1.5
Duke Energy NYSE:DUK 19% 5,173 5.5% 3.3% 1.1
Progress Energy NYSE:PGN 19% 4,342 5.5% 4.0% 1.3
Pinnacle West NYSE:PNW 18% 1,146 5.1% 3.7% 1.2
Southern Co. NYSE:SO 9% 3,680 4.7% 4.4% 2.0

In comparison to the companies in this table, CMS Energy (NYSE:CMS), Wisconsin Energy (NYSE:WEC), and Alliant Energy (NYSE:LNT) are the largest regulated utilities (by generation capacity) with no nuclear generation assets. Interestingly, all have returns on assets in above 3.8% - slightly above the average of that small sample set above.

Diversified Utilities

Name Ticker % of Capacity From Nuclear Nuclear Power Cap. (MW) Dividend Yield Return On Assets Price / Book
Exelon NYSE:EXC 67% 17,047 5.1% 5.9% 2.0
Entergy NYSE:ETR 33% 10,219 5.0% 3.7% 1.4
First Energy NYSE:FE 30% 3,991 6.0% 4.0% 1.3
PSEG NYSE:PEG 27% 3,661 4.4% 6.3% 1.6
Dominion NYSE:D 23% 5,852 4.4% 5.5% 2.1
Next Era Energy NYSE:NEE 13% 5,493 4.1% 4.0% 1.6

What is interesting about these lists is how little the independent power producers participate in nuclear energy. NRG Energy (NYSE:NRG), Calpine (NYSE:CPN), Dynergy (NYSE:DYN) and GenOn (NYSE:GEN) are all significant power generators in terms of owned capacity, but only NRG operates any nuclear facilities - and even then nuclear power accounts for only 5% of its base. (For related reading, check out Emerging Nuclear Power Plays.)

Beware The Licenses
It seems improbable that the U.S. government will order any sort of widespread shutdowns of nuclear facilities that would resemble the shutdown of drilling in the Gulf after the Deepwater Horizon disaster. And that may be just as well - the Deepwater Horizon problem was clearly man-made and arguably highly reproducible, while the odds of an earthquake simultaneously knocking out all backup power to multiple U.S. nuclear facilities is remote.

That said, investors should keep an eye on the inspection and relicensing process. Entergy in particular would seem to have the most at risk here - the company has three licenses due to expire by the end of 2013 (on plants nearing 40 years of age). Xcel Energy (NYSE:XEL) and Dominion each have one expiration in that timeframe. By comparison, Exelon does not have a license expiration until 2016.

While the utilities will likely argue that the plants remain safe and should stay in operation, it seems likely that a thorough inspection will be in order and the companies have to face either expensive retrofits and upgrades or the shutdown of productive facilities.

The Bottom Line
Whether nuclear power is a growth opportunity in the United States or not, the fact remains that it is a significant power source at present. What's more, with so many utilities getting meaningful capacity from nuclear power plants, it seems unlikely that this trend will change quickly. (For further reading, check out Japan's Quake Won't Kill Nuclear Power.)

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