Scientists and environmentalists have yet to agree on whether nuclear energy is renewable or not. The two schools of thought mainly disagree due to differences between their definitions of “renewable” and “sustainable.”
In this article, we’ll take a close look at both camps. Without further ado, here are some of the main points to consider when choosing your stance on the question, “Is nuclear energy renewable?”
Is Nuclear Energy Renewable or Nonrenewable?
Nuclear energy’s inclusion in the “renewable” category is a subject of contention in the science and general environmental community. To fully understand the query “Is nuclear energy renewable or nonrenewable?” you’ll first need to understand what renewable energy is.
In order to be considered renewable energy, that source must be able to “replenish itself indefinitely” (1). This means that no human intervention is needed to restore that resource and that it will never run out, even as civilizations continue to run on that energy.
Nuclear energy isn’t typically included in the five main types of renewable energy sources most often used worldwide:
Nuclear energy is quite different from all these, in that it is produced by the generation of heat through fission (2).
Fission is the process by which two larger atoms are split into two or more smaller ones. This creates an enormous amount of energy.
Some groups are explicitly opposed to nuclear fission energy, citing claims that it is (3):
- Risks the spread of nuclear weapons
On the other hand, some praise it as a “zero-emission clean energy source” (4). Unfortunately, it’s not enough to say that nuclear energy is renewable because it is sustainable. The two are not one and the same (5).
Not everything renewable is sustainable, and in turn not everything which is sustainable is necessarily renewable.
The disagreement on nuclear energy’s renewable status can seem quite confusing, especially as the definitions of terms like “sustainability,” and “renewable” change depending on the individual. To investigate this further, let’s take a closer look.
Why is Nuclear Energy Renewable?
Scientists and others who support the idea that nuclear energy is renewable often base their perspective on the fact that it achieves very low carbon emissions. This video from Interesting Engineering elaborates more on this:
The emphasis centers on one of the primary goals of renewable, sustainable energy: shrinking humanity’s carbon footprint.
If the Sun & Earth’s relationship (around 5 mil yrs) is our standard for “indefinite” self-replenishment, nuclear should be renewable
According to former University of Pittsburgh professor, Bernard L. Cohen, if uranium – one of the metals most commonly used to produce nuclear fission energy – can last as long as Earth and the sun’s relationship is expected to last, then, in a sense, it is indefinite (1).
Why is Nuclear Energy Nonrenewable?
If the Nuclear Energy Agency (NEA) has accurately estimated the planet’s economically accessible uranium resources, reactors could run more than 200 years at current rates of consumption.
The main idea behind this stance is that the elements used to fuel the fission process are finite, unlike natural sources such as wind, solar, or hydropower. Additionally, as mentioned above, among the major pros and cons of nuclear energy is the big downside that its production creates nuclear waste.
No bona fide renewable resource would degrade the planet’s atmosphere in such a way, eliminating its potential to be considered a renewable energy source. Until nuclear energy can mitigate the chance for potential human error, and find a sustainable source to mine, the question of “Why is nuclear energy nonrenewable?” will have plenty of answers.
Can We Run Out of Nuclear Energy?
Yes, we can run out of nuclear energy, which is why some believe it is not renewable. At the current rate of nuclear reactors’ consumption, there is about a 200-year supply left (6). Although, as technology improves this may change.
Can We Live Without Nuclear Energy?
Naturally, humans could not live without nuclear energy. This is because, in a sense, the sun is essentially an enormous nuclear reactor, producing almost 620m tons of energy by nuclear fusion each second (7). Without this natural energy, Earth could not sustain life.
However, since nuclear energy comes from the sun, photovoltaic panels (solar panels) are the more efficient way to harness that power. This means that humans could potentially transition to solar power over nuclear power in the future.
Why is Nuclear Waste Bad?
The reason why nuclear waste is bad is that it has the potential to be catastrophic for the environment. With nuclear power plants, there’s always a chance for human error, so if a reaction were to get out of control it could contaminate our environment. Thankfully, U.S. nuclear reactors are operated under many strict conditions that reduce this risk.
The most prominent danger presented by nuclear energy is the radioactive waste it creates, like uranium mill tailings and spent reactor fuel. These retain their radioactivity for thousands of years and remain a threat to life on Earth.
- Is nuclear energy renewable energy? Retrieved from: http://large.stanford.edu/courses/2012/ph241/chowdhury2/
- Fission and fusion: What is the difference? Retrieved from: https://www.energy.gov/ne/articles/fission-and-fusion-what-difference
- Why nuclear energy is sustainable and has to be part of the energy mix. Retrieved from: https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S2214993714000050
- 3 reasons why nuclear is clean and sustainable. Retrieved from: https://www.energy.gov/ne/articles/3-reasons-why-nuclear-clean-and-sustainable
- Is Nuclear Power A Renewable Or A Sustainable Energy Source? Retrieved from: https://www.forbes.com/sites/jamesconca/2016/03/24/is-nuclear-power-a-renewable-or-a-sustainable-energy-source/?sh=ada04e2656e7
- How Long will the World’s Uranium Supplies Last? Retrieved from: https://fetter.it-prod-webhosting.aws.umd.edu/sites/default/files/fetter/files/2009-sciam-uranium.pdf
- CEA – The Sun. Retrieved from: https://www.cea.fr/english/Documents/thematic-publications/sun.pdf