#1 Is Nuclear Energy a Renewable Resource?
We could end our article there, but that would be no fun. Nothing is ever that clear-cut, and there are many factors to consider regarding nuclear energy, renewable or nonrenewable source. However, if you don’t want to read on any further, Nuclear is not renewable and should be referred separately to renewable technologies (although please don’t consider biomass as renewable – it is not!).#
#2 Is biomass renewable?
#3 What is renewable energy?
“Renewable energy is defined as an energy source/fuel type that can regenerate and can replenish itself indefinitely. The five renewable sources used most often are biomass, wind, solar, hydro and geothermal.”
“Renewable literally means 'to make new again'. Any resource that naturally replenishes with time, like the creation of wind or the growth of biological organisms for biomass or biofuels, is certainly renewable. Renewable energy means that the energy humans extract from nature will generally replace itself.”
“Renewable energy is derived from natural processes that are replenished constantly. In its various forms, it derives directly from the sun, or from heat generated deep within the earth. Included in the definition is electricity and heat generated from sunlight, wind, oceans, hydropower, biomass, geothermal resources, and biofuels and hydrogen derived from renewable resources.”
The video above is a couple of years old but provides an excellent overview. The only argument that we would have is that it is not feasible to get to 100% renewable energy without baseload energy generation. Nuclear is the only clean source of this.
#4 What technologies are renewable?
The BBC Bitesize Website (an excellent reference site we might add) they list renewable technologies as:
2. Hydroelectric power (HEP)
3. Wave power and tidal power
4. Geothermal power
5. Solar power
6. Wind power
They then go on to list nonrenewable energy as:
1. Fossil fuels
2. Nuclear power
*National Geographic have the same list with a lot more detail for you to read further. For note, they put Biomass into the nonrenewable energy sources list.
#5 Could nuclear energy be renewable?
“Nuclear power is presently a sustainable energy source but could become completely renewable if uranium's source changed from mined ore to seawater. Since U extracted is continuously replenished through geologic processes, nuclear would become as endless as solar.
“Energy sources are considered non-renewable if they take a very long time to be created, like fossil fuels, or if their creation happened long ago and is not likely to happen again, like uranium.
“Natural gas is not renewable, but current technology allows us to access such a staggering amount that it may seem infinite by past standards. And future technologies will extract even more. Keeping humans from using so much accessible fossil fuel to protect the environment will be very difficult.
“Just using existing uranium from U-mine sites, as well as burning existing spent fuel in fast reactors soon, provides sufficient uranium fuel to produce 10 trillion kWh/year for thousands of years, making it presently sustainable by any measure.
"But using U extracted from seawater, instead of mining uranium ore, makes nuclear truly renewable as well as sustainable. The amount of U in seawater is only 3.3 micrograms/litre (parts per billion), but that totals 4.5 billion tons of U in the billion cubic kilometres of seawater in the ocean.
“As with any commercial commodity, the process of seawater extraction must become sufficiently economical to replace mining as the source of U., And new technologies of extracting U from seawater are fast becoming economical.
“So when the cost of extracting U from seawater falls to below $100/lb, then it will become a commercially viable alternative to mining new uranium ore. And nuclear power will become completely renewable and sustainable for as long as humans need energy.”
“Advancements at Oak Ridge National Laboratory and the University of Alabama, as published in a 2012 issue of the American Chemical Society, towards the extraction of uranium from seawater have focused on increasing the biodegradability of the process and reducing the projected cost of the metal if it was extracted from the sea on an industrial scale. The researchers' improvements include using electrospun Shrimp shell Chitin mats that are more effective at absorbing uranium than the prior record-setting Japanese method of using plastic amidoxime nets.
As of 2013, only a few kilograms of uranium have been extracted from the ocean in pilot programs, and it is also believed that the uranium extracted on an industrial scale from the seawater would constantly be replenished from uranium leached from the ocean floor, maintaining the seawater concentration at a stable level. In 2014, with the advances made in seawater uranium extraction efficiency, a paper in the Journal of Marine Science & Engineering suggested that with light water reactors as its target, the process would be economically competitive if implemented on a large scale. In 2016 the global effort in the field of research was the subject of a special issue in the Journal of Industrial & Engineering Chemistry Research.”
#6 Is Nuclear Clean and Sustainable?
Although nuclear is not renewable, it is clean energy. How have we decided this? Well, as suggested by energy.gov:
Nuclear energy protects air quality - a nuclear reactor is a zero-emission clean energy source.
Nuclear energy’s land footprint is small - wind farms require 360 times more land area to produce the same amount of electricity, and solar photovoltaic plants need 75 times more space.
Nuclear energy produces minimal waste - All of the used nuclear fuel (radioactive waste) produced by the U.S. atomic energy industry over the last 60 years to produce electricity could fit on a football field at a depth of fewer than 10 yards!
#7 Is nuclear needed to get to net-zero emissions?
There is a lot of debate on this topic and many pro- and anti-nuclear points of view. EDF produced a good article as a statement a year or so ago in which there stated that
“Britain is going to need a lot more renewable energy if it is to cut emissions to “net zero” and end our current reliance on polluting fossil fuels like coal and gas.” “But wind and solar can’t get us to net zero alone. A significant amount of reliable low-carbon power is needed alongside renewables if we are to build a manageable, secure and affordable energy system.”
There is further evidence in another article Why nuclear power much is part of the energy solution. There are also numerous websites and books dedicated to atomic energy to provide a secure, clean energy mix to generate electricity in the future.
Conversely, many disagree that new nuclear is needed and can achieve net-zero at 100% renewables. Two important articles to read to explore this is:
Renewable energy versus nuclear: dispelling the myths by Mark Diesendorf in which he attempts to dispel the below 15 myths:
Myth 1: Base-load power stations are necessary to supply base-load demand.
Myth 3: Renewable energy is not ready to replace fossil fuels, and nuclear power could fill the (alleged) gap in the low-carbon energy supply.
Myth 4: Nuclear weapons proliferation is independent of civil nuclear energy.
Myth 5: The death toll from the Chernobyl disaster was 28-64.
Myth 6: There is a solution to the problem of permanently storing high-level nuclear radioactive waste.
Myth 7: The IFR could burn up the world’s nuclear wastes.
Myth 8: Nuclear energy emits no or negligible greenhouse gas emissions. You do not need to worry about carbon dioxide or any carbon emission.
Myth 9: Nuclear energy is a suitable partner for renewable energy in the grid.
Myth 10: You can generally operate nuclear power reactors flexibly to follow changes in demand/load.
Myth 11: Renewable energies are more expensive than nuclear.
Myth 12: Renewable energy is very diffuse and hence requires enormous land areas.
Myth 13: Energy payback periods (in energy units, not money) of renewable energy technologies are comparable with their lifetimes.
Myth 14: Danish electricity prices are among the highest in Europe because of the significant contribution from wind energy.
Myth 15: Computer simulation models of electricity grids' operation with 80-100% renewable electricity are meaningless over-simplifications of real systems.
With the conclusion that “Computer simulation models and growing practical experience suggest that electricity supply in many regions, and possibly the whole world, could transition to 100% renewable energy.”
To further this argument, Renewable Energy World is stating.
“Why not build nuclear AND renewables? The fact that renewable generation is outpacing nuclear in China is significant because China is currently the most aggressive with their nuclear ambitions — yet, they are building renewables even faster. This raises a question: what if China used the labor, resources and money towards an all-renewable approach? Yes, nuclear and renewables can be built together to help with decarbonization, but, a renewables only approach can also work, technically and economically. Could an all renewables solution be a better approach to decarbonization? Is it technically possible?”
In answer to the original question of whether nuclear energy is renewable or not, the answer is no.
But is there a need for renewables AND nuclear in the longer-term future to meet net-zero aspirations – based on the information to date? Yes. Nuclear energy provides a secure, clean baseload of power that other technologies cannot match.
Nuclear energy is currently expensive and takes a long-time to build, but this is better than relying on any fossil fuels in the future. Repeatably making the same nuclear technology (e.g. replicating more EPRs across the UK) plus innovations such as those with breeder reactors will help drive such costs down.
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