7 Answers to the question "Is Nuclear Energy Renewable?"

Updated: Nov 7

#1 Is Nuclear Energy Renewable?

No.

Is Nuclear Energy Renewable?

We could end our article there but that would be no fun. Nothing is ever that clear-cut and there are a lot of factors to consider. 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?

No


#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.”

Is Nuclear Energy Renewable Energy? Navid Chowdhury

“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.”

Is Nuclear Power A Renewable Or A Sustainable Energy Source? James Conca

“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.”

Wikipedia


[The video above is a couple years old now but is still a great overview. The only argument that we would have is that it is not feasible to get to 100% renewable energy without the support of base load energy generation. Nuclear is the only clean source of this.]


Is Nuclear Energy Renewable?

#4 What technologies are renewable?

The BBC Bitesize Website (a very good reference site we might add) they list renewable technologies as:

1. Biomass*

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 non-renewable energy as:

1. Fossil fuels

2. Nuclear power


*National Geographic have pretty much the same list with a lot more detail with the added change that they put Biomass into the non-renewable energy sources list.


#5 Could nuclear energy be renewable?

“Nuclear power is presently a sustainable energy source but could become completely renewable if the source of uranium 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 just to protect the environment will be very, very difficult.


“Just using existing uranium from U-mine sites, as well as burning existing spent fuel in fast reactors in the near-future, provides sufficient uranium fuel to produce 10 trillion kWhs/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/liter (parts per billion), but that totals 4.5 billion tons of U in the billion cubic kilometers of seawater in the ocean.


“As with any commercial commodity, the process of seawater extraction must become sufficiently economic to replace mining as the source of U. And new technologies of extracting U from seawater are fast becoming economic.


“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.”

from Is Nuclear Power A Renewable Or A Sustainable Energy Source? James Conca


“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 when compared to 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 the efficiency of seawater uranium extraction, a paper in the journal of Marine Science & Engineering suggests 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.”

from Wikipedia



#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:

  1. Nuclear energy protects air quality - Nuclear is a zero-emission clean energy source.

  2. 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 require 75 times more space.

  3. Nuclear energy produces minimal waste - All of the used nuclear fuel produced by the U.S. nuclear energy industry over the last 60 years could fit on a football field at a depth of less than 10 yards!

#7 Is nuclear needed to get to ‘net zero’ emissions?

There is a lot of debate here and a lot of pro- and anti-nuclear points of view. EDF produced a good article as a statement a years 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.”

This is further backed up by the article Why nuclear power much be part of the energy solution and there are also numerous websites and books dedicated to the use of nuclear energy to provide a secure, clean energy mix in the future.


Is Nuclear Energy Renewable?

Conversely there are many that disagree that new nuclear is needed at all and that we can achieve net-zero at 100% renewables. Two important articles to read to explore of this are:

Renewable energy versus nuclear: dispelling the myths by Mark Diesendorf in which the below 15 myths are attempted to be dispelled:

  1. Myth 1: Base-load power stations are necessary to supply base-load demand.

  2. Myth 2: There is a renaissance in nuclear energy.

  3. Myth 3: Renewable energy is not ready to replace fossil fuels, and nuclear energy could fill the (alleged) gap in low-carbon energy supply.

  4. Myth 4: Nuclear weapons proliferation is independent of civil nuclear energy.

  5. Myth 5: The death toll from the Chernobyl disaster was 28-64.

  6. Myth 6: The problem of permanently storing high-level nuclear wastes has been solved.

  7. Myth 7: The IFR could ‘burn up’ the world’s nuclear wastes.

  8. Myth 8: Nuclear energy emits no or negligible greenhouse gas emissions.

  9. Myth 9: Nuclear energy is a suitable partner for renewable energy in the grid.

  10. Myth 10: Nuclear power reactors can generally be operated flexibly to follow changes in demand/load.

  11. Myth 11: Renewable energies are more expensive than nuclear.

  12. Myth 12: Renewable energy is very diffuse and hence requires huge land areas.

  13. Myth 13: Energy payback periods (in energy units, not money) of renewable energy technologies are comparable with their lifetimes.

  14. Myth 14: Danish electricity prices are among the highest in Europe, because of the large contribution from wind energy.

  15. Myth 15: Computer simulation models of the operation of electricity grids 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 are 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?”

Conclusion

In answer to the original question of whether nuclear energy is renewable or not the answer is clearly 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 energy that cannot be matched.


Nuclear energy is currently expensive and takes a long-time to build but this is better than having to rely on any fossil fuels in the future and by repeatably building the same nuclear technology (e.g. replicating more EPRs across the UK) this will help to drive such costs down.




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