Is Nuclear Energy Renewable?

Defining Nuclear and Renewable Energy

Nuclear power originates from controlled nuclear reactions (basically fission) taking place inside nuclear reactors. Nuclear reactors use radioactive fuel (uranium), in order to heat up water and produce steam. The steam is then used for the production of electric power. The processing of uranium results in radioactive waste which consists of unconverted uranium, plutonium, and curium.

The definition of renewable energy entails the long term availability of the energy source, the ability to replenish over time, and minimum environmental impact.

The question is whether nuclear energy is actually renewable or not.

Facts Suggesting that Nuclear Power is not Renewable

The most widespread point of view states that nuclear power is not a renewable form of energy, and this is based on a number of clues:

  • Uranium is not a renewable fuel. The resources are limited and the process of mining and refining it is hazardous for the environment. The secure transport of uranium can raise the cost and consumption of energy significantly.
  • After processing, large quantities of radioactive waste are produced. The elements produced have extreme storage requirements and may stay radioactive and dangerous for thousands of years. Their recycling is costly and ineffective, and they cannot be safely stored. According to the National Academy of Sciences, the nuclear storage sites can always become a target of terrorists.

Nuclear Plant

Facts Suggesting That Nuclear Power Could Become Renewable

Although uranium supplies are limited, their conversion to plutonium can considerably extend the available resources. Light water reactors use uranium-235 (0.7% of all natural uranium); fast breeder reactors or IFRs use uranium-238 (99.3% of all natural uranium). Fast-breeder nuclear reactors have the capability to produce large amounts of fissionable plutonium that could sustain nuclear reactions (the splitting of uranium atoms), much longer than the conventional fuel. This process of obtaining more reactor fuel than the original could provide the characterization of "semi-renewable" to nuclear energy.

Another benefit is that the remaining waste becomes less hazardous. After a few hundred years, the waste stops being radioactive

Nuclear waste can be reprocessed in reprocessing units so that 95% of the spent fuel can be recycled and be returned to usage in a power plant. This procedure reduces the radio-toxicity and volume of high-level nuclear waste, allowing separate handling (destruction or storage) of the nuclear waste components. The reprocessing of nuclear waste is a politically controversial issue and the anti-technology lobby strives to stop nuclear proliferation by emphasizing the high cost of reprocessing and the possibility of terrorism.

For more information on nuclear waste reprocessing, check the following article: "Is Nuclear Waste Recycling Possible?"

Nuclear Fuel Cycle

Is Nuclear Energy Renewable or Not?

Despite the contradiction, nuclear energy cannot be characterized as renewable, at least not if we take into account the current conditions of production and waste disposal. Uranium is still a finite fuel source and the breeder reactors processing can become unstable and dangerous.

The reprocessing of nuclear waste is still a procedure that doesn't take place the way it should.

However if the adjustments of the new reactors and processability of waste would take place after all, nuclear energy could be redefined. The overcoming of practical difficulties regarding nuclear fusion – that uses deuterium as a fuel extracted from water (which is regarded as infinite source) – could also redefine nuclear energy under a completely new scope.

Fast Reactor Concept