Is Nuclear Energy Renewable? (The Truth about Nuclear)


Is nuclear energy renewable? Nuclear energy being added to the renewable energy source list has been a topic of controversy over the years. Is nuclear energy renewable? To understand why, it is important to understand what the process of creating nuclear energy entails and what renewable energy is versus a sustainable energy.

Renewable Energy vs. Sustainable Energy

This can be a bit confusing, but hopefully we clear it up for you. All renewable energy shares the same resources as all sustainable energy, but not all sustainable energy is renewable.

Renewable Energy

Renewable energy is clean. The production and the use of renewable energy is not harmful to the environment, and it has little to no effect on the ecosystems. This form of energy is generated from natural processes and is being continuously replenished without the help of humans. These energy sources include sunlight, wind, rain, sea movement, and geothermal heat.

Sustainable Energy

The sources must do three things to be considered a sustainable energy. The energy source must guarantee to meet present and future consumption needs, must be replenishable without the help of humans, and the energy consumed does not exceed the energy being produced. Renewable energy also meets these requirements,  but it does not pollute the environment. So, sustainable energy is a term that can be used on a wider scale, while still including all forms of renewable energy. Some examples of energy that is both sustainable and renewable are solar, wind, wave and sea power, hydrogen, and geothermal.

Sustainable vs Renewable

Take solar power for example. Break solar power down into the three necessary points of sustainable energy. Solar power has been around for a number of years and is still being used today. With the advances in the solar panels and the two different types of solar panels available, we are guaranteed that solar energy will continue to meet today’s demand and the demand that will be present in the future. Since the power is supplied from the sun, the source will be available without humans needing to do anything to continue its availability. Lastly, the energy that is being consumed does not exceed the energy the sun supplies. Those three things mean that it is a sustainable energy source. Solar energy is also renewable since its use is not harmful to the environment and does not pollute. As a result, solar energy is considered sustainable and renewable. 

What is Nuclear Energy?

You might recognize the term “atom.” Everything around us is made up of atoms. Atoms are very small piece of matter which can be broken down to even smaller subatomic particles. These subatomic particles include the proton, neutron, and electron. For this article we are going to focus on the nucleus. The nucleus is the center of the atom, which is surrounded by the protons and neutrons.

Producing nuclear energy derives from the splitting of the nucleus of the uranium atom. This process is called fission. Splitting uranium atoms generates a lot of heat, and this heat is used to boil water. When the water boils it creates steam. The steam that is created by the atom being split moves a turbine generator that creates electricity. So, the atom is split which emits heat, that heat boils water, this steam then moves a turbine that generates the electricity.

Is Nuclear Energy Renewable?

As described earlier, the two forms of energy are renewable and sustainable. Nuclear energy is considered a sustainable energy since the energy source is derived from uranium that is mined. Mining can be extremely harmful to the earth and the ecosystems, thus the reason that nuclear energy is sustainable. Mining the ore can also take time to find and can take time for the earth to regenerate what is being pulled from it. Is nuclear energy renewable? No, but it is considered sustainable.

Could Nuclear Energy Be Renewable?

Yes. Nuclear energy could become renewable if we stopped mining for uranium and used seawater instead. It has been found that there is an infinite amount of uranium in seawater. Uranium regenerates from a steady chemical reaction between the water and the rocks that contain the mineral. This reaction happens quickly enough that whatever is pulled from the water, is leached from the rocks to replace it. According to a scientist in the field of earth and environmental sciences, “it is impossible for humans to extract enough uranium to lower the overall seawater concentrations faster that it is replenished.” Even though the uranium present in seawater is in smaller units than found on earth, it is estimated that there is about 4.5 billion tons of uranium present in seawater at any given time. This amount of uranium would sustain the production of nuclear energy for years.

There are studies being conducted in Japan, China, and the United States that are finding ways to extract uranium from the ocean water. These studies are finding ways to pull the uranium from the seawater in a way that is clean and possibly renewable in itself. Is nuclear energy renewable? Not yet at least.

The Good and Bad of Nuclear Energy

Nuclear Energy Pros

Since nuclear energy is not burning any fuel, power plants do not emit any greenhouse pollutants. In comparison with coal, nuclear is much cleaner. Today, nuclear energy is producing just less than 20% of the electricity in the USA. There are over 400 power plants in the world; about 100 are located in the USA. Using a nuclear power plant reduces the amount of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere and has a relatively low operating cost. With the large amount of power plants around the world and in the United States, there is a sufficient supply of power being generated to meet the needs of large cities and industrial requirements. There are even some improvements being offered in the nuclear power world. Science is finding ways to reduce waste through recycling and reprocessing.

Nuclear Energy Cons

Unfortunately, there are some cons to the use of nuclear power. Cost is a big factor. Constructing the giant power plants can get extremely costly. Since the waste of nuclear fission creates radioactive waste, the construction must include containment system and safety procedures. With these construction requirements, the time to build one of these facilities rises. There are also safety risks. There are a few well known incidents that involved a nuclear power plant having major issues. Luckily this has gone down in recent years, and nuclear power plants are constantly getting safer. The U.S. has been remarkably safe when it comes to nuclear energy. The plants also become a target for terrorism and require a highly specialized team of security professionals to keep it safe.

Nuclear waste is also a very large concern. When an atom is split and the energy is already used, the smaller atoms remain in a very excited state. Releasing these smaller excited atoms causes biological damage. This waste must be contained until the atoms become in a more stable. But, these atoms can take at least 200-500 years to settle down. Until this time has passed, the waste must be contained. Many power plants have secure facilities on site to hold the waste safely. The mining process is what most people believe is the biggest downside. Mining for uranium poses dangers to the ones mining it. There are higher health costs for miners and some mines have collapsed causing catastrophic results. Mining is also extremely bad for the environment.

Summary

There has been a lot of controversy over whether or not nuclear energy is considered renewable or not. Is nuclear energy renewable? Since we are still using uranium atoms that have been mined from the earth, it is not considered renewable but sustainable. With the increases in technology and science, it is possible to make nuclear energy renewable with the use of uranium pulled from seawater instead. Nuclear energy is a very clean energy, but poses high costs and dangerous waste.  It does not give off any pollutants into the air like other plants, and they are some of the safest places to work. Thankfully, there is plenty of time for science to find ways of making nuclear energy even cleaner.

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Craig Scott
 

I love to spend all the time I can outdoors and find every excuse to leave my house. I write about everything about our planet and I edit even more of it. I hope you'll join me in making the Earth a cleaner and greener place!

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