Since renewable energy is defined as an energy source / fuel type that can regenerate and replenish itself indefinitely, why isn’t nuclear included as a renewable energy source?
This question is a subject of major debate and it is about time for the debate to end and include nuclear as a renewable energy source.
Nuclear energy, today, is a result of heat generated through the fission of atoms. Fission being the process where an atom splits – heat energy and neutrons are released from this process. In the future, we may see fusion (where two atoms are combined) as a nuclear energy source, but for now it is strictly fission. The released neutron(s) from fission goes on to interreact with other atoms, sometimes resulting in absorption to create a different atom, and sometimes resulting in a repeat of the fission process – this occurs until the reaction becomes self- sustaining.
Some supporters of nuclear energy, as a renewable energy source, point out that since nuclear energy is a zero-carbon emission fuel source it should be considered a renewable energy source. Especially, if the goal is to build a low carbon emission renewable energy infrastructure.
As we described above, sometimes a neutron released from fission is absorbed by an atom to become a different atom or substance, this can result in the formation of other fuels that are also fissionable. In fact, current operating nuclear power plants get over half of their heat energy from the fission of some other fuel, other than the uranium originally loaded into the core as fuel.
One of the biggest arguments against including nuclear energy within the list of renewable energy sources is the fact that uranium deposits on earth are finite, unlike solar and wind. They claim that based on the definition of renewable energy, the energy source (fuel) should be sustainable for an indefinite period of time. What constitutes this term “indefinite period of time”? Bernard L Cohen, former professor at the University of Pittsburg, said if you consider the expected relationship between the sun (source of solar energy) and the earth as an example of this term – “indefinite period of time” – then if we could prove that uranium deposits would last as long as the relationship between the Earth and Sun (5 billion years), that should meet the definition and nuclear energy should be included as part of the renewable energy portfolio.
In his paper Professor Cohen claims that using breeder reactors (nuclear reactor able to generate more fissile material than it consumes) it is possible to fuel the earth with nuclear energy indefinitely. Although the amount of uranium deposit available could only supply nuclear energy for about 1000 years, Professor Cohen believes that the actual amount of uranium deposits available are more than what is considered extractable at the present time. In his arguments he includes uranium that could be extracted, though at a higher cost, from sea water and the eroding earth crust from our river waters. All of these possible uranium resources, if used in a breeder reactor, would be enough to fuel the earth for another 5 billion years and hence nuclear energy should be included as a renewable energy source.
Another major argument proposed by the opponents of nuclear energy, as a renewable energy source, is the harmful nuclear waste from nuclear power reactors – using Yucca Mountain as their prime example. They claim that nuclear waste as a radioactive pollutant goes against the notion of renewable energy sources, but consider as a counter argument, that the pollutants from solar cells after their use and the batteries associated with energy storage for these so-called renewables is also a pollutant and in fact, a radioactive pollutant – although at lower levels? Another counter argument is that fuel reprocessing could reduce nuclear waste while also providing several hundred years of additional operation without ever mining another gram of uranium. The U.S. originally developed this technology, but later decided not to reprocess the fuel, over nuclear proliferation concerns. Other countries, however, use this technology and reprocess their fuel (United Kingdom, France, Japan, India, and Russia).
It seems… that the heart of the debate is the politics associated with nuclear waste – Yucca Mountain being a prime example of its ramifications. The International Renewable Energy Agency (IRENA), said that they could not support nuclear energy as a renewable energy source because it’s a long, complicated process, it produces waste and is relatively risky, proving that their position on nuclear energy as a renewable energy source has nothing to do with having a sustainable supply of fuel.
Did you know that If all the electricity used in the U.S. was distributed evenly among the population, with all of it provided by nuclear power, that the amount of nuclear waste each person would generate per year would be 39.5 grams – the weight of seven U.S. quarters?
If you want raw numbers – we now have over 80,000 metric tons of spent fuel – from 1971 to 2018, US nuclear reactors generated 17.3 GW-years of electricity to make this waste. If the average US home used 10,000 kWh / year of nuclear electricity it would generate 5 grams of waste per year – astoundingly low – thanks to the energy density of the atom.