Nuclear Power

Is nuclear energy renewable energy or not?

Although nuclear energy is considered clean energy its inclusion in the renewable energy list is a subject of major debate. To understand the debate we need to understand the definition of renewable energy and nuclear energy first.

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.

Nuclear energy on the other hand is a result of heat generated through the fission process of atoms. All power plants convert heat into electricity using steam. At nuclear power plants, the heat to make the steam is created when atoms split apart – called fission. Fission releases energy in the form of heat and neutrons. The released neutrons then go on to hit other neutrons and repeat the process, hence generating more heat. In most cases the fuel used for nuclear fission is uranium.

Arguments for nuclear energy as a renewable energy

Most supporters of nuclear energy point out the low carbon emission aspect of nuclear energy as its major characteristic to be defined as renewable energy. According to nuclear power opponents, if the goal to build a renewable energy infrastructure is to lower carbon emission then there is no reason for not including nuclear energy in that list. [1]

But one of the most interesting arguments for including nuclear energy in the renewable energy portfolio came from Bernard L Cohen, former professor at the University of Pittsburg. Professor Cohen defined the term ‘indefinite'(time span required for an energy source to be sustainable enough to be called renewable energy) in numbers by using the expected relationship between the sun (source of solar energy) and the earth. According to Professor Cohen, if the Uranium deposit could be proved to last as long as the relationship between the Earth and Sun is supposed to last (5 billion years) then nuclear energy should be included in the renewable energy portfolio. [2]

In his article, 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 the actual amount of uranium deposit available is way more than what is considered extractable right now. In his arguments, he includes uranium that could be extracted at a higher cost, uranium from the sea-water, and also uranium from eroding earth crust by river water. All of those possible uranium resources if used in a breeder reactor would be enough to fuel the earth for another 5 billion years and hence render nuclear energy as renewable energy. [2]

Arguments against nuclear as a renewable energy

One of the biggest arguments against including nuclear energy in the list of renewable is the fact that uranium deposit on earth is finite, unlike solar and wind. To be counted as renewable, the energy source (fuel) should be sustainable for an indefinite period of time, according to the definition of renewable energy.

Another major argument proposed by the opponents of including nuclear energy as renewable energy is the harmful nuclear waste from nuclear power reactors. Nuclear waste is considered a radioactive pollutant that goes against the notion of a renewable energy source. [1] Yucca Mountain is one of the examples used quite often to prove this point. Most of the opponents in the US also point at the fact that while most renewable energy sources could render the US energy independent, uranium would still keep the country energy-dependent as the US would still have to import uranium. [1]

Final words

It seems like at the heart of the debate lies the confusion over the exact definition of renewable energy and the requirements that need to be met in order to be one. The recent statement by Helene Pelosi, the interim director general of IRENA (International Renewable Energy Agency), saying IRENA will not support nuclear energy programs because its a long, complicated process, it produces waste, and is relatively risky, proves that their decision has nothing to do with having a sustainable supply of fuel. [3] And if that’s the case then nuclear proponents would have to figure out a way to deal with the nuclear waste management issue and other political implications of nuclear power before they can ask IRENA to reconsider including nuclear energy in the renewable energy list.


[1] K. Johnson, “Is Nuclear Power Renewable Energy,” Wall Street Journal, 21 May 09.
[2] B.L. Cohen, “Breeder Reactors: A Renewable Energy Source,” Am. J. Phys. 51, 75 (1983).
[3] J. Kanter, “Is Nuclear Power Renewable,” New York Times, 3 Aug 09.

More to Read

1. Renewable energy
2. Nuclear energy

Nuclear Energy

Nuclear energy is the one type of energy that can be released from the nucleus of an atom. There are two ways to produce this energy, either by fission or fusion. Fission occurs when the atomic nucleus is split apart. Fusion is the result of combining two or more light nuclei into one heavier nucleus.

Atoms are made up of several parts: protons, neutrons, electrons, and a nucleus. A nucleus is the positively charged center of an atom. Protons are positively charged particles, and neutrons are uncharged particles. Electrons orbit around the nucleus and are negatively charged. Fission can occur in two ways—first, in some very heavy elements, such as rutherfordium, the nucleus of an atom can split apart into smaller pieces spontaneously. With lighter (lower atomic weight) elements, it is possible to hit the nucleus with a free neutron, which will also cause the nucleus to break apart, and a significant amount of energy is released when the nucleus splits. The energy released takes two forms: light energy and heat energy. Radioactivity is also produced. Atomic bombs let this energy out all at once, creating an explosion. Nuclear reactors let this energy out slowly in a continuous chain reaction to make electricity. After the nucleus splits, new lighter atoms are formed. More free neutrons are thrown off that can
split other atoms, continuing to produce nuclear energy.

Figure: Nuclear Fission and fusion.

Nuclear energy can be used for various industrial applications, such as seawater desalination, hydrogen production, district heating or cooling, the extraction of tertiary oil resources, and process heat applications such as cogeneration, coal-to-liquids conversion, and assistance in the synthesis of chemical feedstock. A large demand for nuclear energy for industrial applications is expected to grow rapidly on account of steadily increasing energy consumption, the finite availability of fossil fuels, and the increased sensitivity to the environmental impacts of fossil fuel combustion. With increasing prices for conventional oil, unconventional oil resources are increasingly utilized to meet such growing demand, especially for transport.

Nuclear Power

Nuclear binding energy is the energy required to split a nucleus of an atom into component parts. The term nuclear binding energy may also refer to the energy balance in processes in which the nucleus splits into fragments composed of more than one nucleon. If new binding energy is available when light nuclei fuse, or when heavy nuclei split, either of these processes results in releases of the binding energy. This energy, available as nuclear energy, can be used to produce electricity (by nuclear power plant) or as a nuclear weapon.

Currently, at nuclear power plants, the heat to make the steam is created through nuclear fission which releases heat. In a nuclear power plant, uranium is the material used in the fission process and the heat from fission is used to create steam to turn a turbine which, in turn, produces electricity. However, nuclear energy can be as hazardous as any fossil fuel in terms of destruction of the environment and deserves some comment insofar as an appreciation of its use may assist in the general background and aid in putting fossil fuel resources into a more complete context.

Nevertheless, as long as suitable safety regulations are applied, energy from nuclear sources has shown potential to be a significant energy source in the future. The technology is known but has suffered some setbacks. Accidents and dubious claims of the ease with which energy may be derived from nuclear sources have reduced the credibility of the nuclear industry. Nevertheless, the potential still exists for the extraction of energy from nuclear sources. Hence, the continued use of the so-called conventional fuel resources is derived from the remains of ancient plants and animals. Those same resources have been instrumental in the phenomenal expansion of the industrialized world. And also, those same resources can have serious adverse effects on the flora and fauna (including man) of the world.

More to Read

Nuclear power plant
Renewable energy
Solar Energy
Wind energy
Hydro energy
Biomass energy
Geothermal energy