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Is nuclear energy renewable?

6 min read

Nuclear energy is a hot topic these days, and many people believe that it is the ultimate cure for reducing greenhouse emissions. But is that true? In this article, we’ll differentiate renewable energy vs. non-renewable energy, explain nuclear energy and how it’s made, and determine whether or not nuclear energy is actually a renewable source of energy. We’ll also help you identify things you can do to reduce your reliance on non-renewable energy.

What is non-renewable energy?

Non-renewable energy is energy that comes from environmental resources that can run out, meaning they will not replenish for a long time. We’re talking thousands of millions of years. Examples of some of these types of energies are gas, coal, or petroleum, also known as fossil fuels. Fossil fuels are fuels extracted from the remains of animals and plant life buried deep beneath the earth for millions of years.

Non-renewable energy is valuable to the day-to-day life of human beings. In most instances, we rely on non-renewable energy to power our homes, toasters, and cell phone chargers. Non-renewable energy is fairly inexpensive to process and can be mined, stored, and transported anywhere around the world. But, there are also problems with non-renewable energy as well.

We use non-renewable energy in our power plants to create electricity for our homes. Power plants burn fuel to create steam that results in power. But burning fossil fuels also generates a lot of carbon dioxide that is harmful to the environment. According to National Geographic, “When coal and oil are burned, they release particles that can pollute the air, water, and land. Some of these particles are caught and set aside, but many of them are released into the air.”1

What is renewable energy?

Renewable energy is energy that comes from sources that are constantly available, refilled, or replenished. Some examples of renewable energy are the sun or the wind. Barring a huge occurrence such as the Rapture, the sun should continue shining, day in and day out, without needing to be recharged, replenished, or renewed in any way.

Solar energy is a perfect example of renewable energy.


How solar works (an example of renewable energy)

During the day, your solar energy system produces electricity. The electric power can then be used to power anything in your home.

If your solar panels generate more electricity than your home needs, the remaining power can be sent to your local utility for a credit.

During the times when your panels aren’t producing as much solar energy, your home can still pull electricity from the utility company to power itself.

What is renewable energy? (Cntd.)

We tend to think of renewable energy as “new technology,” but that’s not true. For hundreds of years, we’ve used the wind to power windmills in order to produce grain or to power sails in order to transport goods from one place to another. We’ve also relied on the sun to warm up the earth and generate food for plants to grow. Our problem is that we want things faster and cheaper, so over the years, we’ve come up with faster and cheaper ways to harness other sources of power that will give us similar results to the renewable resources from the sun and wind.

With the abundance of non-renewable resources at our disposal, it is more important than ever to find less expensive, more innovative ways to rely on renewable resources for the production of our power, as opposed to non-renewable resources like fossil fuels.2

What is nuclear energy?

Nuclear energy is a source of energy that comes from uranium—an element on the periodic table. Nuclear energy is considered clean energy, and the direct burning of nuclear energy results in zero emissions. Nuclear energy makes up roughly 63% of the processes we use to generate electricity and results in lower carbon dioxide emissions in the U.S.3 For example, one kilogram of uranium is the equivalent to 42 gallons of oil, 1 ton of coal, or 17,000 cubic feet of natural gas.4

Nuclear energy is produced by mining Uranium. Uranium is extracted from rocks and processed into liquid. The Liquid uranium goes through several different transformations and is eventually stored and transported to a nuclear energy power plant in the form of a gas.5

The gas-based uranium is brought into a nuclear power plant, heated up, and introduced to water, which generates steam. The steam goes into large turbines connected to generators. The turbines spin, powering the generators which produce electricity.6

Is nuclear energy renewable?

We say no, it is not. Nuclear energy comes from uranium, and uranium comes from rocks. Think of the number of rocks on this planet. Yeah, there are a lot. But not as much as there is access to the sun or wind. So, if you look at it in terms of ease of access, rocks are somewhere in the middle between renewable and non-renewable energy. There is definitely a larger abundance of rocks on this planet than there are fossil fuel wells, but there is definitely more access to the sun than there is to rocks.

The thing that makes nuclear energy more toward the non-renewable side is the way we access and use it. In order to abstract uranium from the earth, we have to mine it with large drills, break it down using complex equipment, and refine it in large factories. In order to power the equipment in these factories, they must have energy, which can come from thermal power plants, be they powered by traditional means (coal or oil), natural gas, or nuclear power.

The other thing to consider is that the renewing of energy can be based on the speed at which we use it and the impact it has on the earth.

Some energy resources can move from sustainable to unsustainable, depending on their impact on us and how fast they're used. If we’re using nuclear energy faster than we can regenerate it, or if the process of nuclear energy generates nuclear waste, that can be harmful to organic life, or if the process of deconstructing uranium results in an increase of greenhouse emissions, how renewable is it really?

Yes, there is an abundance of rocks, but the process, storage, and transport of uranium relies on non-renewable resources that can eventually deplete. The creation and distribution of energy through nuclear fission also creates waste that requires special care to decompose and eradicate.

Basically stated, the non-renewable parts of the semi-renewable process that results in nuclear energy just aren’t “renewable” enough to affirmatively call it a renewable source of energy.

What can I do to reduce my impact on non-renewable energy?

Here are some suggestions:

  • Educate yourself
  • Talk about the issues
  • Get involved in community events promoting clean energy
  • Carpool
  • Ride your bike
  • Take public transportation
  • Work from home
  • Adjust your thermostat
  • Turn off your lights
  • Unplug your chargers
  • Hang your clothes to dry
  • Invest in energy-efficient products
  • Invest in eco-friendly products
  • Plant a tree
  • Plant a garden
  • Compost
  • Get a home energy audit
  • Go solar

Endnotes:

  1. “Non-renewable energy.” National Geographic. Resource Library, Encyclopedic Entry. February 21, 2013. Accessed December 23, 2019.
  2. “Renewable Energy: The Clean Facts.” Shinn, Lora. Natural Resources Defense Council. June 15, 2018, Accessed December 23, 2019.
  3. “What Is Nuclear Energy?” Nuclear Energy Institute. Washington, DC. December 19, 2019. Accessed December 23, 2019.
  4. “Nuclear Energy.” Know Nuclear. American Nuclear Society, The Center for Nuclear Science and Technology Information. April 2016. Accessed December 23, 2019.
  5. “How uranium ore is made into nuclear fuel.” World Nuclear Association. London, WC2E 7HA, United Kingdom. Accessed December 23, 2019.
  6. “NUCLEAR 101: How Does a Nuclear Reactor Work?” Energy.gov. Office of Nuclear Energy. February 6, 2019. Accessed December 23, 2019.

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