Nuclear Energy: Can It Be Classed as a Renewable or Sustainable Power Source?

by | Dec 18, 2021 | Blog

Nuclear power plant on a nature reserve.

Summary

  • Nuclear power has been an essential part of the global energy mix since the 1950s and now accounts for almost 10% of the planet’s electricity. To release the energy from atoms needed to produce electricity, one of two things needs to occur—nuclear fusion or nuclear fission.
  • Uranium is the fuel used by most nuclear power plants, and there is only one type suitable for nuclear fission, U-235. Although uranium is commonly used, the isotype is difficult to find, making it a non-renewable fuel.
  • Nuclear energy is a great way to generate energy without greenhouse gas emissions or environmental pollution. This makes nuclear power more sustainable than fossil fuel alternatives.
  • The world has enough uranium to last another 75 years. If nuclear fusion becomes a reality for power plants, it will make nuclear power completely sustainable.

Introduction

Nuclear energy is a fascinating energy source found in the core, or nucleus, of an atom. An atom is the basic building block for all matter in the universe. It takes a lot of energy to keep atoms bonded together, and scientists have figured out how to use this energy to make electricity.

To release the energy needed to produce electricity, one of two things needs to occur—nuclear fusion or nuclear fission. Nuclear fusion involves releasing energy when all of the atoms are combined to form a massive atom, which is how the sun produces energy. On the other hand, nuclear fission requires the atoms to separate and split to create a much smaller atom and then release energy, which is how nuclear power plants generate electricity.

Since the 1950s, nuclear power has been an essential part of the global energy mix. The nuclear energy industry has grown over the years and accounts for almost 10% of the planet’s electricity. There are now around 440 nuclear power reactors globally, producing a combined electricity capacity of 390 GW.

With so much of the world’s electricity being generated via nuclear power, the processes must be as environmentally friendly as possible. This article explores whether we can class nuclear energy technology as a renewable or sustainable power source.

Is Nuclear Energy Renewable?

The energy generated by nuclear power plants is renewable, but the fuel used is not.

Illustration of a nuclear reactor reusing water

Nuclear energy is and isn’t renewable. The energy generated by nuclear power plants is renewable, but the fuel used is not. Uranium is the preferred fuel in nuclear power plants, and there is only one type suitable for the process, known as U-235. Although uranium is very common, the isotype is relatively rare to find, making U-235 a non-renewable fuel for the renewable energy it produces.

Nuclear fission at a power plant involves splitting the large atomic nucleus of the U-235 into smaller nuclei, creating energy. Nuclear scientists are also investigating nuclear fusion, combining two or more atomic nuclei to create one or more different atomic nuclei and subatomic particles—such as neutrons and protons. These processes also produce renewable energy, but the materials are not readily available.

Nuclear power plants are working hard to be as renewable as possible. Many now recycle the steam that powers the turbine generators. The steam is recycled by being cooled down in a cooling tower and turned back into the water—which is then used again for the nuclear fission process. Recycling steam makes nuclear power more renewable.

Is Nuclear Energy Sustainable?

The most significant challenge holding nuclear energy back from becoming completely sustainable is the need to use U-235.

For the most part, nuclear energy is sustainable. Nuclear energy production provides clean energy and does not emit greenhouse gases or environmental pollution. This makes nuclear power more sustainable for the environment than fossil fuel alternatives.

The most significant challenge holding nuclear energy back from becoming completely sustainable is the need to use U-235. If the source of uranium is changed or if science permits nuclear fusion, there will then be a sustainable source of the raw material. According to estimates, the remaining amounts of uranium in the world will last for another 75 years—making nuclear energy an available power source for some ongoing generations. However, if the introduction of nuclear fusion became a reality, it would make nuclear power a genuinely sustainable source.

Closing Thoughts

Nuclear energy is currently considered a sustainable energy source. With evolving technology, such as replacing uranium from mined ore to seawater, it could one day be completely renewable. If the uranium is continuously replenished through geologic processes such as nuclear fusion, nuclear energy could be as endless as solar.

Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs)

What exactly is nuclear energy?

Nuclear power generation begins with splitting uranium atoms, known as fission. This process creates the heat needed to produce steam, which is then utilized by a turbine generator to generate electricity. Nuclear power plants do not burn any fuel, and they do not emit any greenhouse gases, making nuclear power a more environmentally friendly alternative to fossil fuels.

 

Is nuclear energy bad for the environment?

The main environmental concern linked to nuclear power is radioactive waste. This includes uranium mill tailings, spent reactor fuel and other radioactive materials. These materials can remain radioactive and hazardous for thousands of years.

 

How is uranium used in nuclear energy?

All nuclear power plants currently use the process known as nuclear fission, and most use uranium atoms to do this. A neutron collides with a uranium atom during nuclear fission to split it. This process releases a substantial amount of energy in the form of heat and radiation.

 

Can nuclear waste be reused?

Used nuclear fuel can be recycled to make fuel and byproducts. In addition, around 90% of uranium potential energy remains in the fuel, even after five years of operation in a nuclear reactor.

 

Is nuclear energy officially green?

In April 2020, the Joint Research Centre  (the European Commission’s scientific body) released a report that confirmed nuclear power is a safe, low-carbon energy source— comparable to wind and hydropower in terms of its contribution to climate change.