Is Nuclear Energy Renewable? What You Need To Know About Nuclear Power

Inspire Clean Energy

17 min read

category: Clean Energy 101

Nuclear Energy: Renewable or Nonrenewable?

How familiar are you with nuclear energy? If the only time you think about nuclear power is in terms of Homer Simpson’s job or while scrolling through Netflix, then probably not very.

Nuclear energy was first utilized commercially in the 1950s. Since it has continued to grow, and there are now around 440 nuclear power reactors across the world, providing 10% of the planet’s electricity. Nuclear energy is the world’s second-largest source of low-carbon power, following closely behind hydroelectric power.

But, is nuclear energy renewable? Today, we’re going to answer all the most common questions we hear about nuclear energy, so read on to find out more!

What is nuclear energy?

Nuclear energy is the energy contained within the core or nucleus of an atom. Within this nucleus are protons which hold a positive electric charge, and electrons, which hold a negative electric charge, with bonds holding these particles together. When these bonds within the atom core are broken, through a process called nuclear fission, it produces a significant amount of energy we can use to produce electricity.

How is nuclear energy produced?

Nuclear energy is produced when atoms are split apart during nuclear fission to release energy. The most common fuel used for nuclear fission in nuclear power plants is uranium. However, only a certain type of uranium (U-235) is suitable, and in some plants plutonium is used instead.

How does nuclear energy work?

Nuclear fission takes place when a neutron collides with a fuel atom. This causes the atom to split apart, releasing heat and radiation energy, as well as more neutrons which will go on to collide with more fuel atoms, and so the cycle continues. The cycle is called a nuclear chain reaction. A nuclear chain reaction can be controlled within the reactors of a nuclear plant to produce heat, which in turn heats a cooling agent to produce steam. The steam produced turns turbines or wheels that drive generators to create electricity we can use.

What is nuclear energy used for?

The most widely known use for nuclear energy is simply to produce electricity to power both domestic buildings and industries, such as schools, hospitals, homes, and businesses. However, there are also other important uses of nuclear energy.

Insect Control in Agriculture

In many parts of the world, where agriculture is a huge percentage of their economy, they’ll use radiation to stop insects from reproducing if they pose a threat to their crops. This protection of crops is vital as it allows these countries to provide food for themselves and the many other countries that rely on them.

Makes Food Safe

Irradiation is also used to kill bacteria and other pathogens in food through sterilization. Don’t worry – this doesn’t make the food radioactive or affect it nutritionally, it simply makes our food safe to eat. While this process may make you feel uncomfortable, irradiation is actually the only way to kill bacteria on raw or frozen foods fully, so it’s incredibly important.

Medical Diagnosis and Treatment

Nuclear technologies can also help in the medical industry. They are used to provide imaging inside the human body to get more accurate diagnoses, and nuclear technologies even help to treat some diseases. Doctors have been able to predict exactly the right amount of radiation needed to destroy cancer tumors without damaging healthy cells. With more research, this could be a huge breakthrough in cancer treatment, allowing patients to get treatment without the associated weakness.

And, just like in the agricultural industry, gamma-rays sterilize medical equipment cheaply and safely in hospitals all across the world, ensuring the equipment medical professionals use don’t spread infection and disease.

Water Sterilization

Unfortunately, many communities across the world still don’t have reliable access to clean water. To make their water clean to drink, they use a process called desalination, which requires a huge amount of energy. Nuclear energy facilities can provide this energy for the water desalination plants to provide fresh drinking water to those communities that don’t have it at a low cost.

Make the switch
If you’re interested in doing more for the environment, consider switching to clean energy.

What are the advantages of nuclear energy?

There are many advantages of nuclear energy, such as:

  • nuclear energy is a source of carbon-free electricity that can be harnessed 24/7 for up to 2 years at a time
  • it has a high density – the amount of energy released during nuclear fission is approximately 10 million times greater than that released from burning an atom of fossil fuel
  • nuclear energy is flexible to the needs of the people it serves – for example, it’s possible to slow electricity production from nuclear power plants if there is enough electricity coming from wind or solar energy sources, or increased if there becomes a higher demand for electricity, such as in winter months
  • nuclear energy is relatively low cost – although initial construction costs of plants are large, the generation of electricity from nuclear energy is much cheaper than the electricity generated from fossil fuels and can go on indefinitely
  • nuclear power plants do not drastically change the environment surrounding them so can be built almost anywhere
  • nuclear energy creates jobs – power plants provide long-term (usually well-paid) employment and support local economies

What are the disadvantages of nuclear energy?

There are, however, disadvantages to nuclear energy we’re likely all aware of. Although few, many people believe these disadvantages outweigh the advantages. These disadvantages are:

  • byproducts of nuclear power are radioactive material and radioactive waste which can be extremely harmful (more on this below)
  • although the safety measures in place are extensive, as we all know, accidents can happen. History shows that no matter what measures we take, radioactive disasters from nuclear power plants will always be a risk
  • the building of nuclear reactors requires a high level of technology, education, and money, and only countries who have signed the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty can get the fuel that they need, this means that nuclear power plants are generally only located in the most developed countries

Is nuclear energy renewable?

So, is nuclear energy renewable? Well… yes and no. Yes, the energy that is produced by nuclear power plants is renewable, but the fuel that is required is not renewable. Although uranium is a very common metal found all over the world, nuclear fission requires uranium known as U-235, which is comparatively rare.

The steam that is produced to power the turbines, and consequently the generators, is also recycled. The steam is cooled down in a ‘cooling tower’ and turned back into water which can be used again within the nuclear fission process.

There is also a process called nuclear fusion, which scientists believe may become possible in the next 5-20 years. Nuclear fusion will increase the energy output and reduces the waste produced significantly and lowers some of the dangers inherent in normal nuclear fission.

Is nuclear energy considered green or clean?

Possibly the largest benefit of nuclear energy is that it is a clean energy. It does not create air pollution or release greenhouse gases, so in this way it is much more sustainable for the environment than fossil fuels. The only byproduct of the production of nuclear energy is excess steam, which is simply recycled into the atmosphere as clean water vapor.

How does nuclear energy affect the environment?

This is where a majority of the disadvantages of nuclear energy lies and why some people are opposed to nuclear energy.

As we talked about briefly above, when nuclear fission occurs the byproducts are in the form of unstable atomic nuclei known as radioactive material. If radioactive material is not disposed of properly, it negatively affects the environment.

Radioactive material is highly toxic for humans and other animals, where it can cause burns, and lead to cancer, blood disease, bone decay, or radiation poisoning. All used fuel must be stored in huge containers filled with water, which cools the used fuel down and prevents outside contact.

The other byproduct is known as radioactive waste. Radioactive waste includes all materials that have come into contact with radioactive dust, including worker’s clothes and tools. Radioactivity can last for thousands of years in some cases, so this waste is immediately disposed of so no further contamination can take place.

The disposal must follow strict governmental regulations, although where this radioactive waste is stored has become a very controversial issue in the US.

Is nuclear energy zero-emissions?

Nuclear power is a clean, zero-emissions energy source. Fission, the process by which uranium atoms are split apart, produces energy,  which generates power. The heat released by fission is used to create steam, which powers a turbine to generate electricity—without the toxic byproducts created by fossil fuels.

In 2019, the United States avoided more than 476 million metric tons of carbon dioxide emissions, according to the Nuclear Energy Institute (NEI). That's more than all other clean energy sources combined, and it's the equivalent of eliminating 100 million automobiles from the road. It also cleans the air by eliminating thousands of tons of toxic air pollutants each year that cause acid rain, smog, lung cancer, and cardiovascular illness.

However, no energy source is totally emissions-free. When it comes to nuclear power, uranium extraction, transport, and processing all contribute to pollutants. In addition, the lengthy and complex construction of nuclear power stations and the destruction of defunct sites both emit CO2. Last but not least, nuclear waste must be transported and stored while adhering to rigorous guidelines.

How does nuclear energy produce electricity?

Nuclear power facilities generate steam by heating water. The steam is utilized to create power by spinning enormous turbines. Heat created during nuclear fission is used to heat water in nuclear power plants. Atoms are torn apart to form smaller atoms during nuclear fission, releasing energy. Fission happens inside a nuclear power plant's reactor. The reactor's core, which houses uranium fuel, is located in the center. 

Ceramic pellets are made from uranium fuel. The heat generated by nuclear fission in the reactor core is used to boil water into steam, which drives a steam turbine's blades. The turbine blades spin, driving generators that generate electricity. Nuclear power facilities utilize water from ponds, rivers, or oceans to cool the steam and turn it back into water, and the water is reused to generate steam. 

How is nuclear energy stored?

Nuclear energy is stored in a power plant. Although electricity cannot be stored on any scale, it can be turned into various kinds of energy that can be stored and then converted back to electricity when needed. 

Nuclear poison rods and used fuel are extremely radioactive. Therefore, the utilized uranium pellets must be housed in special containers that resemble huge swimming pools. Water cools the fuel and protects the outer world from radiation. In addition, some nuclear power stations keep their spent fuel in above-ground dry storage tanks.

How efficient is nuclear energy?

Nuclear power plants are the most efficient source of electricity, with a capacity factor of 93 percent. Any other carbon-free source has a capacity factor of less than 2 percent. Plants in the United States ran at more than 98 percent capacity during the 2019 polar vortex. Nuclear power plants can accomplish these figures thanks to world-class operations and the fact that they only need to refuel every 18 to 24 months.

Nuclear power plants are more commonly employed, since they require less maintenance and are designed to run longer before needing to be refueled. Due to the routine maintenance and refueling required at natural gas or coal facilities,  the capacity factors of these facilities are often lower. 

Renewable energy sources are regarded as intermittent or variable, and their availability is hampered by a lack of fuel such as wind, sun, or water. As a result, these plants require a backup power source, such as large-scale storage or a reliable, base-load power source like nuclear energy.

Is nuclear technology improving?

A new wave of innovation is on the horizon, radically revolutionizing the nuclear energy sector. Nuclear power is critical to maintaining our clean air, bolstering our national security, and boosting the economy. These bold and disruptive efforts will not only catapult our country into the future but will also reestablish the United States as a global nuclear energy leader.

The United States is creating cutting-edge advanced reactor designs with unparalleled versatility, which can be combined with renewable producing sources, are considerably less expensive, burn waste as a source of energy, and are walk-away safe. One major advancement is a passive safety cooling system. Additionally, changes in manufacturing and fuel reactors are changing to improve our energy options. 

What will make nuclear energy safer?

The complicated engineering, demanding standards, and advanced manufacturing techniques necessary to assure safe operation are major factors for nuclear power's high cost. In addition, today's reactor designs have significantly more safety features than older reactors. These include everything from redundant emergency cooling systems to prevent overheating (even if some of them fail) to core catchers that contain the reactor core in the event of a meltdown.

Unintended conditions or incidents that result in radioactive leaks from authorized activities are the focus of safety. Changes to improve the safety of nuclear energy require reassessing limits, reducing radiation hazards, strategic planning, and improving nuclear waste disposal and recycling.

One way to make nuclear energy safer is passive cooling if the cooling circuit malfunctions. By convection, the heat from the core will gradually evaporate from the pressure vessel's walls and through the cooling circuit. The reactors being built today result from 60 years of experience in the design and operation of nuclear power facilities all around the world.

Is nuclear power growing?

Over 300 additional power reactors are anticipated, with a total gross capacity of about 100,000 MWe on order or planned. The majority of reactors now planned are in Asia, where economies are rapidly increasing and electricity demand is constantly rising. In addition, many countries with existing nuclear power programs have plans to build new reactors or are currently doing so. Around 30 countries are thinking about, planning, or launching nuclear power initiatives.

Numbers have increased dramatically since the 1960s, with 28 states having at least one commercial nuclear reactor. However, growth has slowed while waiting for new technology to improve and make nuclear power more affordable. According to the IAEA's updated prognosis, world nuclear-generating capacity would double to 792 gigawatts (net electrical) by 2050, up from 393 GW(e) in 2020.

Why isn't nuclear energy used more?

Nuclear plants have substantially higher initial capital, fuel, and maintenance costs than wind and solar plants, and nuclear projects are more prone to cost overruns and construction delays. Nevertheless, renewable energy prices have dropped dramatically over the last decade, and they are expected to continue to decrease. Many reasons can lead to reduced uses of nuclear energy, though. 

First, nuclear reactor waste is radioactive for tens of thousands to hundreds of thousands of years. There are currently no long-term storage options for radioactive waste; hence the majority of it is kept in above-ground facilities. Because these facilities are running out of storage space, the nuclear industry is moving to more expensive and perhaps riskier alternatives.

Furthermore, nuclear energy increases the risk of cancer from fallout from nuclear disasters. Studies reveal an increased risk for those who live near nuclear power plants, and workers are exposed to radiation, putting them at a higher risk of developing cancer.

Next, there is widespread concern that launching nuclear energy programs will enhance the likelihood of nuclear weapons proliferation. Human mistakes and natural calamities and the dangers posed by terrorist strikes can result in dangerous and costly accidents. Also, nuclear energy only provides about 10 percent of the total energy needed, and we would need over 14,000 plants to meet current needs. 

Because of the scarcity of suitable sites, scaling up to 14,500 nuclear units is not viable. Nuclear power facilities require access to water for cooling. Climate models forecast an increase in extreme weather occurrences, further adding to the danger. As you can see, many factors can reduce the efficiency of building more nuclear energy plants.

How is nuclear power used in everyday life?

While nuclear power offers many benefits and uses, only a few apply to our day-to-day life. Some of those uses include medical diagnostics, consumer products, food, and agriculture. 

Radiation or radioactive materials are used to diagnose or treat about one-third of all patients admitted to U.S. hospitals. Nuclear medical imaging, which combines the safe delivery of radioisotopes with camera imaging, aids doctors in the detection of malignancies and other issues.

The natural features of radioisotopes are used to construct smoke detectors, watches and clocks, and non-stick materials, among other things. Household smoke detectors are one of the most prevalent uses of radioisotopes nowadays.

Gamma rays are even used in food production. Approximately 25 to 30 percent of food harvested is lost due to it rotting before it can be consumed. This is a condition that is especially frequent in hot, humid climates. Food irradiation is the process of exposing foods to gamma rays to extend their shelf life and destroy microorganisms that can cause food poisoning. This method  eliminates the need for chemical additives and refrigeration while using less energy than traditional food preservation methods. In addition, farmers sometimes employ radioisotopes instead of chemical pesticides to control insects that ruin crops.

How will nuclear energy change in the future?

New technologies should help combat the many issues with nuclear energy by reducing complications that prevent nuclear power from creating more usable energy. The government needs to play an active role in bypassing federal clean energy standards. In terms of new reactors, smaller reactors are advancing but are still years away from viability, with most not expected to be operational until 2030. In the next few decades, expect to see bigger changes to improve the use of nuclear energy for a cleaner earth.

Make the switch
If you’re interested in doing more for the environment, consider switching to clean energy.

Is renewable energy better than nuclear energy?

Yes, in some ways, no in others. Renewable energy is a much better choice for the environment and your home, and is a completely clean way to power your everyday needs.

You see, the only real downside of some renewable energy sources is that they can be noisy. They also often take up a lot of space and aren’t as “effective” at creating energy at scale like nuclear energy does.

However, renewable energies can be used on a small scale or a larger scale, unlike nuclear power which is only possible on an enormous scale. This makes renewable energy the best choice, especially moving forward when more and more people are looking for clean energy sources.

Is nuclear energy better than solar?

Only in the sense of the sheer quantity of energy produced. Otherwise, solar is the better option. A nuclear reactor can take around 20 years to build, at immense cost. In contrast, a solar farm can be built in less than a year and added to over time to increase energy production while continuing to create energy. It is also a true renewable energy source, whereas nuclear power is not.

How safe is nuclear energy?

Although the risk of accidents relating to nuclear energy is low, many people worry about the radioactive waste that is extremely unsafe for the environment and people’s health.

There will always be a chance of a storage facility leaking causing high levels of contamination to any soil and water surrounding the facility and harming the people, flora and fauna around it.

The future of nuclear energy

While there are a lot of advantages to nuclear energy, and it is still a necessary part of our power generation, it will never be a true renewable energy source. That’s why true renewable energies, such as wind power and solar power, are so important.

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