Is Nuclear Energy Renewable? A Closer Look at This Question


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Nuclear Power PlantMany people such as myself are fascinated by both alternative energy and renewable energy sources. Some people see these as one in the same but I’m of the opinion that they are quite different from one another. The way I see it, alternative energy is any form of energy that is different than what is “typically” used to power our world.

According to that definition, renewable energy would fall into the category of alternative energy but I believe that for something to be “renewable”, we must be able to reproduce the raw material that goes into creating the energy at will.

According to Wikipedia, renewable energy must come from a natural source such as the sun, wind, water and it must be naturally renewable. Fossil fuels come from a natural source because the oil is actually mined from the earth but it is a finite resource. When it’s gone, it’s gone. More on this concept later in this article.

What is Nuclear Energy Anyway?

Okay, before we can answer the question; is nuclear energy renewable or nonrenewable we need to understand what nuclear energy actually is. The real source of this energy is a process called nuclear fission. In very simple terms, this is a nuclear reaction where the nucleus of an atom is split into two parts. When this happens, free neutrons and protons are released in the form of gamma rays. This process results in a huge amount of energy being released.

We’re not talking about energy in the form of electricity here. We’re talking about the tremendous amount of heat that is released during this nuclear reaction. It’s this heat that can be used to either generate electricity or as a form of propulsion.

What Is a Nuclear Power Plant?

A nuclear power plant is actually just what you would think it is. It is a large power plant that harnesses the power of nuclear energy to generate vast amounts of electricity. Some power plants burn fossil fuels to generate electricity, some harness the power of water, and some harness the power of the sun. They all generate electricity but they do it in vastly different ways.

How is Nuclear Power Generated?

A nuclear power plant is in a way very similar to the old steam engines of the past except coal and wood isn’t used to create the steam. I won’t get into all of the physics behind nuclear power generation here. Instead, I’ll explain it as simply as I can. A device called a nuclear reactor kicks off the process of nuclear fission. Somehow this process has to be controlled to prevent it from exploding. The way this is done is by cooling the reactor. The reactor needs to be continually cooled and as it is cooled the heat that is pulled off of the reactor is used to generate steam (remember my steam engine analogy?) which in turn powers huge steam turbine engines which generate electricity as it turns.

Some Advantages Of Nuclear Energy

  • If your were to compare the amount of energy that is produced by a certain volume of gasoline to the same volume on nuclear fuel, nuclear fuel produces much more energy. According to the Idaho National Laboratory, a single uranium fuel pellet which is about the size of the tip of a person’s little finger has roughly the same amount of energy as 17,000 cubic feet of natural gas, 149 gallons of oil, and 1,780 lbs of coal.
  • Some believe that we will delete the earth’s sources of fossil fuels before we will deplete the fuel used to generate nuclear power.
  • The pollution that is released into the atmosphere is less than other power plants that burn fuels to generate electricity.

Some Disadvantages Of Nuclear Energy?

  • There is a risk of a nuclear explosion when operating a nuclear power plant and this would release harmful radiation that could result in the loss of human life.
  • Dangerous nuclear waste needs to be stored somewhere.

Is Nuclear Power Renewable?

Now it’s time to tell you that I don’t consider nuclear power to be a renewable power source. In order for nuclear fission to take place, a raw material called uranium must be used. Uranium is a naturally occurring element on earth but it, like oil, exists in a finite amount. Even if we could mine every single bit of uranium from the planet, it would eventually run out. Some experts believe that if we continue to use uranium at the rate that we are using it now, we have enough for about another 100 or so years.

With our current technology, we can’t create synthesized forms of uranium in a laboratory. It WILL run out someday. Since it will eventually run out and we can’t make more, I have to believe that nuclear power is not a renewable source of energy.

Some Interesting Nuclear Energy Facts

  • Nuclear power plants provide one of the lowest costs for generating electricity.
  • There are 104 nuclear power plants that are currently operational in the US and these plants account for 20% of the total amount of electricity that is currently being produced in the United States.
  • China is currently building 25 nuclear power plants and they plan on building more.
  • In the US alone around $20 million annual tax dollars are generated from nuclear power plants.
  • Worldwide, there are 400 nuclear power plants in operation.
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