When you hear the words “clean energy,” what comes to mind?
Most people immediately think of solar panels or wind turbines, but how many of you thought of nuclear energy?
Nuclear is often left out of the “clean energy” conversation despite it being the second-largest source of low-carbon electricity in the world behind hydropower.
Nuclear energy is usually considered another non-renewable energy source. Although nuclear energy itself is a renewable energy source, the material used in nuclear power plants is not. Uranium is a non-renewable resource. Nuclear energy is a popular way of generating electricity around the world.
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 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.
So, just how clean and sustainable is nuclear?
Try these quick facts for starters.
1. Nuclear energy protects air quality
Nuclear is a zero-emission clean energy source.
It generates power through fission, which is the process of splitting uranium atoms to produce energy. The heat released by fission is used to create steam that spins a turbine to generate electricity without the harmful byproducts emitted by fossil fuels.
According to the Nuclear Energy Institute (NEI), the United States avoided more than 476 million metric tons of carbon dioxide emissions in 2019. That’s the equivalent of removing 100 million cars from the road and more than all other clean energy sources combined.
It also keeps the air clean by removing thousands of tons of harmful air pollutants each year that contribute to acid rain, smog, lung cancer, and cardiovascular disease.
2. Nuclear energy’s land footprint is small
Despite producing massive amounts of carbon-free power, nuclear energy produces more electricity on less land than any other clean-air source.
A typical 1,000-megawatt nuclear facility in the United States needs a little more than 1 square mile to operate. NEI says wind farms require 360 times more land area to produce the same amount of electricity and solar photovoltaic plants require 75 times more space.
To put that in perspective, you would need more than 3 million solar panels to produce the same amount of power as a typical commercial reactor or more than 430 wind turbines (capacity factor not included).
3. Nuclear energy produces minimal waste
Nuclear fuel is extremely dense.
It’s about 1 million times greater than that of other traditional energy sources and because of this, the amount of used nuclear fuel is not as big as you might think.
All of the used nuclear fuel produced by the U.S. nuclear energy industry over the last 60 years could fit on a football field at a depth of fewer than 10 yards!
That waste can also be reprocessed and recycled, although the United States does not currently do this.
However, some advanced reactors designs being developed could operate on used fuel.
The NICE Future Initiative is a global effort under the Clean Energy Ministerial that makes sure nuclear will be considered in developing the advanced clean energy systems of the future.