Can nuclear energy ever be considered renewable?

It is time for the world to get serious about renewables, by formally recognising that nuclear energy is one in all ways that matter. 

This idea, which is at least 50% serious, started off as a rant against the persistent characterisation of renewables and nuclear energy being at war with each other. I get annoyed when commentators seem to forget that ‘renewables’ is actually a grab bag term for a truly diverse range of energy technologies, all with unique selling points and drawbacks. There must be some competition between these, but I can’t remember the last time I saw that noted in a media report and everyone seems happy to accept these diverse energy forms can in fact peacefully co-exist.

Usually the term renewables is taken to mean wind and solar, but this makes the idea of a life and death contest with nuclear all the more ridiculous. The power supplied by a nuclear reactor is qualitatively very different from that produced by wind turbines or solar panels, and they are hardly in direct competition. Let’s face it – nuclear does big and reliable, it is ideal for cities and major industrial centres and is an excellent alternative for baseload coal. Solar and wind (onshore at least) are fantastic for less energy intensive purposes/areas and can definitely take the edge of fossil generation, particularly gas. About the only thing they have in common is that they are all low carbon, and in a world that is staring down the barrel of a  greater than 2 degree rise in temperature we need all the low carbon tech we can lay our hands on.

With the energy policy debate currently hijacked by a singular focus on renewables (especially wind and solar) in most countries, the world is currently on the path to abject failure in terms of curbing greenhouse gas emissions. Don’t get me wrong, it is great news that renewables are expanding and they certainly help to reduce emissions, but this is only dealing with less than half the problem, and not particularly efficiently at that. Some of our most promising large scale, energy dense, greenhouse gas reducing technologies are currently under-supported by governments and often actively opposed by those who are supposedly the most ardent supporters of climate action.

renewables and future energy planning and nuclear


Global CO2 emissions are really not under control and no one technology is going to fix it

 

Nuclear energy in particular has become the wedge issue that a) greens are apparently unwilling to compromise on and b) many sceptics would probably support, but are too busy objecting to renewable energy. Unfortunately the moderate voices who embrace all low carbon options and a balanced approach that also promotes development and prosperity are apparently in the minority, and while they are growing in number I’m afraid this may turn out to be too slowly. The crippling nature of political polarisation in the climate debate is eloquently expanded on by Mark Lynas here.

I think I have something of a radical solution. If neither political extreme is willing to compromise then why not simply change the argument? We convince governments, official institutions and ourselves that nuclear energy is, functionally, a form of renewable energy. This could be accomplished by winning acceptance in a few influential arenas, perhaps by bringing cases before the courts who have purview over energy policy, or by introducing bills into parliament.

I’m not crazy. I’m not even the first to think of this. There’s even a Wikipedia page dedicated to the matter. In the USA quite a few bills have cropped up in the state legislature that sought to include nuclear as a form of renewable energy. Just the other week news came through that an Arizona senate committee has passed a bill backing this rather brilliant (if I do say so myself) idea. Nevertheless I figure that this suggestion has probably just caused a few heads to explode, so let’s examine in more detail why nuclear is worthy of the renewable moniker.

Splitting atomic hairs

What makes an energy form renewable? With no internationally recognised definition, Wikipedia is as good a place as any to start. “Renewable energy is generally defined as energy that comes from resources which are naturally replenished on a human timescale such as sunlight, wind, rain, tides, waves and geothermal heat.” It is pretty obvious that this definition attempts to capture precisely those technologies which most of us currently consider to actually be forms renewable energy. Beyond the technical definition, the cultural values usually attached to the word include that renewables are natural, that they have little or no environmental impact, and that they can be owned by individuals and communities.

All of this is frankly pretty nebulous as far as definitions go, and this is where it gets interesting, because nuclear energy matches or beats at least one accepted form or renewable energy under pretty much any criteria you care to mention.

Fuel resource: The renewable fuel resource is replenishable unlike uranium (and perhaps thorium) which is finite. Can’t argue with that. Can however argue that:

  • The nuclear fuel resource is vast, especially when you tap unconventional deposits like the oceans. The introduction of fast reactors will increase this resource 60 – 70 fold. Nuclear fuel is recyclable and that makes the technology damn near as good as replenishable.
  • The geothermal energy resource comes from the decay of radioactive elements within the Earth’s crust. You know, stuff like uranium and thorium. Nuclear is therefore as replenishable as geothermal energy.

Natural: Ain’t nothing more natural than the wind and the sun. Nuclear energy is unnatural since it involves splitting the nucleus using science. That’s a good point, but:

  • Atomic nuclei are natural too. In fact it’s hard to think of anything more natural as they make up just about everything. Their decay also happens in nature all the time. We call it radioactivity and we are all constantly bathed in radiation, whether we like it or not.
  • Solar photovoltaics are based on heaps of formidable science. Incoming photons bump valence band electrons up into the conduction band of a semi-conductor material. It’s really cool, but means nuclear is about as natural as solar PV.

Pollution: We know that renewables are squeaky clean. They are as good for the environment as eating vegetables is for your health. Nuclear produce toxic wastes which therefore instantly disqualify it. I get where you’re going, however:

  • All energy forms actually produce toxic waste, including renewables. What matters is how much waste, how dangerous it is and what you end up doing with it. The volume of high-level waste produced from nuclear energy is small, and most of it can actually be recycled.
  • Waste is different from pollution. Nuclear waste is actively contained and monitored with plans for final disposal. Burning biomass on the other hand discharges waste pretty much directly into the atmosphere. Nuclear energy is way cleaner than biomass.

Safety Nuclear plants can have serious accidents with impacts way beyond that of any energy form currently considered a renewable. Actually:

  • Large hydro has the same general risk profile as nuclear, and hydro power accidents have caused far more fatalities than has ever been caused by nuclear. Are you listening Austria?

CO2 All renewables are low carbon. When you consider its whole fuel cycle/lifecycle nuclear has very high emissions of greenhouse gas…

  • Stop right there. If you really want to argue that take it up with the IPCC. Nuclear has about the same lifecycle CO2 emissions as onshore wind and that’s better than most.

Community ownership. Ok, I know this is a stretch, but renewables are about the revolution – giving power to the people and taking it out of the hands of big companies, right? The nuclear industry is pretty much the prime example of big centralised corporate control.  Well, yes. Except:

  • Some nuclear plants are in effect communal. It’s pretty much how these things get built in Scandinavian countries. A collective of consumers (industry and small energy companies) band together to fund a plant and in return receive electricity at cost price. In other places you can always look to invest in the projects/companies. In fact please do so! In most countries building nuclear today the central government is the owner and they are supposed to work for the people. (Note I said ‘supposed’.)
  • You can have a small tidal project, but where’s the fun in that. As for the bigger tidal power proposals, they are major infrastructure projects just like nuclear energy.

So there you have it, functionally nuclear is clearly a form or renewable energy when treated on a non-discriminatory basis and it shares many of the same values too. I think that gaining acceptance for this has the potential to turn the existing climate-energy dialogue on its head. If you support renewables ™, you support nuclear by default and vice versa. Can you deal with that? I hope the answer is yes. I also dearly hope to never again read a story which insists that regions developing nuclear energy do so at the expense of renewables. It really isn’t a competition you know.

Part two of this gedanken experiment will look at what accepting nuclear energy as a renewable would mean for existing policy.

This article is published in collaboration with The Energy Collective. Publication does not imply endorsement of views by the World Economic Forum.

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Author: David Hess is a Communication Manager at the World Nuclear Association. 

Image: A bee flies to collect pollen on a mustard field in front of the cooling towers of the Temelin nuclear power plant. REUTERS/David W Cerny.

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