Growing concerns around environmental footprints and man-made climate change have led to increased interest in renewable resources. And while some find it controversial, nuclear energy has claimed a spot at the table in conversations about environmentalism.
But is nuclear energy a “renewable” resource? Read on to learn more about the complicated topic of nuclear energy.
As with other energy sectors, Texas sits at the top of the pyramid in the nuclear segment.
Researchers at Texas A&M established a team of scientists and engineers to develop uranium processing methods that address cost, safety, proliferation and waste management issues. Waste from radioactive uranium can classify as either low-level or high-level.
In another bit of Texas nuclear news, the governor is working to avoid nuclear waste storage and transport in the Texas/New Mexico region. Writing to President Trump regarding licensing requests from the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, Gov. Greg Abbott wrote, “Allowing the interim storage of spent nuclear fuel and high-level nuclear waste at sites near the largest producing oilfield in the world will compromise the safety of the region.”
In a sense, the Texas market reflects common attitudes about nuclear energy: optimism combined with wariness. To complicate matters further, renewable, sustainable, clean and green energy resources can each mean something different – and have different advantages and disadvantages.
On the optimists’ side of the equation, nuclear offers near emission-free greenhouse gases with far lower GHG emission compared with traditional power sources such as oil, natural gas and coal.
In terms of its land footprint, nuclear demonstrates efficiency. On average, a 1,000-megawatt facility in the U.S. needs about a single square mile to operate. By comparison, wind farms require 360 times more land mass and solar farms need 75 times more land to produce the same amount of electricity.
Additionally, nuclear energy doesn’t produce a substantial amount of waste. In fact, the volume of nuclear waste generated over the last 60 years in the U.S. measures only the length of a football field.
Combine the low volume of waste along with the kinds of efficiency efforts undertaken by researchers like the ones at Texas A&M and the pro-nuclear arguments become even more compelling.
There are also those who point out one major drawback of nuclear energy – radioactive waste. This waste can sometimes remain toxic for hundreds of thousands of years, making it a sticking point for environmentalists and those who live near nuclear power plants.
While radioactive waste should certainly not be underestimated, many also wonder whether nuclear is a renewable resource.
Renewable resources are resources that naturally replenish with time. These include power sources such as solar, wind, and hydropower. While renewable resources are better for the environment, every power source has some environmental impact – whether it’s limited carbon emissions or initial construction operations.
Nuclear energy requires mining operations to retrieve uranium. However, a major difference between coal or other fossil fuels and nuclear is the degree of impact from mining operations. In general, uranium mining for nuclear energy is less invasive than mining or drilling for fossil fuels.
What’s more, the development of new technologies has improved the impact of uranium mining on the environment. New techniques allow the extraction of energy from existing mining sites and new methods to extract energy from spent fuel rods.
It’s also worth noting that nuclear engineers are developing ways to extract uranium from seawater, completely bypassing the need to mine uranium ore from land. Estimates suggest 4.5 billion tons of uranium exist in seawater overall.
So, is nuclear energy renewable?
The term “renewable” means a substance that regenerates naturally on its own that will not be depleted when it’s used. The sun, the wind, and even seawater will continuously produce power that can be used for electricity. So, by this definition, nuclear energy does classify as a renewable power source. However, that is an oversimplification to some and the debate surrounding nuclear energy will likely continue.
Texas energy providers have a strong history of working with renewable power sources, including geothermal, hydropower, wind, solar and biomass. Without question, energy sector leaders in the state will continue to explore renewable energy resources and explore nuclear energy as part of the solution to extract and burn power in the most efficient ways possible.