A Service of Energy CentralEnergyBlogs.com Logo

As a physicist, my belief is that one of the reasons that intelligent energy policies have not gained sufficient traction is that we are allowing those with political agendas (vs scientists) to define some key energy terms.

    [One thing I know from golf, is that a match is usually won or lost at the first tee -- where the terms and conditions are agreed on.]

Outside of "fiscal responsibility" probably the most significant misused concept that we have unwittingly gone along with is the term "renewable" energy.

Giving some critical thought to this moniker is no academic matter, as the majority members of the US Senate's Energy Committee are currently pushing for a national Renewable Electrical Standard (draft). Their decision as to what is a "renewable" will have profound technical, economic and environmental consequences on the United States.

    To my knowledge there is no "official" definition of this bandied about term. When asked, the meanings proffered vary quite a bit, but the key difference between a renewable and non-renewable is usually the rate of replenishment.

    Consider this typical definition: "Renewable is an energy resource that is replaced in a reasonable amount of time (our lifetime, our children's lifetime)..."

    Such a word as "reasonable" is subjective -- not scientific. Who determines what is a reasonable amount of time, and what is it: 20 years? 100 years? 500 years?

The reason the definition of renewable is focused on time, derives from the concern that we may exhaust some electrical energy sources, relatively soon.

But how much is enough to have? For instance, if we have 100 years of some fuel, would the replenishment rate really be that important?

Clearly, within the next 100 years of use, there will be some profound changes made regarding the efficiency and applications of said fuel's implementation -- in ways we have little understanding of today.

Look at the well-reasoned expectations that were had in 1950 about what would happen in year 2000. The message is that almost ALL of the best guesses were wrong.

In the same vein, prior technology predictions by experts (like Einstein) have also proven to be significantly off the mark. Who among us will stand to say that we have a better understanding of technology than did Einstein?


In that light, let's look at the case for nuclear being "renewable." First we should answer how much longer will our nuclear fuel supply last. Consider:

    a) This says: "The Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) and the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) in 2008 jointly produced a report saying that uranium resources are adequate to meet nuclear energy needs for at least the next 100 years at present consumption levels. More efficient fast reactors could extend that period to more than 2,500 years."

    It is absurd to say that a 2500 year supply doesn't qualify this as renewable.

    b) In addition, there are several proven alternatives to uranium as a source. One example is Thorium (which is much more plentiful than uranium).

    [For a superior discussion about "The Sustainability of Mineral Resources" (and specifically uranium) read the end of here.]

    c) Bernard Cohen (Professor Emeritus of Physics at Pittsburgh University) has stated that breeder reactors have enough raw material energy source to last us over a Billion years. That's Billion with a "B".

When considering these sample facts, an important thing to keep in mind is this quote quote from some scientists at an excellent University of Michigan site: "Only 40 years ago, nuclear energy was an exotic, futuristic technology, the subject of experimentation and far fetched ideas."

Hard as it might seem to believe, but most of this nuclear development has occurred in just the tiny space of 40± years -- so having any fuel supply that lasts 100± years could cover an enormous amount of new development.


Secondly, some definitions of "Renewable" include a reference to "power derived from natural sources". Of course that is amusingly non-descriptive since essentially all sources of electrical power are based on natural materials -- and that includes nuclear.

    To read more about this I'd strongly recommend Bill Tucker's excellent book Terrestrial Energy, or a more condensed discussion he wrote here.

A third factor sometimes appearing in the definition of "Renewable" is a reference to a power source's ability to reduce CO2 (i.e. to be a "clean" source). That same University of Michigan site has a very informative graph about how (worldwide) we have been able to reduce CO2 since 1973:

Now, for the sake of comparison, let's quickly look at the flip side of this question, at the poster child for renewables: wind energy.

    The indisputable fact is that an indispensable part of wind power electricity production is the requirement of LARGE amounts of land.

    For instance, best estimates are that wind energy requires more than a thousand times the land that nuclear does, to generate the equivalent amount of 24/7 power.

    BUT, that essential element of wind energy generation (land) is not renewable by anyone's standards as it is not "replaced in a reasonable amount of time."

    Before a source is labeled as "renewable" shouldn't ALL of its major components be renewable? Otherwise, it would be like having all the materials to assemble a car, but no tires.

    The evidence says that we will run out of appropriate US land for industrial wind energy before we run out of fossil fuel for electrical power sources.

So considering this information, which is the true renewable: wind energy or nuclear power?

3744 Views Comments 9 Comments Comments Add Comment Author BioAuthor Bio
ReportReport This Post as Foul/Inappropriate
member photo Nuclear energy IS ultimately renewable; we will not even begin to go through the supply of fissionable isotopes available before commercially viable fusion power generation becomes a reality, and we could breed fuel for centuries if needed for non-fusion power generation. The sticking point being, "What do we do with the radioactive waste?", or, where are the undesireable by-products going to live for the next 10,000 (or more) years? Quite obviously, the answer is not Yucca Mountain, or, as much as some SLC profiteers would like us to believe, Utah. Almost every waste handling/disposal site in North America has become an environmental disaster, mostly due to the rampant incompetence of those in charge of managing radioactive waste. Any ideas?
# Posted By William Norquay | 5/18/09 8:52 AM | Report This Comment as Foul/Inappropriate
member photo Yes: Remove the politics (e.g. the Reid's) and let the scientists work this out.

If France can store their nuclear waste in a building, we should be able to come up with a reasonable solution.
# Posted By John Droz, jr. | 5/18/09 9:07 AM | Report This Comment as Foul/Inappropriate
member photo You have addressed several issues and the first comment addressed another. I would like to respond to a few of them.

The environmental community likes the term renewable and they use it to describe solar, wind, biomass and small scale new hydro including waves and tides. Both solar and wind are intermittent and need some proven storage media to truly be effective. Solar thermal currently does this best but with substantial thermodynamic losses. Biomass is considered renewable since the carbon dioxide is absorbed in growing the plant and it is considered equal to the carbon dioxide produced when the plant mass is burned. However this does not account for the carbon dioxide produced but fertilizing and processing the material. Generally biomass produces little if any energy more than that used to produce it and in most cases it produces less.

Technically nuclear energy is not renewable but it should be considered clean and sustainable. Each gram of uranium, either U235 or U238, which undergoes fission, produces 1 MWD or 24,000 kwh of energy. If we closed the nuclear fuel cycle and used fast reactors we could also use the U238 left over from the enrichment process as well as the remainder of the material in the used fuel. This would provide us with fuel for 1000's of years and the addition of thorium which is 4 times more abundant then uranium would greatly increase that number. So nuclear fission based energy is truly sustainable.

Finally the nuclear "waste" is usually related to the spent fuel. Closing the fuel cycle with a reprocessing scheme that recycles everything in the used fuel except the fission products leaves a waste that has an average half-life of 100 years or less except for a handful of isotopes. This waste could be easily stored in an engineered facility for the 1000 years required for nearly complete decay. In addition the fission products include many nonradioactive components and also many rare elements that we use every day so it truly is a resource and not a waste.
# Posted By Kenneth Kok | 5/19/09 6:50 AM | Report This Comment as Foul/Inappropriate
member photo Ken:

Thank you for your fine comments about nuclear. I agree wholeheartedly.

I contend that since the definition of "renewable" is amorphous, that (based on it's characteristics) nuclear has as much right to be called a renewable as does wind energy -- and maybe even moreso.
# Posted By John Droz, jr. | 5/19/09 5:38 PM | Report This Comment as Foul/Inappropriate
member photo Nuclear is not will never be renewable. Only someone who works in the nuclear industry could try to justify that one. Here are a few points. Amory Lovins has many more.

Where does the uranium come from ? The USA used to import it from Canada, the Australlia and now from Russia. If it's renewable why do your have to import it ?

Nuclear creates lots of deadly waste. Some say that waste can be used to make more energy so it's not waste. But no one has offered to buy it and move it. How can anything be renewable when it produces deady waste ?

Another point about nuclear is the large amount of water is uses to make energy. At Palo Verde in Arizona (the desert !) each reactor used 23 million gallons of water a day . Coal and natural gas power plants also use a lot of water. How can any process that uses so much water be renewable ?

The cost to build and run a nuclear plant is higher than any other energy ever created. We have been subsidizing nuclear for over 30 years and the cost keeps climbing. Not 1 penny of public investment money is going toward nuclear. Only large goverment back projects with tax payer money. If it's so renewable let it stand on it's own.

In contrast my homes grid tied solar system has already paid for itself with no incentives. I make excess and get net-metering for it while I reduce the load on transmission lines, transformers and deliever clear energy ot my neighbors thta my utility charges them with no water use , pollution or grid lose. The system is only good for another 40-50 years so it's not perfect but as close to perpetual energy as we can come. It makes most of the energy duirng the peak time of day when energy is the highest cost.

solar is the best natural resource in Arizona. 4.5 Billions years and going strong.
# Posted By Jim Stack | 5/19/09 10:25 PM | Report This Comment as Foul/Inappropriate
member photo "Nuclear creates lots of deadly waste." Well, Jim, at least you have correct information about the toxicity of fission by-products, but the rest of your post indicates that you are ignorant of the advances in nuclear engineering over the last 20 years when it comes to the economics of GEN IV reactors, as well as their inherent safety characteristics. Granted, first generation reactors are disasters waiting to happen, but those designs will never be used again, not even in 3rd world countries. Research "closing the fuel cycle", "thorium", "pebble bed reactor", and "MOX fuel", then draw your own conclusions instead of being sucked in by technophobic authors who live in the past.
Once someone finds a sure-fire way to deal with nuclear waste (and, NO, not using spent fuel in armor piercing munitions, or dumping it into the earth's crust along subduction zones), nuclear will become one of the most environmentally acceptable power sources for generations to come.
Secure disposal of nuclear waste is an imperative, and not simply because of environmental considerations; until global terrorism is brought to a standstill, the potential for a dirty bomb, even with medical isotope waste is far too real.
# Posted By William Norquay | 5/20/09 9:35 AM | Report This Comment as Foul/Inappropriate
member photo No, nuclear power is not renewable. Some may define it as clean energy, but it is not renewable energy.
# Posted By Jeffrey Anthony | 5/21/09 9:37 AM | Report This Comment as Foul/Inappropriate
member photo Mr Anthony chose not to identify the fact that he is employed by AWEA, the powerful lobbyist organization advocating wind energy.

He also failed to give any sound reasons why nuclear isn't just as renewable as wind power is.

Wind power proponents hate nuclear as it is everything wind isn't: reliable, dispatchable, inexpensive, concentrated, etc.
# Posted By John Droz, jr. | 5/21/09 1:04 PM | Report This Comment as Foul/Inappropriate
member photo Large scale of solar projects will be main project in this year,and solar is now becoming most of important source of electricity. post from : http://www.landpowersolar.com
# Posted By John Ryan | 2/11/14 5:21 AM | Report This Comment as Foul/Inappropriate

Blog Editor
Recent EntriesRecent Entries
Recent CommentsRecent Comments

Sponsored Content

Copyright © 1996-2014 by CyberTech, Inc. All rights reserved.
Energy Central ® is a registered trademark of CyberTech, Incorporated.
CyberTech does not warrant that the information or services of Energy Central will meet any specific requirements; nor will it be error free or uninterrupted; nor shall CyberTech be liable for any indirect, incidental or consequential damages (including lost data, information or profits) sustained or incurred in connection with the use of, operation of, or inability to use Energy Central.
2821 S. Parker Rd. Ste 1105 Aurora, CO 80014
Contact: Phone - 303-782-5510 Fax - 303-782-5331 or service@energycentral.com.