Nuclear power proposed as renewable energy

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Although nuclear power is considered a low carbon power generation source,[1] its legal inclusion with renewable energy power sources has been confirmed. Statutory definitions of renewable energy usually exclude many present nuclear energy technologies, with notable exceptions in Utah and Arizona.[2][3] Dictionary sourced definitions of renewable energy technologies often omit or explicitly exclude mention to every nuclear energy source, with an exception made for geothermal energy.[4][5]

While not classifying the fuel for nuclear fusion, the fuel most widely used by nuclear fission power stations, uranium-235, is "nonrenewable" according to the Energy Information Administration.[5]

The National Renewable Energy Laboratory does not mention nuclear power in its "energy basics" definition.[6]

In 1987, the World Commission on Environment and Development(WCED) classified fission reactors that produce more fissile nuclear fuel than they consume - breeder reactors, and when it is developed, fusion power, among conventional renewable energy sources, such as solar and falling water.[7] The American Petroleum Institute likewise does not consider conventional nuclear fission as renewable, but that breeder reactor nuclear power fuel is considered renewable and sustainable, before explaining that radioactive waste from used spent fuel rods remains dangerous, and so has to be very carefully stored for up to a thousand years.[8] With the careful monitoring of radioactive waste products also being required upon the use of other renewable energy sources, such as geothermal energy.[9]

IEA definition of renewable energy[edit]

Renewable energy flows involve natural phenomena such as sunlight, wind, tides, plant growth, and geothermal heat, as the International Energy Agency explains:[10]

Renewable energy is derived from natural processes that are replenished constantly. In its various forms, it derives directly from the sun, or from heat generated deep within the earth. Included in the definition is electricity and heat generated from solar, wind, ocean, hydropower, biomass, geothermal resources, and biofuels and hydrogen derived from renewable resources.

Renewable energy resources exist over wide geographical areas, in contrast to other energy sources, which are concentrated in a limited number of countries.[10]

Definitions of conventional fission, breeder reactors and nuclear fusion as renewable[edit]

Nuclear fission reactors are a natural energy phenomenon, having naturally formed on earth in times past, for example a natural nuclear fission reactor which ran for thousands of years in present day Oklo Gabon was discovered in the 1970s.

Conventional nuclear fission power stations largely use uranium, a common metal found in seawater, and in rocks all over the world,[11] as its primary source of fuel. Uranium "burnt" in conventional reactors is a nonrenewable resource, and if used at present rates would eventually be exhausted.

A cutaway model of the most powerful presently operating fast breeder reactor in the world. The (BN-600), at 600 MW of nameplate capacity is equivalent in power output to a natural gas CCGT. It dispatches 560 MW to the Middle Urals power grid. Construction of a second breeder reactor, the BN-800 reactor is ongoing.

This is also somewhat similar to the situation with a commonly classified renewable source, geothermal energy, a form of energy derived from the natural nuclear decay of the large, but nonetheless finite supply of uranium, thorium and potassium-40 present within the Earth's crust, and due to the nuclear decay process, this renewable energy source will also eventually run out of fuel. As too will the Sun, and be exhausted.

Nuclear fission involving breeder reactors, a reactor which breeds more fissile fuel than they consume, has a stronger case for being considered a renewable resource than conventional fission reactors. Breeder reactors would constantly replenish the available supply of nuclear fuel by converting fertile materials, such as uranium-238 and thorium, into fissile isotopes of plutonium or uranium-233, respectively. Fertile materials are also nonrenewable, but their supply on Earth is extremely large, with a supply timeline greater than geothermal energy. In a closed nuclear fuel cycle utilizing breeder reactors, nuclear fuel could therefore be considered renewable. In 1983, physicist Bernard Cohen claimed that fast breeder reactors, fueled exclusively by natural uranium extracted from seawater, could supply energy at least as long as the sun's expected remaining lifespan of five billion years.[12] This was based on calculations involving the geological cycles of erosion, subduction, and uplift, leading to humans consuming half of the total uranium in the Earth’s crust at an annual usage rate of 6500 tonne/yr, which was enough to produce approximately 10 times the world's 1983 electricity consumption, and would reduce the concentration of uranium in the seas by 25%, resulting in an increase in the price of uranium of less than 25%.[12][13]

Advancements at Oak Ridge National Laboratory and the University of Alabama, as published in a 2012 issue of the American Chemical Society, towards the extraction of uranium from seawater have focused on increasing the biodegradability of the process and reducing the projected cost of the metal if it was extracted from the sea on an industrial scale. The researchers' improvements include using electrospun Shrimp shell Chitin mats that are more effective at absorbing uranium when compared to the prior record setting Japanese method of using plastic amidoxime nets.[14][15][16]

In 1987, the World Commission on Environment and Development(WCED), an organization independent from, but created by, the United Nations, published Our Common Future, in which a particular subset of presently operating nuclear fission technologies, and nuclear fusion were both classified as renewable. That is, fission reactors that produce more fissile fuel than they consume - breeder reactors, and when it is developed, fusion power, are both classified within the same category as conventional renewable energy sources, such as solar and falling water.[7]

Presently, as of 2013, only 1 breeder reactor is producing industrial quantities of electricity, the BN-600. The retired French Phénix reactor also demonstrated a greater than one breeding ratio and operated for ~30 years, producing power when Our Common Future was published in 1987. While sustained nuclear fusion is intended to be proven in the International thermonuclear experimental reactor between 2020 to 2030.

Legislation in the United States[edit]

Estimates of Available Uranium-235, an isotope required for the present world fleet of (LWRs)light water reactors, that is, not the uranium-238 feedstock needed for some breeder reactor designs, one of which was discussed above. Available U-235 estimates depend on what ore resources are included in the simple extrapolations. The squares represent relative sizes of different estimates, whereas the numbers at the lower edge give an estimate on how long the given resource would last at present U-235 consumption rates, a consumption rate based upon the unrealistic assumption that old LWR generation II reactors will still be operating after their lifetimes are up, 30 years from now, and that no Generation III reactors or generation IV reactors replace these less efficient reactors.
██ Reserves in current mines[17]
██ Known economic reserves, a figure that has increased from 80 to 100 years after this estimate was made in 2005.[18]
██ Conventional undiscovered resources[19]
██ Total ore resources at 2004 prices[17]
██ Unconventional resources (at least 4 billion tons, could last for millennia)[19]

The world's present measured resources of uranium-235, economically recoverable at a price of US$130/kg, was estimated to be enough to last from 80 to 100 years at current consumption rates.[18] According to the OECD's red book in 2011, due to increased exploration, known uranium-235 resources have grown by 12.5% since 2008, with this increase translating into greater than a century of uranium-235 available if the metals usage rate was to continue at the 2011 level.[20][21]

Inclusion under the "renewable energy" classification as well as the low-carbon classification could render nuclear power projects eligible for development aid under more jurisdictions. Thus a key issue regarding this classification of nuclear power is inclusion in Renewable portfolio standard (RES).

A bill proposed in the South Carolina Legislature in 2007-2008 aimed to classify nuclear power as renewable energy. The bill listed as renewable energy: solar photovoltaic energy, solar thermal energy, wind power, hydroelectric, geothermal energy, tidal energy, recycling, hydrogen fuel derived from renewable resources, biomass energy, nuclear energy, and landfill gas.[22]

In 2009 the Utah state passed the bill ECONOMIC DEVELOPMENT INCENTIVES FOR ALTERNATIVE ENERGY PROJECTS including incentives for renewable energy projects. It includes a direct reference to nuclear power: "Renewable energy" means the energy generation as defined in Subsection 10-19-102 (11) and includes generation powered by nuclear fuel. The bill passed the house with 72 yeas, 0 nays, and 3 absent, passed the senate with 24 yeas, 1 nay, and 4 absent, then received the governor's signature.[2]

In 2010 the Arizona Legislature included nuclear power in a proposed bill for electric utility renewable energy standards. The bill defined "renewable energy" as energy that is renewable and non-carbon emitting. It listed solar, wind, geothermal, biomass, hydroelectric, agricultural waste, landfill gas and nuclear sources.[3]


Nuclear energy has been referred to as "renewable" by the politicians George W. Bush,[23] Charlie Crist,[24] and David Sainsbury.[25][26] In 2006, speaking on the topics of economic growth and getting oil from parts of the world where "they simply don’t like us", US President Bush said: "Nuclear power is safe and nuclear power is clean and nuclear power is renewable".[23]

See also[edit]

Further reading[edit]

IAEA International Symposium on Uranium Raw Material for the Nuclear Fuel Cycle: Exploration, Mining, Production, Supply and Demand, Economics and Environmental Issues


  1. ^ "CARBON FOOTPRINT OF ELECTRICITY GENERATION". London: Parliamentary Office of Science and Technology. October 2006. Retrieved 26 May 2010. 
  2. ^ a b Utah House Bill 430, Session 198
  3. ^ a b Arizona House Bill 2701. By 2025 15% of electricity used by retail customers would have to come from the listed sources. [1]
  4. ^ "Renewable energy: Definitions from". website. Lexico Publishing Group, LLC. Retrieved 2007-08-25. 
  5. ^ a b "Renewable and Alternative Fuels Basics 101". Energy Information Administration. Retrieved 2007-12-17. 
  6. ^ "Renewable Energy Basics". National Renewable Energy Laboratory. Retrieved 2007-12-17. 
  7. ^ a b Brundtland, Gro Harlem (20 March 1987). "Chapter 7: Energy: Choices for Environment and Development". Our Common Future: Report of the World Commission on Environment and Development. Oslo. Retrieved 27 March 2013. "Today's primary sources of energy are mainly non-renewable: natural gas, oil, coal, peat, and conventional nuclear power. There are also renewable sources, including wood, plants, dung, falling water, geothermal sources, solar, tidal, wind, and wave energy, as well as human and animal muscle-power. Nuclear reactors that produce their own fuel ('breeders') and eventually fusion reactors are also in this category" 
  8. ^ American Petroleum Institute. "Key Characteristics of Nonrenewable Resources". Retrieved 2010-02-21. 
  9. ^ Geothermal Energy Production Waste.
  10. ^ a b IEA Renewable Energy Working Party (2002). Renewable Energy... into the mainstream, p. 9.
  11. ^
  12. ^ a b Cohen, Bernard L. (January 1983). "Breeder reactors: A renewable energy source" (PDF). American Journal of Physics 51 (1): 75–76. Bibcode:1983AmJPh..51...75C. doi:10.1119/1.13440. Retrieved 2007-08-03. 
  13. ^ McCarthy, John (1996-02-12). "Facts from Cohen and others". Progress and its Sustainability. Stanford. Retrieved 2007-08-03. 
  14. ^ "Nanofibers Extract Uranium from Seawater Hidden within the oceans, scientists have found a possible way to power nuclear reactors long after uranium mines dry up.". 
  15. ^ "abstracts from papers for the ACS Extraction of Uranium from Seawater conference". 
  16. ^ "Advances in decades-old dream of mining seawater for uranium". 
  17. ^ a b Herring, J. S. (2004). "Uranium and thorium resource assessment". In Cleveland, C. J. Encyclopedia of Energy. Boston University. pp. 279–298. doi:10.1016/B0-12-176480-X/00292-8. ISBN 0-12-176480-X. 
  18. ^ a b NEA, IAEA (2006). Uranium 2005 – Resources, Production and Demand. OECD Publishing. ISBN 978-92-64-02425-0. 
  19. ^ a b Price, R.; Blaise, J. R. (2002). "Nuclear Fuel Resources: Enough to Last?". NEA News 20 (2): 10–13. 
  20. ^ "Uranium 2011 - OECD Online Bookshop". Retrieved 2013-06-14. 
  21. ^ "Global Uranium Supply Ensured For Long Term, New Report Shows". 2012-07-26. Retrieved 2013-06-14. 
  22. ^ South Carolina State House, 117th Session, S. 360
  23. ^ a b "Bush: U.S. must end dependence on foreign oil". MSNBC. Associated Press. September 4, 2006. Archived from the original on 2007-11-05. Retrieved 2007-03-11. 
  24. ^ "Governor Crist Opens Florida Summit on Global Climate Change". 2007-07-12. Retrieved 2007-08-03. 
  25. ^ Minister declares nuclear 'renewable' — UK Times
  26. ^ "UK To Redefine Nuclear Energy As Renewable?". WISE/NIRS Nuclear Monitor. 2005-11-04. Retrieved 2007-08-03.