This is a short guide looking at the answers to some of the most commonly asked ‘Is Nuclear Energy …’ questions.
Is Nuclear Energy A Fossil Fuel?
Nuclear energy, coming from uranium, is not considered a fossil fuel.
Fossil fuels are considered to be coal, natural gas, and oil.
There are a number of differences between fossil fuels and nuclear energy, including but not limited to how they develop naturally, and the process used to generate electricity from these sources.
Is Nuclear Energy Renewable?
However, uranium and nuclear energy has an asterisk against it compared to fossil fuels for the future.
Is Nuclear Energy Sustainable?
There’s a number of ways you could define sustainable.
– the ability to to be maintained constantly, especially over the long term
– … without depleting natural resources, degrading the environment, ecosystems or biodiversity
Uranium, in present times, is a finite resource, which rules out nuclear energy from being sustainable (but, note the exception we outlined above).
The whole process of nuclear energy also involves uranium mining, and the disposal of high risk, and long lasting radioactive waste – it’s questionable whether these things are sustainable practices.
Compared to fossil fuels though, it could be argued nuclear energy is more sustainable in a number of ways, especially during operation.
Something people sometimes forget, is that nuclear energy used a lot of water – similar to fossil fuels.
Water is a precious resource we need to conserve and use wisely for the future.
Is Nuclear Energy Good Or Bad For The Environment
Nuclear energy involves:
Uranium mining (various types of land degradation, pollution, and waste can be a result)
Uranium ore refinement and processing (energy used, and waste produced)
Production of energy in nuclear reactors (lots of water used)
Treating and disposing of nuclear waste – low risk and short lasting waste, and mid to high risk, and medium to long lasting waste (waste is radioactive and needs to be isolated so it isn’t exposed to the external environment)
Overall, nuclear energy is probably better for the environment than fossil fuels (because it doesn’t pollute the air as much or release as much GHGs), but probably not as much as some renewable energy sources.
You can read more about the impact of nuclear power on the environment at https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Environmental_impact_of_nuclear_power#Comparison_to_coal-fired_generation
[With renewables] the dilute nature of water, sunlight, and wind means that at least 450 times more land and 10 – 15 times more concrete, cement, steel, and glass, are required than for nuclear plants
… solar panels create 200 – 300 times more hazardous waste than nuclear, with none of it required to be recycled or safely contained outside of the European Union
[there is] upstream land destruction for coal-fired power plants (mountain top removal for coal mining comes to mind) and nuclear reactors
Is Nuclear Energy Efficient?
There’s a number of ways to define efficient.
But, if we zoom out and look at nuclear being used in an electricity grid with competing energy sources, nuclear and other baseload energy can have worse economics for various reasons.
We can find out which one of these renewable energy sources is the most efficient by calculating the costs of the fuel, the production, and the environmental damages.
Wind comes out on top by a wide margin over all the other sources.
It is followed in order by geothermal, hydro, nuclear and solar.
Is Nuclear Energy Cheap Or Expensive? (Is It Cost Effective?)
Two notes on this:
Nuclear reactors can cost twice as much in the United States and Europe than in Asian countries (forbes.com)
And, it looks like advanced and new generations of nuclear reactors are going to be more expensive per unit of electricity produced compared to many energy sources. Capital costs are expensive, and lifetime costs also look expensive
But, nuclear can be cheaper overall when looked at in terms of providing electricity as a service to the grid compared to variable energy sources like solar and wind which might need backup dispatchable energy sources to support them, and other support equipment and infrastructure.
So, the energy grid nuclear is operating in can make a difference to how cheaply it produces electricity.
Note – capital and upfront costs are different to whether an energy source provides cheap electricity.
The former being more a supply side thing, whilst the latter takes into consideration the whole electricity system and external factors that impact on electricity pricing.
Certainly there are some countries in the world known for producing cheap electricity with a significant share of nuclear energy in their electricity mix.
… ramping nuclear plants to accommodate intermittent electricity from solar and wind simply adds to the cost of making electricity without delivering fewer emissions or much in the way of cost-savings.
That’s because only very small amounts of nuclear fuel and no labor is saved when nuclear plants are ramped down
Is Nuclear Energy Clean?
Nuclear energy is fairly clean when in operation compared to fossil fuels when considering it either doesn’t, or does only in small amounts:
Emit greenhouse gases like carbon dioxide,
Or, release air pollution through air contaminants.
Consider this from forbes.com:
… nuclear power as the only truly scalable, reliable, low-carbon energy source proven capable of eliminating carbon emissions from the power sector
Is Nuclear Energy Safe?
One area that might need to be examined though is the impact of high risk and long lasting nuclear waste on society and the environment when disposed of.
Is Nuclear Energy Reliable?
Compared to variable energy sources like wind and solar, nuclear is more reliable in terms of providing a consistent power supply.
Reliability though, is something that can be determined by the energy grid as a whole, and not just one energy source.
Nuclear produces reliable base-load power, and although newer-generation reactors can also ramp up and down fairly quickly, the ideal setup would have gas turbines for peaking power.
Solar and wind are only available when the weather plays along.
Solar can’t produce consistent baseload at all, while it peaks at the wrong time.
The wind is better for baseload, since there’s always wind blowing somewhere, but it only produces whatever the weather deigns to deliver.
… hydroelectricity is far less reliable and scalable than nuclear
Is Nuclear Energy Good Or Bad Overall?
It depends on the country and government you ask.
Some countries have significant nuclear energy supplies for electricity.
Some countries see nuclear critical to a clean energy and secure energy future.
Other countries, Germany being an example, are trying to phase out nuclear energy for different reasons.
Read more about some of the pros and cons of nuclear energy in this guide.