Is Nuclear Power Renewable?

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 to define some key energy terms.

Probably the most significant concept that we have unwittingly gone along with is the definition of the word “renewable.” Giving some critical thought to this moniker is no academic matter, as the majority members of the US Senate’s Energy Committee is currently pushing for a national Renewable Portfolio Standard (see: “Title VIII – Renewable Portfolio Standard” to view a 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 2000 from this article published in Popular Mechanics in February 1950 entitled “Miracles You’ll See.” 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. From Listverse, take a look at this list of “Top 30 Failed Technology Predictions.” Who among us will stand to say that we have a better understanding of technology than did Einstein?

In that light, consider the case for nuclear being “renewable.” First we should answer how much longer will our nuclear fuel supply last. Consider:

a) The Nuclear Energy Institute’s website, on a page entitled “How It [Nuclear Power] Works,” 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 this analysis entitled “Supply of Uranium” from the World Nuclear Association.

c) Bernard Cohen (Professor Emeritus of Physics at Pittsburgh University) has stated in an analysis entitled “How Long Will Nuclear Energy Last” 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 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.” (ref. Nuclear Energy & Society, by Ilan Lipper and Jon Stone).

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” (e.g. this opinion piece in the business section of the Arizona Star, published last month, entitled “Don’t Reclassify Nuclear Power as Renewable”). Of course “natural sources” 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 entitled “The Case for Terrestrial Energy.”

A University of Michigan study calculated that
since 1973, the overwhelming majority of
emissions reductions in the U.S. have been
the result of nuclear power generation.

A third factor sometimes appearing in the definition of “Renewable” is a reference to a power source’s ability to reduce CO2 (e.g. “clean”). That same University of Michigan site (above) has this 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 power. 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 power 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 power generation (land) 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 power before we run out of fossil fuel for electrical power sources. So considering this information, which is the true renewable: wind power or nuclear energy?

About the Author: John Droz received undergraduate degrees in physics and mathematics from Boston College, and a graduate degree in physics from Syracuse University. He subsequently worked for GE/AESD (Utica, NY), Mohawk Data Sciences (Herkimer, NY), and Monolithic Memories (Cupertino, CA). For over 25 years Droz has been an environmental activist and is a participating member of several environmental organizations including the Adirondack Council, Association for Protection of the Adirondacks, Residents Committee to Protect the Adirondacks, Sierra Club, and the NYS Federation of Lakes.

7 Responses to “Is Nuclear Power Renewable?”
  1. Axil says:

    This is a good time to switch to the thorium fuel cycle. In his letter to the President Obama, the climatologist Dr. Jim Hanson recommended the Thorium fuel cycle and the Liquid Fluoride Thorium Reactor (LFTR). Dr. Edward Teller, the father of Fusion, after a lifetime of work on every aspect of nuclear technology had at the end of his life come to this conclusion in his final study: the LFTR is the best of all possible reactor types.

    The LFTR, which is currently in development in France, Japan, and Russia, is a very simple, efficient, and elegant type of reactor. It can start up on any kind of nuclear fuel, bomb material, or nuclear waste product to produce very high temperature heat and at the same time breed more fuel in the bargain. This thrifty approach to nuclear energy greatly appeals to me, but I became even more interested in the LFTR when the details of a new patent were revealed by Dr LeBlanc (see below @ minute 53). It opens up the possibility of building a very compact but powerful reactor that can run for 30 years without refueling. With no danger of a core meltdown or runaway reaction, it can be operated remotely in an unattended fully automated intrusion detecting mode and sited underground while it breeds self perpetuating new fuel within the thorium structure of the reactor itself.

    In order to get to its fuel, U233 that has been produced inside the very solid metal walls of this 200 ton reactor containment vessel, a proliferator must destroy and disassemble the reactor, lift its heavy reactor core out of a 100 meter deep reinforced aircraft crash proof hole in the ground, then cut the thorium containment vessel up into small pieces while enduring heavy killing gamma radiation exposure, next reprocess these reactor pieces using isotopic separation since the U233 is denatured with enough U238 to make chemical separation of bomb grade U233 impossible, and do all this without being detected. Now, this is a tall order for any proliferator and may just be an impossible assignment.

    At the end of the service life of the Lftr, the reactor vessel is sent back to the factory where it is reduced to liquid fluoride salts that become the feedstock of a next new Lftr. This feedstock can only be used by the new Lftr and not for bombs. A few handfuls of waste products are held at the factory for a few hundred years to cool down before they are mined for the many precious elements contained within like platinum and iridium. Now that is what I call a safe, efficient and thrifty mode of operation!

    To learn more see one of the following:
    Aim High

    What Fusion Wanted To Be

    Liquid Fluoride Reactors: A New Beginning for an Old Idea

  2. In addition to uranium, thorium can be used as a basis for a nuclear fuel cycle. There is 3 times as much recoverable thorium in the earth’s crust as there is recoverable uranium. A Thorium fuel cycle reactor, the LFTR is 200 to 300 time more efficient at extracting energy from thorium as current nuclear technology is at extracting energy from uranium. A ton of thorium in a LFTR will produce as much energy as 3 million tons of coal will produce in a coal fired steam plant. In 1968 the United States Atomic Energy commission reported to president Johnson, at a price of $500 a pound, there was enough recoverable thorium in the land mass of the United States to power the country for over two million years. Clearly the United States has enough recoverable thorium to last for a very long time.

  3. james says:

    Another “resource” that needs to pass the renewable test might be money. Nuclear works, its clean (except for the mining and storage problems) and their may well be lots of uranium and thorium available. But the cost is at a premium and as the world is finally learning, money is not infinitely available. We have GOT to be practical about meeting energy needs. Maybe there are situations where nuclear reactors make good sense in the mix of future sources. But no one is thinking to use just wind farms to provide all our needs in the future. That would be absurd.
    I think the most promising source for energy is going to turn out to be geothermal. It will use minimal land area, have the virtually endless heat source of the earth, and all that is needed is to drill deep holes (we’ve been practicing for a long time now), and use current technology up top to convert hot water into electricity. In fact, why not drill next to existing coal plants and replace the coal with the geothermal heat source? Seems like taking care of two problems at once, and relatively cheaply.
    Transportation of resources is a big part of what makes one energy source better than another. The sun shines strongly in some areas of the country, wind blows steady in others, the earth is hot everywhere down below us. Uranium and Thorium have to be dug up and transported maybe thousands of miles. Why?

  4. Instead of arguing about “renewable” I prefer to say that nuclear power is “inexhaustible”. I am referring to using thorium in the liquid fluoride thorium reactor. Being able to use 100% of a fuel that is 3x more plentiful than uranium provides fuel for millennia. After that I think civilization will be able to fend for itself.

    There is a tutorial on the LFTR at and much more at

    Students of energy may enjoy visiting my Dartmouth ILEAD course website

  5. Verdegia says:

    There is increasing concern that governments are allowing companies to reduce the price paid to producers of exported renewable energy. Large banks and organizations dominate the large scale markets of renewable energy generation that have up till now made significant profits in the current climate.

    The price of energy doesn´t seem to get cheaper – clearly the changes must be made within each of us and adopt our own renewable energy generating capabilities and reduce our demand on expensive, fluctuating imported energy.

    Verdegía in Spain have a solution, Solar Engine Systems that generate plenty of green energy. If we ourselves, government and councils adopted this type of new technology then we could all very quickly change the effects of our demand on fossil fuels. – The Solar Engine Systems supplied from Verdegía boast 39kW/h and operate 24/7. That´s enough energy for 12 or more homes! And, they only take up the space of a single 200W PV panel.

    A major cost in renewable energy farms is the infrastructure, land and high capital investment, producing electricity locally within a distributed network is the most cost effective. It’s time to move away from large expensive solar farms and into the next generation of high performance renewable energy generators that effectively create a solar farm within one panel and at a 100th of the cost. This technology will allow us to turn vacant city rooftops into a hive of renewable generators that will not only feed our cities but will provide energy independence.

    Imagine a future where electricity was FREE and in public places you could just plug in and know that the energy being consumed has come from 100% renewable sources.

  1. [...] labeling it renewable energy. Supporters of nuclear being a renewable energy point to the fact it produces little or no greenhouse gases. And that current Uranium stocks (how nuclear power is created) are enough to last , at current [...]

  2. [...] labeling it renewable energy. Supporters of nuclear being a renewable energy point to the fact it produces little or no greenhouse gases. And that current Uranium stocks (how nuclear power is created) are enough to last , at current [...]

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