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Nuclear energy is considered a clean source of energy, like renewable energy is. But there is a debate as to whether nuclear energy can be considered a renewable energy source. So what’s the difference?
By definition, non-renewable energy sources are those that will not be replenished within our lifetimes, or often in many lifetimes. The resource is finite and perhaps takes 1000's of years to form, as is the case with the most common forms of non-renewable energy, coal, petroleum, and natural gas. On the other hand, renewable energy is defined by being the opposite of this, its sources can replenish themselves. Biomass, wind, solar, hydro and geothermal energy sources are all those that can be replenished indefinitely.
So where does nuclear sit? Contrary to some commonly held beliefs nuclear energy does not pollute or produce harmful emissions, nor do they destroy the surrounding environment. Nuclear is a clean energy, it produces no harmful emissions in the way that non-renewable energy does, and because of this it is sometimes lumped together with renewable energy because of this shared attribute. However, it’s not that simple. Nuclear produces energy through harnessing the energy at the core of an atom, through nuclear fission. It does this through splitting the atoms of a rare form of uranium. Unfortunately, given that the necessary form of the element is rare, by definition there is not an abundance of this resource, meaning that nuclear energy is not renewable as the necessary uranium source can not replenish itself.
However, many energies considered renewable, such as solar and wind, have supply chains that rely on non-renewable energy. The burning of fossil fuels play a big role in aspects such as transportation and producing of necessary materials. This is why the debate over nuclear’s stance as a renewable is complex. The line between renewable and nuclear is not that strongly defined, the two types of energy do share some similarities, for instance, they’re both considered clean in that they release no carbon emissions. However, there are some key differences, the most salient are discussed below.
The most obvious difference is the fact that nuclear is not truly renewable, as discussed above, it relies on uranium, whereas wind, solar energy, etc relies on replenishable sources. However, this difference may not endure, as scientists are looking to new technologies that would allow nuclear energy to be created with uranium extracted from seawater, which would, in theory, make nuclear energy completely renewable.
The next clear difference between nuclear and renewables is that nuclear energy infrastructure takes longer to set up and costs more. Given that the process of extracting nuclear energy is complex, plants require a number of highly qualified specialists to run it safely. Some communities do not have these kinds of skills, and the cost to bring them in can be high.
Currently, around 2.3% of total energy consumption is attributed to nuclear energy, whereas renewables account for almost 20%. Use of renewable energy is growing fast, in comparison to nuclear which is remaining more or less the same. If we wanted to consider nuclear as an option for replacing fossil fuels, then their use would have to be scaled up to a great extent in order to provide enough energy.
The power attributes of nuclear and renewable energy is very different. Nuclear boasts the ability to provide a continuous source of energy, while renewables are struggling to overcome their nature of providing intermittent power due to its reliance on natural forces. However, there is currently much development in the innovation of ways to store renewable energy, such as in batteries or converting it to hydrogen gas.
While nuclear power releases no toxic emissions, and it doesn’t damage the environment surrounding the plants, its process does produce radioactive material. People exposed to this radioactive waste are facing serious health risks such as cancer. The environment also has the potential to be harmed through exposure to this waste. Safe disposal of waste products is a serious concern related to nuclear energy, renewable energy, on the other hand, has far less potential consequences to the health of humans and the environment to consider.
The future could see nuclear genuinely considered a renewable technology as scientists look to using a source of uranium the can be replenished. With this change, the differences between nuclear and current renewables may dilute. If nuclear power were to be truly renewable, capacity may increase as more investment is put into opening plants, and focus on research and development to overcome challenges in certain areas, such as environmental and technology, may result in nuclear sitting in line with current renewable energy sources.
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