Below, we briefly discuss whether nuclear energy might be sustainable.
To do this, we assess nuclear energy across various indicators of sustainability.
Firstly, Where Does Nuclear Energy Come From?
The main fuel used for nuclear energy at this point in time is uranium.
Is Uranium A Fossil Fuel?
No, it’s not.
Uranium is considered a nuclear fuel and not a fossil fuel.
There’s several differences between them.
One key difference is that uranium is a naturally occurring radioactive heavy metal, whilst fossil fuels come from fossilised organic matter (which undergoes a formation process over a long period of time)
Another difference is that uranium generates nuclear energy through fission (a process of splitting atoms), compared to fossil fuels that generate fossil fuel energy through combustion.
This makes uranium different to the main fossil fuels – coal, natural gas, and oil.
Is Nuclear Energy Renewable?
Nuclear energy is not considered to be a renewable energy source.
Uranium isn’t regenerated or formed faster than it’s consumed.
Uranium is also considered a scarce resource, with only a finite amount left on Earth.
How Much Uranium Is Left On Earth?
Read more about how much uranium might be left in the world in this guide.
Mining Of Uranium
The mining of uranium may have an environmental impact to consider
This impact might be similar to the impact that mining in general can have on the environment
It’s worth noting though – if more uranium can be extracted from seawater in the future instead of having to be extracted from the ground, nuclear energy using uranium may become more sustainable at the sourcing/extraction stage.
Greenhouse Emissions From Nuclear Energy
During operation, nuclear power plants don’t emit greenhouse gases such as carbon dioxide.
Because of this, nuclear energy might have one of the lowest carbon footprints of all energy sources
There may be an upstream carbon footprint for the materials used to construct a nuclear reactor though, and also for the sourcing of uranium
Air Pollution From Nuclear Energy
Similar to greenhouse gas emissions, there might be little to no air pollutants released from nuclear reactors during the energy generation stage.
Nuclear might be one of the cleanest energy sources for the air in terms of air pollution
How Much Water Nuclear Energy Uses
Nuclear energy might use a lot of water for cooling the radioactive core of the reactor
Some reports indicate that of all energy sources, nuclear uses either the most water, or the second most water behind coal energy
What’s worth noting is that most of the water might not disappear from the water cycle
Instead, the water might simply be withdrawn for use, and then dumped into the environment once it’s been used
Although, smartwatermagazine.com indicates that this water becomes ‘… contaminated with radionuclides’
So, the discharged/dumped water is waste water i.e. it might be low quality water
Whether or not this water can be re-used again at some point after the water has been treated might be questionable
How Much Land Nuclear Energy Uses
Because nuclear energy has such a high power density, it might use less land than some other energy sources when measuring land use by power density
But, when taking into consideration upstream and downstream land use for mining, infrastructure, and other land uses, nuclear energy’s land footprint might be higher than some other energy sources with less upstream and downstream land use
Energy Efficiency Of Nuclear Energy (Converting Energy To Electricity)
The sustainable use/management of resources is one aspect of sustainability
The efficiency at which different energy sources convert energy to electricity might therefore impact how efficiently resources (such as uranium resources) are utilised
Across some metrics, nuclear energy might be less efficient at converting energy into electricity compared to some renewable energy sources, but more efficient than fossil fuels
How Much Materials Nuclear Energy Uses
Nuclear energy might use less materials for construction compared to renewable energy when considering how dilute or dense each energy source it
[Regarding renewables,] the dilute nature of water, sunlight, and wind means that at least … 10 – 15 times more concrete, cement, steel, and glass, are required than for nuclear plants (forbes.com)
Waste From Nuclear Energy
Types Of Waste From Nuclear Energy
– Waste water from nuclear reactor
Water is used for cooling at a nuclear reactor, and may get contaminated with radioactive contaminants during use
– Spent nuclear fuel
Spent nuclear fuel is essentially radioactive waste
– Construction materials for nuclear reactor
When nuclear reactor reaches the end of it’s lifespan, there’s buiding materials that become waste
How Much Waste Nuclear Energy Generates
– Spent nuclear fuel
A typical nuclear power plant might generate about 20 metric tons of used nuclear fuel per year according to some reports.
– Waste from construction materials for nuclear reactor
One report indicates that nuclear energy might produce less construction waste than solar energy.
… 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 (forbes.com)
How Nuclear Might Compare To Other Energy Sources In Terms Of Waste
Coal may produce waste by-products such as fly ash at coal power plants.
Renewables on the other hand, like wind and solar, don’t have any waste by-products during operation
Waste Pollution From Nuclear Energy
Potential forms of waste pollution from nuclear energy might come from:
– Mining of uranium
Mining can lead to waste pollution
Although any mined resource, like coal, natural gas, or oil, can potentially lead to waste pollution from mining
– Water pollution
Depending on what happens to the water that nuclear reactors use, the water itself can be contaminated, but, there may also be water pollution if that water is dumped into the environment, or if it leaks into the environment
– Nuclear waste
Countries that use nuclear tend to have specialised waste management processes to deal with nuclear waste.
So, it’s possible the nuclear waste is adequately managed without it causing any pollution
However, it might be possible that nuclear waste that isn’t managed properly may cause pollution issues of some kind
Economic Sustainability Of Nuclear Energy
Economic sustainability (i.e. economic feasibility, and other measures of economic performance) is one of the pillars of sustainability.
Some of the key economic points relating to nuclear energy might be:
– Capital costs and other costs for nuclear energy might be much more expensive in some countries than others
Costs can be so high in some countries that nuclear energy is not feasible
– Some countries that use nuclear energy may have somewhat affordable electricity prices
– Nuclear energy may not have the extra costs for backup energy sources and battery storage that some renewable energy sources might have when used for a power grid
Is Nuclear Energy Practical, & What Is It’s Performance Like?
Practicality and performance are not officially aspects of sustainability
However, they definitely contribute to aspects like economic sustainability
And, without an energy source having a certain level of practical use or meeting a certain level of performance, it either might not be able to be used at all, or might not be able to be used effectively for certain applications
Nuclear energy may have several important practical benefits and may excel across certain performance indicators
Some of those key benefits and indicators might include nuclear energy’s power density, it’s capacity factor, and it’s reliability (which is impacted by a rank of factors)
We discuss the potential practical benefits and performance benefits of nuclear energy in this guide
So, Is Nuclear Energy Sustainable?
In some ways nuclear energy might be sustainable, and in other ways it might not be.
We break down it’s potential sustainability in more nuance below …
Why Nuclear Might Be Sustainable
On one hand, nuclear energy might be considered more sustainable than other energy sources
A key reason for this might be that there is no greenhouse gas emissions or air pollution whilst nuclear reactors are in operation (and producing nuclear energy)
This factor alone might make nuclear energy more sustainable than fossil fuels across these specific indicators
Why Nuclear Might NOT Be Considered Sustainable
On the other hand, nuclear energy might not be considered to be sustainable
A key reason for this might be that uranium is a non-renewable resource with finite supplies left
But also, uranium mining may have an environmental footprint, nuclear reactors use a lot of water for cooling (that may get contaminated, or end up dumped), and, nuclear energy may have some economic challenges in terms of how costly nuclear reactors can be
Some may also question what we do with nuclear waste long term
How Nuclear Compares To Other Energy Sources For Sustainability
Nuclear energy may be more sustainable than fossil fuel energy sources across indicators like greenhouse gas emissions and air pollutants during operation
Nuclear energy may be less sustainable than renewable energy sources like solar and wind according to the indicator of being renewable vs being non renewable. Renewable energy sources have an almost infinite supply of energy, whereas nuclear has a finite supply of uranium left
Uranium might have a similar sustainability footprint to fossil fuels when it comes to mining/extraction
Assessing Nuclear Energy Against The General Criteria For Sustainability
There’s a number of ways you could define sustainable.
But, a general definition of sustainable might be:
– The ability to be maintained constantly, especially over the long term
– … without depleting natural resources, degrading the environment, ecosystems or biodiversity
From a resource management perspective …
Nuclear energy might not be able to be maintained over the long term if uranium resources/reserves become more scarce
From an environmental perspective …
Although uranium mining may degrade the environment with mining for example, the generation of nuclear energy at a nuclear reactor doesn’t release greenhouse gases or air pollutants.
From an economic perspective …
Some countries may find the cost of nuclear to be too high, whilst others may be able to produce more affordable electricity with nuclear energy
From a practicality and performance perspective …
Features of nuclear energy like power density, capacity factor, and reliability, may lead to a better quality electricity supply
1. Various ‘Better Meets Reality’ guides