Is Nuclear Energy Renewable?

Broad support for nuclear energy is growing.  The once maligned energy source is finding new friends across the political and social landscape from California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger to Bob Geldolf of the Boomtown Rats.  Conservatives Sarah Palin and Rush Limbaugh have been talking up nuclear energy for some time.  Now even people like liberal columnist Thomas Friedman and Dr. Patrick Moore, one of the founders of Greenpeace are advocating a nuclear expansion.   All this is happening because people are becoming more educated about nuclear energy.  They are beginning to view the anti-nuclear crowd as close-minded and unable to acknowledge the differences between nuclear weapons and the peaceful, safe uses of nuclear energy. With this kind of support building, it’s time to answer an important question… Is Nuclear Energy Renewable ? It’s an important question because “renewable energy” is viewed by governments, policy makers and opinion leaders as the path to a cleaner, safer world.  In addition,  “renewable portfolio standards,” designed to reduce carbon emissions and cut fossil fuel consumption by forcing utilities to generate part of their power from renewable sources, ignore the carbon-free contribution made by nuclear energy facilities.  Permitting utilities to credit nuclear energy towards meeting renewable portfolio standards would help the nation meet greenhouse gas reduction targets more quickly and more cheaply. It’s time to examine the definition of “renewable” and determine if nuclear energy deserves to receive the RENEWABLE seal of approval. First let’s look at the definition of RENEWABLE.  The Energy Information Administration, a non-partisan section of the US Department of Energy, is tasked with providing “policy-neutral data, forecasts, and analyses to promote sound policy making, efficient markets, and public understanding regarding energy and its interaction with the economy and the environment.”  The EIA defines “renewable energy,” as “Energy sources that are naturally replenishing but flow limited.  They are virtually inexhaustible in duration but limited in the amount of energy that is available per unit of time.”  The EIA currently recognizes biomass, hydro, geothermal, solar, wind, ocean thermal, wave action and tidal action as renewable energy sources. There are three key phrases in the renewable energy definition: “naturally replenished”, “virtually inexhaustible” , and “limited in the amount of energy available per unit of time.” We’ll evaluate the attributes of nuclear energy against each of these three criteria to determine if nuclear meets this definition of renewable.   Criteria 1: Is nuclear energy naturally replenished? Nuclear energy is naturally replenished under the certain conditions.  Most people view nuclear fission as a man-made phenomena, and would be surprised to learn about the Oklo Natural Nuclear Reactor.  The Oklo reactor was a naturally occurring fission reactor that...

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Is Nuclear Energy Renewable? How about “Inexhaustible”?

For quite some time I’ve been debating the argument that nuclear energy is equally “renewable” as energy derived from hydro, wind, and biomass. My thought process goes like this… Rivers go dry with over use and periods of drought, and winds shift with changing weather patterns such as those that will occur with global climate change.  The availability of biomass is dependent on favorable weather and must be replenished using agricultural processes that are reliant on fossil fuels.  The ultimate energy source of all these “renewables” is the sun, and while the sun is not “infinite,” it is unlikely to extinguish during the course of human existence.  The ability of the sun to replenish hydro, wind, and biomass make these energy sources renewable. In contrast, the source of nuclear energy is fuel contained entirely on planet Earth.  And while there are a finite number of uranium and thorium atoms on the planet, the supply will last for as long as human beings need it.  The myth propagated by the anti-nuclear crowd that we will run out of fuel for nuclear reactors is simply untrue.  They grossly underestimate the amount of uranium that exists, they discount already proven technologies like breeder reactors, and they ignore the existence of thorium, a fuel even more plentiful than uranium.  We have sufficient nuclear fuel to last for more than 1,000 years, even if we expand the number of nuclear plants by more than a factor of ten.  This makes nuclear energy inexhaustible. I’ve often discussed the how Renewable Portfolio Standards (RPS) will encourage investment in wind and solar energy, but alone will NOT result in the desired reductions in CO2 emissions.  If the goal is CO2 reduction, why not promote the expansion of nuclear energy, the greatest source of low-carbon energy in existence? Keith Johnson of the Wall Street Journal Blog discusses the “renewable” question, and issues surrounding the logic of a national RPS in his recent post titled “Is Nuclear Power Renewable Energy?“.  In particular, Keith points out the inconsistencies in the Waxman-Markey approach to fighting climate change. Nuclear-power proponents are puzzled by what seems a logical inconsistency on part of Democrats who consistently shoot down the [nuclear energy] proposals.   If the goal is to promote low-emissions power sources, then nuclear power should be part of the mix.   If the goal is to promote new power sources, then existing wind and solar power facilities shouldn’t be showered with federal goodies.  That is, states that already have loads of wind power would be half-way to meeting new renewable-energy targets without building any new clean energy. And later… But if the whole game in...

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House Releases Draft Climate Change Bill and A Bit of Nuclear Nistory (Podcast Episode 65)

Listen to the Podcast Here Operation Sea Orbit – 1964 (Front to Back: USS Enterprise, USS Long Beach, & USS Bainbridge) The Markey / Waxman Climate Change Bill Momentum is building towards greenhouse gas regulation in the United States. Two weeks ago the house of representatives released draft climate change legislation sponsored by Rep. Henry Waxman and Rep. Edward Markey. On Friday the US Environmental Protection Agency turned up the heat when they declared CO2 and other greenhouse gasses “hazards to public health” and labeled CO2 a pollutant. This action gives the EPA authority to regulate CO2 emissions even if congress does not pass legislation focused on curbing greenhouse gas releases. The Waxman/Markey draft legislation would evoke a national renewable energy portfolio standard that will force electric utilities to get a large percentage of the energy they sell from renewable sources. The legislation defines renewable energy as solar, wind, hydro, geothermal, biomass, landfill gas, and wave energy. The required percentages would phase in starting at 6% in 2012, increasing to to 25% by 2039. Calendar year Required annual percentage 2012 ……………………………………………………………………. 6.0 2013 ……………………………………………………………………. 6.0 2014 ……………………………………………………………………. 8.5 2015 ……………………………………………………………………. 8.5 2016 ……………………………………………………………………. 11.0 2017 ……………………………………………………………………. 11.0 2018 ……………………………………………………………………. 14.0 2019 ……………………………………………………………………. 14.0 2020 ……………………………………………………………………. 17.5 2021 ……………………………………………………………………. 17.5 2022 ……………………………………………………………………. 21.0 2023 ……………………………………………………………………. 21.0 2024 ……………………………………………………………………. 23.0 2025 through 2039 ………………………………………………………… 25.0 Utilities who are unable to meet the mandated standards would be fined $50 per megawatt hour of every megawatt they sell that exceed the renewable limits. That penalty could very quickly bankrupt companies that fail to comply. For example, a single 1000 megawatt coal fired power plant would be fined $1.2 million per day. This is a nearly impossible mandate to meet. If this provision becomes law several things will happen: There is already a huge amount of capitol flowing into wind and solar energy because of the lucrative subsidies that pay much of the installation costs, plus tax credits that some states and the federal government have put into place to encourage investment into these politically favored but uneconomic energy sources.  Taxpayers are already footing a lion’s share of the expense of installing most wind and solar power plants. A national renewable portfolio standard will cause even more demand for these intermittent power sources. Unfortunately there is no way the supply can keep up with demand.  Utilities in areas of the country with plentiful hydo power will initially be able to meet the standards, but most of the USA has little hydro power.  According to the Energy Information Administration, in 2007 the combined total for wind, solar, wood and other biomass, and geothermal accounted for...

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Nuclear Powered Plug-In Hybrids

I’ve been preaching long and hard that a combination of plug-in hybrid vehicles and nuclear energy can help solve two problems at once; energy independence and CO2 emissions.  It seems The Weekly Standard in the UK has reached the same conclusion. In the United States there are 104 remodeled conventional nuclear power generating plants. … On average they produce more than a gigawatt (a billion watts) each or about 22 percent of total U.S. electrical consumption, without sending a single drop of greenhouse gas into the atmosphere. … By upgrading our own 100-plus plants to that level, we could produce enough cheap electricity to competitively replace gasoline and charge the batteries of every potentially electrified car and light truck in the United States. An additional 40 such plants would be sufficient to power all our buses, heavy trucks, and trains. With 200 plants, augmented by existing and upgraded hydropower, we could replace all hydrocarbon-based power-generating plants and virtually eliminate the U.S. carbon footprint. If this seems too big a task, one need only look at France which gets 80 percent of its electrical power from nuclear...

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