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Everything you need to know about the nuclear debate

Everything you need to know about the nuclear debate

By strict definition, renewable energy is infinite energy sourced from nature, such as geothermal heat, ocean and rainwater, wind, and sunlight.

Nuclear power, specifically, is not directly derived from nature, e.g. solar or wind, nor is it directly dependent upon a limited resource, e.g. oil or coal. Typically, nuclear power is generated in power plants by nuclear reactors through fission.  The reaction from fission produces kinetic energy that is translated to heat which, according to green energy resource Conserve Energy Future (CEF), can produce enough power to electrically run turbine generators in power plants.

Since this process does not require any fossil fuels, it's regarded as clean—by some.

The believers

Overall, many experts say, nuclear energy can be a very beneficial means of producing power. For example, instead of having to rely on windy or sunny conditions, nuclear power can be generated and used 24 hours a day, 7 days a week.

Extensive research by the CEF also resulted in reports that nuclear energy does not release gases like carbon dioxide and methane. Creating and moving this energy is far more simplistic than fossil fuels since it doesn't require as many raw materials.

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It’s also highly efficient: burning 100 metric tons of coal produces the same amount of energy as the fission from just 28 grams of uranium.

In addition, nuclear energy has an estimated lifespan of at least 100 years, which is far more than most fossil fuels. It's also less expensive than some other forms of electricity, which means that some power plants are able to use the same nuclear reactor for decades—some up to 60 years—at a minimum cost to operate.

The non-believers

Despite its proven benefits, not everyone is convinced that nuclear energy can be defined as renewable.

In 2009, the interim director-general for International Renewable Energy Agency (IRENA), Helen Pelosse, disregarded nuclear power in its consideration as a renewable energy resource during an interview with Reuters:

"IRENA will not support nuclear energy programs because it's a long, complicated process, produces waste and is relatively risky."

Waste management does seem to be an undeniable problem, however nuclear power plant owners and employees are aware of the radioactive waste that is a byproduct of fission—and it is not as bad as people assume.

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According to CEF, many plants have developed ways to contain radioactive waste and prevent harm to the environment and are making efforts to ensure the leftover waste cannot be reused to make weapons.

A (marginal) win for renewable

In February 2015, the United States’ Arizona Senate Committee on Water and Energy lobbied for the bill “SB 1134.” According to James Ayre of green living resource CleanTechnica, this bill determined that “nuclear energy from sources fueled by uranium fuel rods that include 80 percent or more of recycled nuclear fuel, and natural thorium reactor resources under development" are, indeed, considered to be “renewable.”

The bill passed by an extremely small margin, where only a single vote pushed the bill in the Arizona Senate Committee on Water and Energy's favor. State senators had a lengthy argument about whether to consider nuclear power as renewable energy as reported in the Phoenix New Times by Miriam Wasser. 

Senator David Bradley stated that he "appreciates the fact that technology is allowing us to use rods a few times, but that doesn't make it renewable." 

Senator Lynne Pancrazi had similar concerns, stating that she "can't agree that nuclear is renewable."

Meanwhile, nuclear power has gradually received approval as a renewable energy source in non-political circles.

Late last year, Martin Fackler of The New York Times and plenty of other news sources reported on the nuclear reactor building in Fukushima, Japan that had to be shut down because a few nuclear fuel rods had melted. That isolated incident isn't stopping other parts of the world, like Virginia in the United States, from building full-scale nuclear reactors with more powerful fuel rods.

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Lightbridge nuclear engineering company in Tysons Corner, Virginia, manufactures the rods, and notes the challenges associated with it. Company CEO Seth Grae spoke to David Talbot of Technology Review about the project:

"We're trying to do what is practical and what customers are asking us to address. The biggest problem is how to address the economics of nuclear power in a world of abundant natural gas, and with safety and security costs rising in the wake of the 9/11 attacks [in the United States] and Fukushima [in Japan]."

With both sides staying strong in their beliefs, the debate continues: renewable or non-renewable? 

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