Reactors, Renewables

Nuclear Power and Renewable Energy: Fast Friends or Strange Bedfellows?

Issue 1 and Volume 121.

By Tim Miser, Associate Editor

Each year about this time, we spend a large part of an issue discussing renewable energy. Something about renewable energy harmonizes nicely with the prospect of happy days ahead.

As I sit here at my desk not long after Christmas, considering both renewable energy and nuclear power, it’s probably inevitable that the two ideas would bump into one another inside my brain. It’s got me thinking; just what is the relationship between renewable energy and nuclear power? Are the two fast friends or strange bedfellows? Can nuclear power rightly be considered a form of renewable energy?

Type any of these questions into Google and you’ll get lots of disparate opinions. Seems like everyone from political pundits to hard-charging investigative journalists have some take on the issue. (And every one of them is right, of course. Just ask them.) It occurs to me, though, that we editors of nuts-and-bolts magazines like this one have a peculiar advantage over many other sources of information on the topic-access to a highly technical readership that is disproportionately informed on matters such as these.

Problem is-and maybe this will surprise you-we don’t hear from you folks enough. Maybe it’s because we’re somehow insulated from the public by the vagaries of an opaque publication process, or maybe you guys out there in magazine-land are just like the rest of us, too busy getting through your day to sit down and fire off an unsolicited tweet. No matter. You may now consider yourselves officially solicited; I’m asking for your comments.

So what do you say? Is nuclear power renewable or merely sustainable? Is it even worth making such a distinction, or is that splitting hairs?

Will the combination of technologies like fast breeder reactors and seawater uranium extraction render nuclear fuel effectively limitless, or at least, as some say, in sufficient supply to outlast the solar system? If the answer is no, and nuclear power cannot technically be labeled renewable, can more efficient mining render uranium ore plentiful enough to liberate us from pedantic debates about the shaded meanings of words?

And what about greenhouse gases? Certainly it can be argued that the low-carbon nature of nuclear power is at least in keeping with the “first do no harm” environmental ethos of the renewables movement.

But then what are we to make of that elephant in the room-the great quantities of spent nuclear fuel that must be stored as waste at great cost and for untold years?

I won’t claim to know the answers to all of these questions. Nuclear power has suffered some setbacks in recent years, both from the economic pressures of low-cost natural gas and the political and environmental fallout of nuclear disasters.

If nuclear power is not exactly the poster child for economical and safe energy, does it continue to have a role to play in an increasingly renewable landscape? Can it play well with wind and solar?

When calling on other forms of power to prop up intermittent renewables, the industry tends to turn to fast-start combined-cycle plants, or energy storage facilities like pumped hydro and chemical batteries.

A lumbering nuclear plant is not exactly top of mind when the wind stops blowing or the sun stops shining, and demand exceeds supply. What then? Does this curtail the utility of nuclear power in a future filled with solar-powered flying cars and wind-charged robot servants?

I’d like to ask our readers to weigh in on these issues. I invite your comments on the matter. Let us know your opinions on the issue. We care about what you think. Share your thoughts using the Twitter handle @PwrEngineering. And as always, you can email us at [email protected]