Nuclear Power as Renewable Energy: The Debate

Robert Stineman
February 24, 2015

Submitted as coursework for PH241, Stanford University, Winter 2015


Fig. 1: A nuclear power plant in France. (Source: Wikimedia Commons)

The current debate regarding nuclear power and where it sits in terms of renewable energy is a highly contentious one. As President Obama's goal is to reduce carbon emissions thirty percent by the year 2030, many state legislatures are undergoing discussions on whether or not to include nuclear power in their solution to this problem. Arizona's senate committee on energy, for example, recently passed a bill that declares nuclear energy to be an important renewable energy resource. [1] In it, the bill classifies "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" to be a renewable energy resource. On the other hand, Illinois' state legislature has actually alluded to cutting back their nuclear power use. [2] It is important to investigate nuclear power's pros and cons to understand the differing opinions on this topic.

Nuclear Power as a Renewable Resource

Carbon dioxide is the primary greenhouse gas responsible for climate change, which is why President Obama is looking to significantly reduce emissions of this gas in the future. Nuclear energy, according to Patrick Moore, one of the founders of Greenpeace, "is the only large-scale, cost-effective energy source that can reduce [carbon dioxide] emissions while continuing to satisfy a growing demand for power." [3] He argues that wind and solar power are much too intermittent and unpredictable that they can't replace big energy plants, natural gas is much too expensive, and hydroelectric resources are built pretty much to capacity. This leaves nuclear power as the only viable substitute for coal, which is the leading cause of carbon dioxide emission in the United States.

Moore's statement is solidified by the findings of Ralph Sims, which shows that the greenhouse gas emissions per unit of electricity of nuclear power plants, like the one seen in Fig. 1, are, at the least, two orders of magnitude less than those released by fossil fuel plants; in fact, they are comparable to most renewable energy resources at near zero emissions. They are also competitive on a marginal generating cost basis because of low operating costs. [4] As such, the only thing hindering nuclear power from taking over as the best energy source of the day is safety, as well as the industry's ability to convince public it is safe.

Nuclear Power and Renewable Energy Do Not Belong Together

Opponents of nuclear power agree that nuclear power on earth can be considered as an unlimited resource, and that nuclear fission is a carbon free process that does not result in emission of greenhouse gases. They do not agree, however, with the argument that it is safe. In fact, release of radioactive isotopes is the most significant source of contamination, and large-scale accidents can occur when massive amounts of these isotopes are released. [5] Therefore, safer nuclear power plants must be built if they are to become a major source of energy in the future. According to nuclear power opponents, however, "safe" nuclear plants are much too costly to build and operate. It is only affordable when society takes on certain risks, such as the release of dangerous radioactive materials.

The Deciding Factor

Jeffrey Kluger makes it clear that nuclear power plants emit no carbon dioxide to the environment, but also produce extremely radioactive waste. [6] So while nuclear power fits into Obama's plan to reduce carbon dioxide emissions, it also risks the safety of inhabitants of local areas around the plants. With this in mind, a completely separate factor comes in to play that might make the difference between using nuclear power and not for individual states: profit. In Arizona's case, the largest nuclear power plant in the United States lies just outside of Phoenix, and provides massive amounts of energy to Los Angeles. As a result, nuclear power is an extraordinary source of profit for the state of Arizona, so it is no surprise that their senate states that it is a renewable energy resource. With such clear factors going for and against nuclear power, the deciding question for states, like Arizona, will be: can nuclear power make us money? If so, most states will probably experiment more with nuclear power in their renewable energy solutions.

© Robert Stineman. The author grants permission to copy, distribute and display this work in unaltered form, with attribution to the author, for noncommercial purposes only. All other rights, including commercial rights, are reserved to the author.


[1] S. Smith, "Introduced Bill: Renewable Energy; Definition," Arizona State Senate, SB 1134, January 2015.

[2] J. Wernau, "Coalition Urges Illinois to Boost Energy Goals," Chicago Tribune, 4 Feb 15.

[3] P. Moore, "Going Nuclear," Washington Post, 12 Apr 06.

[4] R. E. H. Sims, H.-R. Rogner and K. Gregory, "Carbon Emission and Mitigation Cost Comparisons Between Fossil Fuel, Nuclear and Renewable Energy Resources for Electricity Generation," Energy Policy 31, 1315 (2003).

[5] A. Verbruggen, "Renewable and Nuclear Power: A Common Future?" Energy Policy 36, 4036 (2008).

[6] J. Kluger and M. E. Lemonick, "A Climate of Despair," Time, 23 Apr 01.