When talking about green energy, people usually refer to energy generated from naturally renewable sources such as sunlight, wind, or water. However, nuclear power is often excluded from the green energy mix despite being one of the largest sources of low-carbon electricity in the world. Nuclear power has made great strides over the years, but the question remains whether it can be considered a source of green energy.
For nuclear power to provide green energy, its source of energy must be naturally replenished. Nuclear energy is produced from uranium, which is a naturally radioactive ore that acts as fuel for nuclear reactors. One of the main benefits of uranium is that it is abundant and widely found in rocks all over the world. Despite this, we do not have an infinite supply of uranium, so nuclear energy cannot be considered sustainable.
Nowadays, all nuclear power plants use the process of nuclear fission. This process consists of splitting the nucleus of a radioactive atom to release huge amounts of energy. One main benefit of nuclear power is that nuclear fission does not release carbon dioxide or other greenhouse gases. As such, reactors typically do not emit greenhouse gases while in operation. However, nuclear power’s carbon footprint must be judged on a life cycle basis and not just during operation. This includes the building of nuclear power plants, mining of uranium, and transportation of nuclear fuel. All these different steps in the life cycle result in carbon dioxide emissions which must be taken into consideration.
Furthermore, it is difficult to consider nuclear power as a green energy source due to the radioactive waste it produces. This is the main environmental concern related to nuclear power as these materials cannot be disposed of easily. These materials can be extremely radioactive and remain dangerous for tens of thousands of years. While the United States is opting to dispose of nuclear waste directly, it is possible to reprocess and recycle almost 96% of the spent fuel.
Although nuclear power is far from being considered a green energy source, it is still a much less harmful alternative to fossil fuels and coal. Having the extra power capacity granted by nuclear reactors has significantly reduced the need to resort to less environmentally friendly options. Also, nuclear power can prove very beneficial when renewable energy sources such as sunlight and wind are not available at all times throughout the day.