Why Is Nuclear Energy Non Renewable

What is Nuclear Energy?

Nuclear energy comes from the splitting of uranium atoms in a process called nuclear fission inside a nuclear reactor. Atoms are the basic units that make up matter, and uranium atoms contain a large amount of energy inside their nuclei (National Geographic, 2023). When uranium atoms are split apart, they release energy in the form of heat and radiation. This process of splitting atoms to release energy is called fission (IAEA, 2022).

The heat generated from nuclear fission is used to boil water into steam, which then spins a turbine to generate electricity. Nuclear power plants use the heat from splitting uranium atoms to produce about 10-11% of the world’s electricity (NEI, 2018). Nuclear energy is considered a low-carbon energy source, as the process of generating electricity from nuclear power produces minimal greenhouse gas emissions. However, nuclear fuel itself is non-renewable, which is why nuclear energy is not considered a renewable energy source.

Nuclear Fuel is Non-Renewable

Uranium is the fuel used in nuclear fission reactions to generate electricity. Unlike renewable energy sources such as solar, wind, and hydro power, uranium is a finite natural resource that must be mined from the earth. According to the World Nuclear Association, the world’s present measured resources of uranium are enough to last for over 100 years at current usage rates, however uranium reserves are limited and concentrated in a relatively small number of countries.

uranium is a finite fuel source that must be mined from the earth

The world’s top uranium producers are Kazakhstan, Canada, and Australia, which together account for over two-thirds of global uranium production [1]. Kazakhstan alone holds over 12% of the world’s uranium reserves. Other countries with significant uranium reserves include Australia, Canada, Russia, and Namibia [2]. However, many nations with nuclear power plants lack domestic uranium reserves, making them dependent on imports.

While further uranium resources may be identified through continued exploration, known recoverable reserves are finite. Once nuclear power plants deplete these limited reserves, new sources of fuel would be required for nuclear energy generation to continue.

High Costs of Uranium Mining

Uranium mining is an expensive and resource intensive process. The costs associated with uranium mining include the specialized heavy equipment needed to access underground deposits as well as the facilities required to process and enrich the uranium ore (Potential Environmental Effects of Uranium Mining, Processing, and Reclamation).

Additionally, uranium mining causes significant environmental damage. The underground and open pit mining techniques used can disrupt landscapes and habitats. Chemical reagents and heavy metals used in processing can lead to radioactive contamination of air and water if not properly contained. Uranium tailings, the waste material left over after extraction, are radioactive and toxic. Improper storage of tailings can lead to environmental contamination and health risks for nearby communities (Environmental Aspects of Uranium Mining: WNA). The high costs and risks associated with properly containing and cleaning up environmental damage make uranium mining an even more expensive endeavor.

Limited Fuel Efficiency

One of the key issues with nuclear energy is its limited fuel efficiency. Nuclear reactors are only able to utilize a small fraction of the potential energy in their uranium fuel. According to the Center for Sustainable Systems, “Only about 5% of uranium actually gets fissioned for energy.” 1 The remaining 95% becomes nuclear waste that must be safely stored and eventually disposed of.

This extremely low fuel efficiency means that nuclear power requires a constant supply of mined uranium to operate. It also results in the accumulation of large quantities of radioactive spent fuel that must be continually managed. The poor utilization of uranium in current nuclear reactor designs is a major downside of nuclear energy from sustainability and waste perspectives.

Challenges of Nuclear Waste

Nuclear waste remains radioactive for thousands of years, presenting challenges for safe, long-term disposal. High-level radioactive waste, such as spent nuclear fuel rods, contains dangerous radionuclides like cesium-137 and strontium-90, which have half-lives of around 30 years. It also contains plutonium-239 and technetium-99, which have half-lives of 24,000 years and 220,000 years respectively.

Currently, no permanent disposal site exists for high-level nuclear waste in the United States. The waste is stored on-site at nuclear plants in spent fuel pools or dry cask storage. The long-term radioactivity and lack of permanent disposal makes nuclear waste a serious challenge. The NRC states that the US government is responsible for coming up with a long-term solution for nuclear waste disposal.

Risk of Accidents

While rare, the worst nuclear accidents like Chernobyl and Fukushima have been catastrophic environmental disasters. The 1986 Chernobyl disaster was the worst nuclear accident in history, releasing large quantities of radioactive particles into the atmosphere that spread over much of Europe. Despite safety improvements since then, the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear disaster in 2011 caused three nuclear meltdowns, hydrogen explosions, and the release of radioactive contamination following an earthquake and tsunami. Over 100,000 people were evacuated from their homes in the aftermath.

Studies have shown the long-term impacts of these nuclear accidents include increased cancer rates, contaminated land, and the evacuation of cities. For example, the area around Chernobyl remains uninhabitable today due to high radiation levels. While the probability of a nuclear meltdown is low, the effects can be devastating regionally and globally [1]. This makes the risk of accidents a major downside of nuclear power.

High Decommissioning Costs

Decommissioning nuclear power plants is an expensive process that can take decades to complete safely. According to the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission, decommissioning costs for a typical nuclear reactor range from $300 million to $400 million [1]. The International Atomic Energy Agency estimates a 10 megawatt research reactor can cost over $20 million to decommission, taking 5-10 years [2].

The high costs are due to the need to safely remove and dispose of radioactive components and decontaminate the facility. Tasks include permanently shutting down the reactor, removing spent nuclear fuel, dismantling equipment, decontaminating the site, and long-term monitoring. It’s complex work requiring specially trained workers.

About two-thirds of the estimated decommissioning costs for all U.S. nuclear reactors has already been collected through fees, but there is still a $9 billion liability remaining [3]. Decommissioning is a significant financial burden when accounting for the full lifecycle costs of nuclear energy.

Nuclear Proliferation Concerns

One of the major downsides of nuclear energy is the risk that nuclear technology and materials could spread from peaceful energy programs to weapon programs. According to the Wikipedia article on nuclear proliferation, nuclear proliferation refers to the spread of nuclear weapons, fissile material, and weapons-applicable technology to nations that do not already possess them.

The main concern is that the spread of nuclear technology for peaceful purposes could allow more countries to develop nuclear weapons. Uranium enrichment technology needed for nuclear fuel can also produce highly enriched uranium for nuclear weapons. This “dual-use” nature of nuclear technology complicates non-proliferation efforts.

There are historical examples of nations like India, Pakistan, North Korea, and potentially Iran using civil nuclear energy programs to further military nuclear capabilities. Monitoring and preventing the spread of sensitive nuclear materials and technology remains an ongoing challenge in the expansion of nuclear power worldwide.

Alternatives to Nuclear

Renewable energy sources like solar and wind are cleaner alternatives to nuclear power. According to the International Energy Agency, renewable electricity capacity is expected to reach 4,500 gigawatts by 2023, equal to the total global power capacity of fossil fuels and nuclear combined [1]. The growth of renewable energy has been rapid, with renewable electricity in the United States increasing 42% between 2010 and 2020 [2]. Sources like solar, wind, geothermal, hydropower, and biomass can provide carbon-free energy without the radioactive waste and high decommissioning costs of nuclear power.


As discussed, nuclear power is considered a non-renewable energy source for several key reasons. First, the fuel used in nuclear fission reactors, primarily uranium, is finite in quantity and limited in availability. While other energy sources like solar and wind are powered by unlimited natural resources, uranium reserves are projected to only last for another 80-230 years at current usage rates before being depleted.

Additionally, nuclear energy poses major challenges due to radioactive waste management. The spent fuel from reactors remains dangerously radioactive for thousands of years, requiring very long-term isolation from the environment. Safe disposal sites are difficult to find, and accidents in handling or transporting nuclear waste could be catastrophic.

There are also concerns around the risk of severe nuclear accidents, like those seen at Chernobyl and Fukushima. Such events can contaminate the surrounding environment for many decades. The high costs of properly decommissioning outdated plants is another economic constraint on the nuclear power industry.

For these reasons and others covered in this article, nuclear energy is considered a non-renewable power source. While it provides reliable carbon-free electricity, its long-term viability faces limitations compared to truly renewable options like solar and wind.

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