Is a tomato a fruit or a vegetable? Mr. Nolan, my ninth grade science teacher, said a tomato fit the scientific definition of a fruit, a seed-bearing structure created from the ovary of a flowering plant. But the TV cooks, as well as most Americans, call it a vegetable, simply a savory plant part.
In the field of energy, a similar nonscientific definition has come into widespread usage. It’s the definition of “renewable energy.” A common version of the definition is “any energy source that is naturally replenished, like that derived from solar, wind, geothermal or hydroelectric action.” Under that definition, nuclear energy can’t pass muster because uranium is consumed during the operation of a nuclear power plant.
Uranium is not a scarce element. It’s more prevalent than tin and zinc. Although it is currently mined from deposits in the earth’s crust, it can also be readily extracted from sea water. The market price of uranium oxide is a reasonable $25 per pound. Current low uranium prices have resulted in the temporary closure of some uranium mines as supply has outpaced demand.
Let’s consider this question: Is harvesting wind and solar energy with windmills and photovoltaic panels really that much different than nuclear energy when it comes to meeting the definition of renewable energy?
Mining of indium, neodymium and other rare earth metals is required to make windmills and solar panels. The manufacturing process consumes the mined metals before the panels and windmills become operational, whereas nuclear power plants consume the uranium after becoming operational. Consumption of a finite resource occurs in both instances. Does it really matter at what point the non-replenishable mineral is consumed? Is it a valid reason to call one a renewable energy source and other non-renewable? I don’t think so.
That outmoded definition could be crucial for the development of future U.S. energy policy. Many states have adopted Renewable Portfolio Standards (RPS) based on a poorly crafted definition that excludes nuclear energy. As it has become more evident that wind and solar will not be sufficient to meet the needs of an energy-hungry nation, some states are moving toward the inclusion of nuclear in their RPS.
Nuclear power plants, just like solar and wind energy systems, can generate electricity with no emissions of greenhouse gases or traditional air pollutants such as sulfur dioxide and nitrogen oxides. We should not let a definition from the past thwart our ambitions for a clean, affordable and secure energy future. Raw materials and advanced technology are readily available now to support a national revival of nuclear energy.
Decades ago when our nation was struggling to chart our energy future we defined renewable energy as we visualized in that day. Now common sense must prevail as we review the laws and regulations that impede our progress to a safe and secure energy future.
A clever person knows a tomato is a fruit, but also knows better than to chop it up and put it in the fruit salad.
Ron Boyer is a member of the Missouri Air Conservation Commission.