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The Power of a Uranium Pellet

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Uranium pellet energy compared to fossil fuels

uranium pellet energy efficiency vs fossil fuels

The Energy Efficiency of a Uranium Pellet

Nuclear energy’s incredible efficiency and powerful nature comes from uranium’s high energy density.

It is the most energy dense and efficient fuel source we have, with just ten uranium pellets able to power the average household for an entire year.

Using research from the U.S. Department of Energy, this graphic puts in perspective the efficiency of a single uranium pellet in comparison to fossil fuels.

Uranium’s Energy Density vs. Fossil Fuels

Uranium’s energy efficiency comes from it’s highly dense atomic and material nature, which is split apart when nuclear fission occurs.

It is the second-heaviest metal in terms of relative atomic mass, and is also one of the densest at around 19 g/cm3. For context, a gallon of milk weighs around 8 lbs, while a same-sized container of uranium would weigh around 150 lbs.

In the process of nuclear fission, the U-235 isotope of uranium is hit by a moving neutron and splits in two. This splitting of the atom produces heat energy and releases more neutrons that hit other U-235 atoms, causing a chain reaction of nuclear fission.

The energy generated by the fission of a single uranium pellet is equivalent to:

  • 1 ton of coal or
  • 120 gallons of crude oil or
  • 17,000 ft3 of natural gas

With about 17 million British Thermal Units (BTU) worth of energy in a uranium pellet, it’s no wonder that many are now looking at nuclear energy as a key piece to the clean energy puzzle.

Not Just Better than Fossil Fuels

Nuclear power isn’t just an improvement over fossil fuels, it also beats out renewable energy sources in a few other key areas. Along with low lifecycle emissions, nuclear power also has a low land footprint and the highest reliability compared to other sustainable energy sources.

1. CO2 Lifecycle Emissions

As a non-fossil fuel source of energy, nuclear power has one of the lowest average life cycle CO2 emissions among energy technologies. Since 1970, nuclear power plants have reduced over 60 gigatonnes of CO2 emissions, and have lower average life cycle emissions compared to solar panels, geothermal energy, and hydropower.

2. Land Footprint

While reducing carbon emissions is great, renewable energy sources are also judged on their land footprint. Nuclear power has one of the lowest land footprints per 1,000 megawatts of electricity a year at 1.3 square miles. In comparison, for the same amount of energy solar power requires ~75x more surface area, and wind power requires ~360x more surface area.

3. Power Generation Uptime

The power generation uptime of energy sources is another important metric to measure their reliability and efficiency. Nuclear power plants have the best uptime of all energy sources, running at maximum capacity 92.5% of the year. In comparison, the two next best energy sources in terms of reliability are geothermal energy (74.3%) and natural gas (56.6%).

Nuclear Energy’s Water Usage and Waste Disposal

Although nuclear energy is incredibly efficient and much cleaner than fossil fuels, it still isn’t quite a perfect energy solution.

Nuclear power plants rely on large amounts of water especially for their cooling operations, which is why many are located near bodies of water. When compared with other energy sources, many estimates find that nuclear power plants typically consume the most water when using cooling towers.

Energy sourceGallons of water per megawatt-hour of electricity produced
Nuclear1,101 gal
Coal1,005 gal
Concentrated solar906 gal
Biomass878 gal
Natural gas 255 gal
Geothermal15 gal

Source: Median figures of Macknick et al/Environmental Research Letters

Along with their water consumption, nuclear power plants also produce nuclear waste which must safely removed and stored in a permanent disposal site.

While countries like France, Germany, and Japan recycle the majority of their spent fuel, the U.S. currently treats it as waste. This results in the spent uranium fuel needing to be cooled for 2-5 years, with the most common cooling method requiring even more water consumption.

Uranium’s Future as the World’s Energy Fuel

While uranium offers an incredible amount of energy in a tiny package, nuclear power is still working to shake off the shadows of past incidents like Fukushima, Three Mile Island, and Chernobyl. Despite this, nuclear still is an incredibly safe energy source compared to fossil fuels, and safety improvements continue to be invested in and researched today.

Nuclear energy is also receiving a fiscal boost in the United States, with the recent infrastructure bill passed by the senate providing funding for two commercial-scale demonstration projects. Just as important, the bill also mentions that when determining whether to certify a reactor, priority will be given to reactors that use uranium that is produced and enriched domestically.

As the world continues working to reduce carbon emissions, people are starting to recognize that uranium’s energy efficiency could be vital in weaning the world off of fossil fuel dependence.

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Energy Shift

70 Years of Global Uranium Production by Country

Global uranium production has been affected by world events throughout history. Here’s how uranium production has evolved over 70 years.

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uranium production by country

70 Years of Global Uranium Production by Country

Uranium was discovered just over 200 years ago in 1789, and today, it’s among the world’s most important energy minerals.

Throughout history, several events have left their imprints on global uranium production, from the invention of nuclear energy to the stockpiling of weapons during the Cold War.

The above infographic visualizes over 70 years of uranium production by country using data from the Nuclear Energy Agency.

The Pre-nuclear Power Era

The first commercial nuclear power plant came online in 1956. Before that, uranium production was mainly dedicated to satisfying military requirements.

In the 1940s, most of the world’s uranium came from the Shinkolobwe Mine in the Belgian Congo. During this time, Shinkolobwe and Canada’s Eldorado Mine also supplied uranium for the Manhattan Project and the world’s first atomic bomb.

However, the end of World War II marked the beginning of two events that changed the uranium industry—the Cold War and the advent of nuclear energy.

Peak Uranium

Between 1960 and 1980, global uranium production increased by 53% to reach an all-time high of 69,692 tonnes. Here’s a breakdown of the top uranium producers in 1980:

Country1980 Production (tonnes U)% of Total
U.S. 🇺🇸16,81124%
USSR15,70023%
Canada 🇨🇦 7,15010%
South Africa 🇿🇦 6,1469%
East Germany 🇩🇪 5,2458%
Niger 🇳🇪 4,1206%
Namibia 🇳🇦 4,0426%
France 🇫🇷 2,6344%
Czechoslovakia 🇨🇿2,4824%
Australia 🇦🇺 1,5612%
Other 🌎 3,8015%
Total69,692100%

Several factors drove this rise in production, including the heat of the Cold War and the rising demand for nuclear power. For example, the U.S. had 5,543 nuclear warheads in 1957. 10 years later, it had over 31,000, and the USSR eventually surpassed this with a peak stockpile of around 40,000 warheads by 1986.

Additionally, the increasing number of reactors worldwide also propelled uranium production to new highs. In 1960, 15 reactors were operating globally. By 1980, this number increased to 245. What’s more, after the Oil Crisis in 1973, nuclear power emerged as a viable alternative to fossil fuels, and the price of uranium tripled between 1973 and 1975. Although the increase in uranium production was less dramatic, high prices made mining more profitable.

However, several nuclear accidents in the world such as the Three Mile Island reactor meltdown in the U.S. in 1979 and the Chernobyl disaster in Ukraine in 1987 brought a stop to the rapid growth of nuclear power. Furthermore, following the end of the Cold War, military stockpiles of uranium were used as “secondary supply”, reducing the need for mine production to some extent. As a result, uranium production declined sharply after 1987.

The Current State of Uranium Mining

Uranium producers have changed considerably over time. Since the economic viability of uranium deposits often depends on the market price, many countries have dropped out due to lower uranium prices, while others have entered the mix.

Here are the top 10 uranium-producing countries based on 2019 production:

Country2019 Production (tonnes U)% of Total
Kazakhstan 🇰🇿 22,80842%
Canada 🇨🇦 6,94413%
Australia 🇦🇺 6,61312%
Namibia 🇳🇦 5,1039%
Uzbekistan 🇺🇿 3,5006%
Niger 🇳🇪 3,0536%
Russia 🇷🇺 2,9005%
China 🇨🇳 1,6003%
Ukraine 🇺🇦 7501%
India 🇮🇳 4001%
Other 🌎 5531%
Total54,224100%

Kazakhstan has been the world’s leading uranium producer since 2009. In 2019, Kazakhstan mined more uranium than Canada, Australia, and Namibia combined, making up 42% of global production. It’s also worth noting that Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, Russia, and Ukraine—four countries that were formerly part of the USSR—made it into the top 10 list.

Canada was the world’s second-largest producer of uranium despite production cuts at the country’s biggest uranium mines. Australia ranked third with just three uranium-producing mines including Olympic Dam, the world’s largest known uranium deposit.

Overall, the top 10 countries accounted for 99% of global uranium production, and the majority of this came from the top three. However, global production has been on a downward trend since 2016, with a slight bump in 2019.

The Future of Uranium Production: Up or Down?

The uranium market is at an inflection point, with tightening supply and rising demand.

As of 2020, mine production covered only 74% of world reactor requirements, and analysts expect the market deficit to continue through 2022. Although secondary sources have historically filled the gap between demand and supply, recent developments in the uranium market have driven prices to six-year highs, which could also affect uranium production.

In addition, the shift towards clean energy could provide a boost to uranium demand, especially because of the advantages of nuclear power. With countries like China embracing nuclear energy and others planning for complete phase-outs, nuclear’s evolving role in the global energy mix will likely shape the future of uranium production.

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Energy Shift

The Future of Uranium: A Story of Supply and Demand

The uranium market is at a tipping point. Here’s how the forces of uranium supply and demand could change the direction of the industry.

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uranium supply and demand

The Future of Uranium: A Story of Supply and Demand

The uranium market is at a tipping point.

Since the Fukushima accident in 2011, uranium prices have been on a downtrend, forcing several miners to suspend or scale back operations. But nuclear’s growing role in the clean energy transition, in addition to a supply shortfall, could turn the tide for the uranium industry.

The above infographic from Standard Uranium outlines how uranium’s demand and supply fundamentals stack up, and how that balance could change the direction of the market in the future.

The Uranium Supply Chain

The supply of uranium primarily comes from mines around the world, in addition to secondary sources like commercial stockpiles and military stockpiles.

Although uranium is relatively abundant in the Earth’s crust, not all uranium deposits are economically recoverable. While some countries have uranium resources that can be mined profitably when prices are low, others do not.

For example, Kazakhstan hosts roughly 1.2 billion lbs of identified recoverable uranium resources extractable at less than $18 per lb, more than any other country. On the contrary, Australia hosts a larger resource of uranium but with a higher cost of extraction. This varying availability of resources affects how much uranium these countries produce.

Country2019 production (lbs U)% of Total
Kazakhstan 🇰🇿50,282,97342.1%
Canada 🇨🇦15,308,88112.8%
Australia 🇦🇺14,579,15212.2%
Namibia 🇳🇦11,250,1769.4%
Uzbekistan 🇺🇿7,716,1706.5%
Niger 🇳🇪6,730,7055.6%
Russia 🇷🇺6,393,3985.3%
China 🇨🇳3,527,3923.0%
Ukraine 🇺🇦1,653,4651.4%
India 🇮🇳881,8480.7%
South Africa 🇿🇦762,7990.6%
United States 🇺🇸147,7100.1%
Rest of the World 🌎308,6470.3%
Total119,543,315100%

It’s not surprising that Kazakhstan is the largest producer of uranium given its vast wealth of low-cost resources. In 2019, Kazakhstan produced more uranium than the second, third, and fourth-largest producers combined.

Canada produced around one-third of Kazakhstan’s production despite the suspension of the McArthur River Mine, the world’s largest uranium mine, in 2018. Australia was the world’s third-largest producer with just two operating uranium mines.

However, production figures do not tell the entire story, and it’s important to look at how the market price of uranium impacts supply.

How Uranium Prices Affect Supply

Low uranium prices have had a twofold effect on uranium supply over the last decade.

Firstly, miners have cut back on production due to the weakness in prices, reducing the primary supply of uranium. Here are some production cutbacks from major uranium mining companies:

YearCompanyProduction Cutback
2016Cameco 🇨🇦Production at Rabbit Lake Mine suspended
2017Kazatomprom 🇰🇿Output reduced by 10%
2018Kazatomprom 🇰🇿Output reduced by 20%
2018Paladin Energy 🇦🇺 Production at Langer Heinrich Mine suspended
2018Cameco 🇨🇦Production at McArthur River Mine suspended
2019Kazatomprom 🇰🇿Output reduced by 20%

Table excludes suspensions induced by COVID-19.
Sources: Cameco, WISE Uranium Project, Paladin Energy

In addition, low prices have also blocked new supplies from entering the market. Around 46% of the world’s identified uranium resources, 8 million tonnes, have an extraction cost higher than $59 per lb. However, uranium prices have hovered close to $30 per lb since 2011, making these resources uneconomic.

As a result, the supply of uranium has been tightening, and in 2020, mine production of uranium covered only 74% of global reactor requirements.

Going Nuclear: The Future of Uranium

The world is moving towards a cleaner energy future, and nuclear power could play a key role in this transition.

Nuclear power is not only carbon-free, it’s also one of the most reliable and safe sources of energy. Countries around the world are beginning to recognize these advantages, including Japan, where all 55 reactors were previously taken offline following the Fukushima accident.

With more than 54 reactors under construction and 100 reactors planned worldwide, the demand for uranium is set to grow. Unlocking new and existing supplies is critical to meeting this rising demand, and new uranium discoveries will be increasingly valuable in balancing the market.

Standard Uranium is working to discover uranium with five projects in the Athabasca Basin, Saskatchewan, Canada, home of the world’s highest-grade uranium deposits.

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