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The Power of a Uranium Pellet

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Uranium pellet energy compared to 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

Visualizing the Scale of Global Fossil Fuel Production

How much oil, coal, and natural gas do we extract each year? See the scale of annual fossil fuel production in perspective.

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fossil fuel production

The Scale of Global Fossil Fuel Production

Fossil fuels have been our predominant source of energy for over a century, and the world still extracts and consumes a colossal amount of coal, oil, and gas every year.

This infographic visualizes the volume of global fossil fuel production in 2021 using data from BP’s Statistical Review of World Energy.

The Facts on Fossil Fuels

In 2021, the world produced around 8 billion tonnes of coal, 4 billion tonnes of oil, and over 4 trillion cubic meters of natural gas.

Most of the coal is used to generate electricity for our homes and offices and has a key role in steel production. Similarly, natural gas is a large source of electricity and heat for industries and buildings. Oil is primarily used by the transportation sector, in addition to petrochemical manufacturing, heating, and other end uses.

Here’s a full breakdown of coal, oil, and gas production by country in 2021.

Coal Production

If all the coal produced in 2021 were arranged in a cube, it would measure 2,141 meters (2.1km) on each side—more than 2.5 times the height of the world’s tallest building.

China produced 50% or more than four billion tonnes of the world’s coal in 2021. It’s also the largest consumer of coal, accounting for 54% of coal consumption in 2021.

Rank Country2021 Coal Production
(million tonnes)
% of Total
#1🇨🇳 China 4,126.050%
#2🇮🇳 India 811.310%
#3🇮🇩 Indonesia 614.08%
#4🇺🇸 U.S. 524.46%
#5🇦🇺 Australia 478.66%
#6🇷🇺 Russia 433.75%
#7🇿🇦 South Africa 234.53%
#8🇩🇪 Germany 126.02%
#9🇰🇿 Kazakhstan 115.71%
#10🇵🇱 Poland 107.61%
🌍 Other 600.97%
Total8,172.6100%

India is both the second largest producer and consumer of coal. Meanwhile, Indonesia is the world’s largest coal exporter, followed by Australia.

In the West, U.S. coal production was down 47% as compared to 2011 levels, and the descent is likely to continue with the clean energy transition.

Oil Production

In 2021, the United States, Russia, and Saudi Arabia were the three largest crude oil producers, respectively.

Rank Country2021 Oil Production
(million tonnes)
% of Total
#1🇺🇸 U.S. 711.117%
#2🇷🇺 Russia 536.413%
#3🇸🇦 Saudi Arabia 515.012%
#4🇨🇦 Canada 267.16%
#5🇮🇶 Iraq 200.85%
#6🇨🇳 China 198.95%
#7🇮🇷 Iran 167.74%
#8🇦🇪 UAE 164.44%
#9 🇧🇷 Brazil156.84%
#10🇰🇼 Kuwait 131.13%
🌍 Other 1172.028%
Total4221.4100%

OPEC countries, including Saudi Arabia, made up the largest share of production at 35% or 1.5 billion tonnes of oil.

U.S. oil production has seen significant growth since 2010. In 2021, the U.S. extracted 711 million tonnes of oil, more than double the 333 million tonnes produced in 2010.

Natural Gas Production

The world produced 4,036 billion cubic meters of natural gas in 2021. The above graphic converts that into an equivalent of seven billion cubic meters of liquefied natural gas (LNG) to visualize it on the same scale as oil and gas.

Here are the top 10 producers of natural gas in 2021:

Rank Country2021 Natural Gas Production
(billion m3)
% of Total
#1🇺🇸 U.S. 934.223%
#2🇷🇺 Russia 701.717%
#3🇮🇷 Iran 256.76%
#4🇨🇳 China 209.25%
#5🇶🇦 Qatar 177.04%
#6🇨🇦 Canada 172.34%
#7🇦🇺 Australia 147.24%
#8🇸🇦 Saudi Arabia 117.33%
#9🇳🇴 Norway 114.33%
#10🇩🇿 Algeria 100.82%
🌍 Other 1106.327%
Total4,036.9100%

The U.S. was the largest producer, with Texas and Pennsylvania accounting for 47% of its gas production. The U.S. electric power and industrial sectors account for around one-third of domestic natural gas consumption.

Russia, the next-largest producer, was the biggest exporter of gas in 2021. It exported an estimated 210 billion cubic meters of natural gas via pipelines to Europe and China. Around 80% of Russian natural gas comes from operations in the Arctic region.

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Energy Shift

Mapped: Biggest Sources of Electricity by State and Province

The U.S. and Canada rely on a different makeup of sources to generate their electricity. How does each state and province make theirs?

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Mapped: Biggest Sources of Electricity by State and Province

On a national scale, the United States and Canada rely on a very different makeup of sources to generate their electricity.

The U.S. primarily uses natural gas, coal, and nuclear power, while Canada relies on both hydro and nuclear. That said, when zooming in on the province or state level, individual primary electricity sources can differ greatly.

Here’s a look at the electricity generation in the states and provinces of these two countries using data from the Nuclear Energy Institute (2021) and the Canada Energy Regulator (2019).

Natural Gas

Natural gas is widely used for electricity generation in the United States. Known as a “cleaner” fossil fuel, its abundance, coupled with an established national distribution network and relatively low cost, makes it the leading electricity source in the country.

In 2021, 38% of the 4120 terawatt-hours (TWh) of electricity generated in the U.S. came from natural gas. Not surprisingly, more than 40% of American states have natural gas as their biggest electricity source.

Here are some states that have the largest shares of natural gas-sourced electricity.

State/Province% of Electricity from Natural Gas
🇺🇸 Rhode Island90.9
🇺🇸 Delaware85.8
🇺🇸 Massachusetts76.9
🇺🇸 Florida73.9
🇺🇸 Mississippi72.1

In Canada, natural gas is only the third-biggest electricity source (behind hydro and nuclear), accounting for 11% of the 632 TWh of electricity produced in 2019. Alberta is the only province with natural gas as its main source of electricity.

Nuclear

Nuclear power is a carbon-free energy source that makes up a considerable share of the energy generated in both the U.S. and Canada.

19% of America’s and 15% of Canada’s electricity comes from nuclear power. While the percentages are close to one another, it’s good to note that the United States generates 6 to 7 times more electricity than Canada each year, yielding a lot more nuclear power than Canada in terms of gigawatt hours (GWh) per year.

As seen in the map, many states and provinces with nuclear as their main source of electricity are concentrated in the eastern half of the two countries.

In the U.S., Illinois, Pennsylvania, and South Carolina are top producers in terms of GWh/year. Illinois and South Carolina also have nuclear as their primary electricity source, whereas Pennsylvania’s electricity production from natural gas exceeds that from nuclear.

The vast majority of Canada’s nuclear reactors (18 of 19) are in Ontario, with the 19th in New Brunswick. Both of these provinces rely on nuclear as their biggest source of electricity.

Renewables: Hydro, Wind and Solar

Out of the different types of renewable electricity sources, hydro is the most prevalent in North America. For example, 60% of Canada’s and 6% of the U.S.’s electricity comes from hydropower.

Here are the states and provinces that have hydro as their biggest source of electricity.

State/Province% of Electricity from Hydro
🇨🇦 Manitoba 97
🇨🇦 Newfoundland and Labrador95
🇨🇦 Quebec94
🇨🇦 British Columbia87
🇨🇦 Yukon80
🇺🇸 Washington65
🇺🇸 Idaho51
🇺🇸 Vermont50
🇨🇦 Northwest Territories 47
🇺🇸 Oregon46

Wind and solar power collectively comprise a small percentage of total electricity generated in both countries. While no state or province relies on solar as its biggest source of electricity, Iowa, Kansas, Oklahoma, and South Dakota rely primarily on wind for their electricity, along with Canada’s Prince Edward Island (PEI).

Coal and Oil

Coal and oil are emission-heavy electricity sources still prevalent in North America.

Currently, 22% of America’s and 7% of Canada’s electricity comes from coal, with places such as Kentucky, Missouri, West Virginia, Saskatchewan, and Nova Scotia still relying on coal as their biggest sources of electricity.

Certain regions also use petroleum to generate their electricity. Although its use for this purpose is declining, it is still the biggest source of electricity in both Hawaii and Nunavut.

Over the next few years, it will be interesting to observe the use of these fossil fuels for electricity generation in the U.S. and Canada. Despite the differences in climate commitments between the two countries, lowering coal and oil-related emissions may be a critical part of hitting decarbonization targets in a timely manner.

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