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The fuel most widely used by nuclear plants for nuclear fission is uranium. In nuclear fission atoms are split apart to form smaller atoms, releasing energy. Nuclear power plants use the heat from nuclear fission to produce electricity.
Uranium is found in nature but must be processed into fuel
Uranium is nonrenewable, though it is a common metal found in rocks all over the world. Uranium occurs in nature in combination with small amounts of other elements.
Nuclear plants use a certain kind of uranium, U-235, as fuel because its atoms are easily split apart. Though uranium is quite common, about 100 times more common than silver, U-235 is relatively rare.
Economically recoverable uranium deposits have been discovered principally in the western United States, Australia, Canada, Central Asia, Africa, and South America. Once uranium is mined, the U-235 must be extracted and processed before it can be used as a fuel. Mined uranium ore typically yields one to four pounds of uranium concentrate (U3O8 or “yellowcake”) per ton, or 0.05% to 0.20% U3O8. The Nuclear Fuel Cycle describes uranium processing in more detail.
Most of our uranium is imported
Owners and operators of U.S. civilian nuclear power reactors purchased the equivalent of 58 million pounds of uranium during 2012. Uranium delivered to U.S. reactors in 2012 came from six continents:
- 17% of delivered uranium came from the United States
- 83% of delivered uranium was of foreign-origin:
- 29% originated in Kazakhstan, Russia and Uzbekistan
- 24% was from Canada
- 16% came from Namibia, Niger, and South Africa
- 12% was from Australia
- 3% came from Brazil, China, Malawi, and Ukraine
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